Toys are Ditching Genders for the Same Reason they First Took them OnRoundup
tags: gender, childhood
Paul Ringel is an associate professor of history at High Point University and author of "Commercializing Childhood: Children's Magazines, Urban Gentility, and the Ideal of the Child Consumer in the United States, 1823-1918." Follow
Hasbro announced in tentative and confusing language last week that it was essentially expanding its iconic Potato Head toy brand to include a gender-neutral option. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head will remain available for purchase separately, and the family pack of the toy will include diverse body parts and clothes to empower children “to imagine and create their own Potato Head family.”
This decision accelerates a recent trend toward wider representation and inclusivity in consumer products for children. Producers of toys, books, movies and television programs for children have striven to portray people with different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and body types. Some of these products, including mainstream blockbusters such as 2019’s “Captain Marvel” movie and the newest Star Wars trilogy, also promote women’s empowerment. Yet with the exception of Mattel’s Creatable World gender-neutral dolls, few offerings for younger children have acknowledged a fuller spectrum of gender identities, reflecting the increasing gender diversity among younger generations of Americans.
Hasbro’s hesitant step into this territory ignited a predictable response of sarcasm and anger from right-wing media. These highly dramatized reactions reflect anxiety about the social influences of children’s products that stretches back to the late 19th century. From Anthony Comstock’s labeling of dime novels as “traps for the young” in 1883 to the Boy Scouts’ chief librarian worrying that series books were “Blowing Out the Boys Brains” in 1914 to Fredric Wertham’s 1954 anti-comic-book diatribe “Seduction of the Innocent,” vehement opposition to change in children’s consumer cultures is a recurring pattern in American history. Yet this opposition typically ends up losing out to market incentives and profit motives.
Maintaining traditional gender identities is a long-standing element of this anxiety, though that was not always the case. Both the children’s publishing and toy industries in the United States began with a predominantly non-gendered approach. The mass production of books and magazines for children started in the 1820s mostly through religious organizations, and these publications’ push to save the souls of young readers made few significant efforts to distinguish between the experiences of boys and girls.
The possibilities and the perils of secular commerce instigated efforts to segment the youth market along gender lines during the 1850s. As publishers discovered the financial potential of this market, they sought to maximize their profits and their respectability by targeting older boys. This piece of the youth audience had a greater degree of financial independence, and targeting the older boys was least objectionable to adults, since their relative freedom had already exposed them to consumer temptations more often than their sisters and younger siblings.
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