Seduced by the $49 sale price and succumbing to the pressure to keep up with the neighborhood Joneses who’d given their children iPads in preschool, I bought two Kindle Fires for my then five- and seven-year-old daughters. The devices were, as advertised, easy to set up: I signed in, entered my children’s birthdays and then... their genders.
As anyone trying to raise a gender-independent kid, knows, “What is your child’s gender?” can be a difficult or unpleasant question to answer. I always wish Why do you want to know? was an option in the drop-down menu.
Amazon wanted to know because they’d filter every app, video, and book that loaded onto it according to the way I replied. Answer “boy” and the screen filled with sports themes and bold colors. Answer “girl” and it was as if a bottle of calamine lotion had dripped down the screen, coloring every app pink and bestowing upon it a fairy-tale theme.
This hyper-gendering of kids’ materials worlds wasn’t always common. Kids had similar clothes, hairstyles and toys until the 1920s, when new theories of sexuality posited that letting boys have access to feminine items and activities could make them gay. Those divisions between boy and girl things solidified after World War II. Baby boomers became the first generation with fully gendered kids’ clothes and toys, some of whom grew up to reject the gendered experience of their childhoods in the '70s—the last tomboy heyday.
But all that shifted. Anti-feminist backlash and the conservative Reagan era coincided with the end of '70s recession. As birthrates declined, marketers devised new ways to sell clothes and toys, preventing hand-me-downs. The pink/blue divide was perfect. In 1987, the first mass-market book for parenting boys, The Little Boy Book, was published, showing industries how easy it was to sell any products if they were marketed toward one sex; The Little Girl Book followed not long after. A kind of commercial gender essentialism came to dominate the market. Down the assembly line came pink bikes and pink pens and pink everything, clearly and cleverly marketed to and for girls and girls only.
The increasing commonness of prenatal testing allowed parents to know the sex of their babies in utero, painting their future kids’ rooms pink or blue, assembling a collection of gender-specific toys and clothes and color palettes, a hyper-gendered world that kids could be socialized into from before birth. Hyper-gendering became part of our parenting mindset, the opposite of one hundred years before.
Today, just about every item conceivable is gender color-coded, from computer tablets to toothpaste. There are girls’ Goldfish crackers, man candles, girl socks, and boy bubble bath. Somehow, this gendering is both omnipresent and invisible—something I hadn’t thought about until I compared the unisex Big Wheel of my childhood to the princess-pink version today.
LEGO, once known for its gender-equitable marketing, added pink and purple bricks in the early '90s. Then in 2012, convinced that girls had their own special play needs and interests, they introduced their Friends line.
The Friends are a racially diverse crew of big-headed, tiny-bodied girls—Shrinky-Dinked Spice Girls—who live in pink-clad bedrooms and have horse stables, make-up tables, and heart-shaped boxes.
By contrast, “boy” LEGO sets have police “command centers,” Master Falls building kits, water striders, superheroes, helicopters, and no makeup tables.
Toys, and how kids play, make a huge difference in the skills they develop and who they become. A 2005 study rated 126 toys and found that the boys’ were “violent, competitive, exciting, and somewhat dangerous,” whereas the girls’ were “associated with physical attractiveness, nurturance, and domestic skill.” Boys’ toys tend to promote exploration and problem-solving and independence. LEGO bricks in particular are known to promote spatial and fine motor skills, while LEGO Friends are more like dolls and dollhouses than they are like construction toys, fostering the valuable skills of communication and nurturing. They don’t build the same skills.
Girls socialized to play with boys, and to play as boys sometimes do—tomboys, usually—might be more prepared for the work world, more positioned to develop those qualities we mistakenly think of as masculine, like being independent or brave, than typical girls.
And boys? There’s a whole emotional world they can’t access because the hyper-gendering of kids’ material worlds makes it feel unsafe for them to try. Segregating toys restricts the development of different kinds of intelligence, from spatial to emotional, that all kids would do well to learn. As effective as it is to sell toys to kids based on gender stereotypes, it’s not actually good for kids.
There’s little evidence of consumer demand driving these sweeping changes in the gendering of children’s toys in the twentieth century, but there is plenty of evidence, in the form of revenue, that children and their parents have heartily supported them. LEGO Friends sales surpassed company expectations, and Friends was among its bestselling products in 2018, steadily increasing its market share of girls since its introduction.
Amazon PR rep Robin Handaly wrote, when I inquired about gender filtering in the Kindle Fire, that “the reasoning behind [the filtering] is to make it easy for kids to find the content they love, right out of the box.”
Amazon doesn’t actually tag its twenty thousand content offerings, from books to apps to videos, as “boy” or “girl.” “The New & Popular category row provides content suggestions based on what other boys and girls of that age range have previously chosen within FreeTime Unlimited—it is not curated by the FreeTime team,” Handalay wrote.
That is, what gets pushed to the forefront of the girl filter arrives because girls have already chosen it. The more girls chose the pink stuff and boys the blue, the more they got sorted that way by the algorithm, more of a self-fulfilling prophecy with each click. The stronger the association between gender and color, the more intense the preferences.
But it’s a myth that only girls like dolls, for instance. GI Joe was created for boys who played with Ken dolls—secretly, because they’d learned that they shouldn’t.
Why not open up all possibilities of toys and activities? A 2018 study looked at effects of showing four- to seven-year-old kids images of their peers playing with either gender-stereotypic or counter-stereotypic toys. In one set of images, a girl played with, and professed her love for, a car. A boy did the same for My Little Pony. In the other, the opposite happened. When the kids were later asked if certain toys were for boys or girls, like tool kits or dolls, the kids who had seen the pictures fighting stereotypes were less likely to stereotype the toys and more likely to want to play with kids of the opposite sex. If you remove the gendered messaging, it changes, and broadens, the way kids play.
Luckily, Amazon is working on gender equity. “We strongly promote self-discovery of content for every child regardless of gender,” their PR rep wrote to me in 2019. “We are already working toward removing gender as a required input in the FreeTime child profile set-up process.”
Excerpted from Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different by Lisa Selin Davis. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.