UNEQUAL R US

11.29.14 11:45 AM ET

Sexism Begins in the Toy Aisle

Want to know why sexism in persists in American life? Start by taking a look at how toys are sold to boys and girls.

Boys speak. Girls listen.

That’s the message Toys R Us is sending, at any rate. Take a look at the giant toy seller’s gendered landing pages—boys get “building sets” and “learning”, while girls get “pretend play” and “beauty, bath and accessories.” Both get electronics, but the proffered image for boys is a microphone; for girls, a radio.

The essence of nearly every Disney film is that women need saving, preferably by a man from a superior social and economic class. And let’s not even talk about the Disney Princess juggernaut, a financial windfall driven by what’s surely the greatest historical disconnect in all of marketing. Barbie is an unrealistic, unhealthy, insulting representation of female appearance. And even Lego’s default characters are male; its scientists are men, its lady scientists are no longer available, while a Lego line geared toward girls leans heavily on pet care and shopping malls.

So if you wonder why women are still remarkably underrepresented in the U.S. Congress, on the boards of Fortune 500 companies, in science, math, engineering and technology—in any area that could remotely be identified as “the upper echelons of power”—well, it starts in the toy aisle.

It’s nearly impossible to escape these messages at any time of the year; with Christmas approaching, we’re deluged with commercials, catalogs, pop-up ads, all enforcing an outdated and arbitrary set of gender behaviors and expectations.

Any parent of small children can tell you gender-based toys are stupid—boys like dolls, and girls like trucks, at least until we teach them they shouldn’t. But this early-childhood training has implications beyond the implosion of some kind of utopian vision of a “Free To Be You And Me”-style childhood.

Research shows gender-based toys aren’t particularly good for children—and, as the National Association for the Education of Young Children reports, “toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, artistic, and other skills were typically categorized as neutral or moderately masculine.” To promote optimal development for kids of any gender, it’s best to choose neutral toys, researchers concluded—and to make sure girls are exposed to those toys.

And though cognitive development is obviously a big deal, there’s plenty of social conditioning, here: Go into any toy store—the girls’ side is lousy with pink brooms and kitchen accoutrements, dolls and other products of domesticity. The boys’ side, in contrast, is blue and red, action-oriented, building materials and science projects. (Never mind that the number of hours women work outside the home has almost tripled since 1965, while the amount of hours men spend on housework and childcare hasn’t increased at remotely similar rate. Probably a coincidence.)

Let Toys Be Toys, a U.K. campaign for gender-neutral toys, has had some success in pushing retailers to drop gender-based toy marketing, but their wins are far from comprehensive—and frankly, we’re nowhere near the tipping point at which criticism for gender-based toy marketing will prove compelling to most major American retailers.

Here’s what’s particularly confounding: These hard-and-fast gender rules for toys is a relatively new phenomenon. Or, rather, it’s a return the bad old days. For decades, toy production and marketing was increasingly gender neutral. Then, at some point over the last few years, things changed.

Get that? We’d made progress in erasing arbitrary gender divisions of kids’ toys, but we stopped. Now, researchers say, toys are more gender-based than ever.

I’m not sure why. In part, it’s the same kind of obsessive marketing that drives ads for shoes you chanced to mention in a status update to the side of your Facebook wall. The more specific they get, marketers reckon, the more likely you are to buy. But I wonder if it’s also connected to the way women’s roles in society are changing—as women’s roles expand, is this traditionalism’s last gasp?

I’ll leave you with a tiny drop of good news: After 11 years on top, Barbie’s no longer the most-wanted Christmas gift for girls. But here’s the bad news: She’s been replaced by Elsa, the ice queen from Disney’s new flagship film Frozen.

But wait, you’re saying—isn’t Frozen a significant step for Disney, all about female empowerment? Uh, no. Sorry. Both heroines are women, but they offer a pretty bizarre dichotomy for girls: Ice queen or ditzy princess. While younger sister Anna learns that it’s foolish to fancy yourself in love after one day, no one in the movie seems to realize it’s just as dumb after two days.

Most egregiously, after a lifetime of concealing her power, to win acceptance Elsa must limit herself to conform to social expectations.

Merry Christmas, kids.