“Boy Toys” Or “Girl Toys”–Are Gender-Based Toys A Real Problem Or No Big Deal?

Photo courtesy of Gadget Dude

Photo courtesy of Gadget Dude

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed today, one post in particular caught my eye. “Totalitarians are ruining things for everybody”, it said, with a link to a story on Slate. Naturally I tend to agree that totalitarianism is bad, so I clicked on the link to see what evil was being undertaken. I found a story about, of all things, Happy Meal Toys.

For the past five and a half years, the author, Antonia Ayres-Brown, has been waging a one-woman war against the way Happy Meal toys are routinely disseminated at McDonald’s restaurants. For those who aren’t frequent customers of the Golden Arches, a toy is included with every Happy Meal. Many times these toys have tie-ins to current movies or television shows, a cross-marketing effort if you will; other times they are a particular brand-focused promotion such as Lego or Mattel. At times there is only one type of toy given, but often there are two, typically designed to appeal to children of each gender. For example, when Mattel does a promotion the Happy Meal comes with either a miniature Barbie Doll or a Hot Wheels car.

According to Ayres-Brown’s research, when a Happy Meal is ordered, employees frequently ask the question, “Do you want a boy toy or a girl toy with your meal?” Sometimes the question is not asked at all; instead, the toy is chosen by the employee simply by looking at the child present when ordering and giving them the allotted toy for that particular gender. This was troubling enough to make the then-eleven-year-old write a letter to the CEO of McDonald’s back in 2008, asking if it would be legal for McDonald’s “to ask at a job interview whether someone wanted a man’s job or a woman’s job”. Unsatisfied with the response she received from the company, Ayres-Brown continued her research. Along with customers routinely being asked whether they wanted a boy’s toy or a girl’s toy, or having a toy assigned to them by their gender, she found something else to be unsettling. In some instances, children specifically asked for the toy that was supposed to be for the opposite gender and were told that they could not have it, even being lied to by employees that the other toy was no longer in stock, only to see a child of that gender being given the alleged ‘unavailable’ toy moments later. Her years of hounding the company have finally resulted in a positive response; a few months ago, Ayers-Brown received a letter from McDonald’s chief diversity officer assuring her training was being put in place to make sure employees asked customers which toy they would prefer without mentioning gender in their question.

Photo courtesy of Harsha KR

Photo courtesy of Harsha KR

Honestly, my first reaction was that this was much ado about nothing. Big deal, I thought. This happens all the time and I don’t freak out. My kids have McDonald’s a few times a month; while my son (11) has outgrown the Happy Meal, his sister (7) still likes it, in part because she gets apple slices with her meal, which she likes better than French fries. When I order, most often via drive thru on the way to an activity of some sort, I am typically asked, “Is that for a boy or a girl?” Let’s be clear: my daughter has an older brother and likes many of the things he does. While she enjoys her Barbies, she also loves the Avengers and she can’t wait to go see the new Spiderman movie for her birthday next month. There are times when she would like the ‘boy’ toy with her Happy Meal. I have never made an issue of it. I either just say, “For a boy” to save time, or “For a girl but she wants the (current boy toy option)”. We’ve always gotten the toy she wants, so I haven’t given it a second thought.

After reading this story, I asked my daughter (who was climbing a tree at the time while her brother had baseball practice) what she thought of McDonald’s having “boy toys” and “girl toys”. She said that sometimes she wanted the boy toy. I asked, “What would you do if you asked for the Captain America toy but they said you had to take the Hello Kitty toy?” She replied with a crafty smile, “I would say I want to talk to your boss.” Apparently my daughter agrees with Antonia Ayres-Brown on this one.

Photo courtesy of Bill Ward

Photo courtesy of Bill Ward

Generally I think we can easily get caught up in the hype and create hysteria where none is warranted. For example, my daughter loves the Lego “Friends” sets, which have significantly more pink and purple Lego pieces than the other sets–I don’t have a problem with this. I don’t think it’s awful that they create another version of their sets and market it to girls. I don’t mind that stores have started selling lines of pink camo aimed at girls either, although I’m not sure when or where one could successfully hide wearing pink camo. I own a set of tools with pink handles, and my golf clubs are pink, because–shocking!–I like the color pink. So having options that are targeted toward particular genders doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is the thought that any girl should be told she is ‘wrong’ for wanting to choose a Hot Wheels car instead of a Barbie. It’s something small, sure, but still it’s still something to think about.

**What do you think about restaurant chains offering toys based upon gender? Leave your feedback in the comments section below.**