Caught on camera in the "pink aisle" of a U.S. toy store, 5-year-old Riley posed a multibillion-dollar question: "Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different colored stuff?"
Her impassioned critique of profit-boosting gendered toy marketing has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube. She isn't a lone voice. Campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys in the United Kingdom have also expressed frustration at the way manufacturers and shops have increasingly restricted the interests of girls to the narrow domain between the twin pink pillars of femininity—being caring and being pretty—while the broader, "different colored" terrain is for boys.
The group has recently expanded its focus to include books after the publication of titles such as The Brilliant Boys' Coloring Book and The Beautiful Girls' Coloring Book. It argues that, if the purpose of books is "opening minds and hearts … broadening horizons," such titles do the opposite.
In a recent U.K. parliamentary debate, politicians Jenny Willott, Elizabeth Truss, and Chi Onwurah also expressed concern that the "pinkification" of toys for girls was adding to gender inequality in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Willott, for instance, drawing on a basic tenet of early education, observed that "children learn through play; it's how they develop skills and interests."
But the detrimental effects of this kind of marketing, though clearly only one factor in a mix of many influences on the young, may run broader and deeper. It polarizes children into stereotypes. It's not just that vehicles, weapons, and construction sets are presented as "for boys" while toys of domesticity and beautification are "for girls." Toys for boys facilitate competition, control, agency, and dominance; those for girls promote cooperation and nurturance. These gender stereotypes, acquired in childhood, underlie a host of well-documented biases against women in traditionally masculine domains and roles, and they hinder men from sharing more in the responsibilities and rewards of domestic life.
True, there is no research linking gendered marketing of toys and books and later occupational discrimination or sharing of household chores. But the smart money would say the effects won't be trivial, given that children are enveloped in some of the most relentless stereotyping to be found in the 21st century.
A common rebuttal to movements toward more gender-neutral marketing, of the sort recently promised by store chain Marks & Spencer, for example, is that what we see on the shelves reflects "innate" sex differences. Even monkeys, we are told, have gendered toy preferences, and there are no sexist toy ads in monkey society.
Newborn boys and girls, untouched by the forces of gender socialization, supposedly show stereotypical preferences for looking at hanging mobiles versus faces, respectively. And, we are told, girls with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, who are exposed to unusually high levels of testosterone in the womb, prefer "boy toys."
But these findings are far less compelling than they appear. For instance, if the preference of female Rhesus monkeys for stuffed animals shows that love of dolls is "innate" in girls, what do we make of the fact that the favorite toy of male vervet monkeys was a stuffed dog, which they played with more than a third longer than a toy car?
Recent experiments, more methodologically rigorous than the much-cited mobiles versus faces newborn study, found no sex differences in the preferences of babies for looking at objects versus faces. Both preferred the latter to an equal extent. And girls with CAH—born with atypical or masculinized genitalia who undergo intensive medical and psychiatric intervention and have physical characteristics inconsistent with cultural ideals of feminine attractiveness—may be more willing to play with "boy toys" because of unconsidered effects of the condition on their psychosexual development, rather than because their brains have been "wired for wheels."
Existing science simply doesn't support the view that gender-neutral toys or books are, at best, a pointless railing against nature or, at worse, politically correct meddling with children's "true" natures. Social experience isn't something that interferes with the emergence of a child's "real," underlying design. It is an integral part of the construction, step by step, of the developmental pathway—destination uncertain.
Moreover, developmental psychologists have found that children are very aware of the importance placed on the social category of gender and highly motivated to discover what is "for boys" and what is "for girls." Socialization isn't just imposed by others; a child actively self-socializes. Once a child realizes (at about 2 to 3 years of age) on which side of the great gender divide he or she belongs, the well-known dynamics of norms, in-group preference, and out-group prejudice kick-in.
When Riley's adult companion makes the common mollifying observation that, "If boys want to buy pink, they can buy pink, right?" he is only right in the way that it's technically correct to say that men can wear dresses to work if they want.
Gendered toy and book marketing doesn't create gender stereotypes, roles, and norms, but it does reinforce them. It may be profitable to corporations, but there is a social cost—and science offers no moral comfort that there is a biological justification.
Why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff? Let's keep asking.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.