When It Comes to Holiday Toy Shopping, Dads Are the New Moms

What Women Really Think
Dec. 4 2012 12:02 PM

When It Comes to Holiday Toy Shopping, Dads Are the New Moms

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What, me, befuddled? Shopper Mike McKethan in the holiday spirit at Toys'R'Us on Black Friday.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

In the early days of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem told me, the editors launched a campaign to convince the Lionel model train company to diversify their packaging. “The box in which the trains came just had a boy on it, and so we were trying to get them to put a boy and a girl on it. They essentially said no because it would devalue the toy to boys if girls could do it, too.” Instead of promoting their standard products to boys and girls, Steinem says, the company suggested a pink train.

Well, pink trains are in this Christmas, in the form of the Lego Friends series, which according to the Times has been fabulously successful all year and is shaping up to be a hot toy this holiday season. Lego developed its girl-friendly series—with cozy domestic scenes and shapely (not boxy) Lego humans—to address greater parental interest in building their daughters’ spatial skills, and not, notably, to appease any campaigns for gender equity. But the equity might be coming anyway, as toy stores go after a newly important demo: dads who shop.

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Once upon a time, of course, dads were terrified of shopping: We would stare in helplessness at window displays, cut ourselves clipping coupons, and flee in terror at the approach of the perfume-sample lady. Or we were too busy working to bother. But now, thanks to the welcome but gradual disappearance of what one quoted media executive called the “befuddled dad” stereotype, manufacturers and retailers are realizing that I am buying just as many of my daughters’ Christmas gifts as my wife is (though less than their grandmother is, by a factor of like 100). It’s yet another reminder that in the marketplace, demand creates change, not the other way around. Dads, in the eyes of retailers, are the new moms (rich aunts are also the new moms, btw).

It will be with only the tiniest of resigned sighs that I’ll be buying a Lego Friends set for my daughter this year. Honestly, I can’t get that worked up about the series, which includes a beauty shop and a fashion studio, though it undoubtedly drives all the second-wave feminists I spoke to for my Free To Be series crazy. (Steinem says that when Lionel went out of business in 1993, she thought to herself, Good, you deserve it.) Maybe that’s because the neighborhood-oriented scenes in the Lego Friends line are actually significantly more interesting to me than the construction sites and airports of old-school Legos. I’d also be delighted to own a pink model train.

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.