Mommie Dearest: Why Toy Catalogs Make Me Roll My Eyes

Mommie Dearest is The Frisky’s new biweekly column about being a mama.

I have a love/hate relationship with catalogs. There are some that I love to flip through and pretend that I have the money to burn. Who wouldn’t want her own cotton candy machine, night vision goggles, or handcrafted teak patio furniture? (I don’t even have a patio.) The holiday season provides me with an ample supply of these catalogs, depositing no less than three catalogs a day into my mailbox. However, they’re not all fantasy furnishings and expensive gadgets. The majority of the catalogs I receive actually cause me to roll my eyes, gnash my teeth and fill my already stuffed recycling bin to the brim: toy catalogs promoting tired traditional gender stereotypes.

There are a few Waldorf and Montessori-inspired catalogs (Nova Natural, Hearth Song, etc.), where toys are low-tech — though no less expensive — and geared toward everyone equally. But the majority of kid-centric catalogs that arrive at my home almost seem to go out of their way to feed into the stringent gender codification that is already rampant in our society. It’s not enough that the girls’ section of most toy stores is saturated in pink, but the pages hawking “girl toys” come swathed in it as well. Of course, the boys’ section is mostly vibrant blue, black and the occasional red. Yet it’s actually not the colors that annoy me the most, it’s the blatant way that toy advertisers are marketing expectations for boys and girls through damaging visuals.

Boys are usually shown in active roles — riding a bike, playing with sports equipment, building block towers — while girls are portrayed as docile, passive and domestic via their toy choices. In fact, one toy catalog that I received last year included a lovely Christmas scene with a close-up of a boy excitedly playing with his remote controlled helicopter, while a young girl looks on from behind her … sewing machine.

Now, I have nothing against sewing machines. In fact, I have one that I even use on occasion. That’s not the point. The problem is that catalogs like these not only push stereotypical gender norms — boys love loud things that move, and girls like toys that simulate domesticity — but they also reinforce the notion that boys are active, while girls hang out quietly on the sidelines. And beyond perpetuating these entrenched stereotypes, scenes like these levae out entire segments of children. What about the girls who prefer to play drums, toss a frisbee, or create fake volcano explosions? And what of the boys, like my son, that already feel somewhat isolated because of their love of dolls and dress up? What harm would there be in marketing all toys to all kids, instead of stereotypes of them?

Thankfully, the country of Sweden has gotten it right (which should come as no surprise to anyone who has sampled their meatballs and cheap, yet chic, furniture). Top Toy, one of Sweden’s largest toy retailers, just published a toy catalog that defies gender stereotypes, while still successfully marketing their wares. Flip through Top Toy’s holiday catalog and find a girl aiming a Nerf gun while a little boy tends to a baby doll. What a novel concept. Girls being active! Boys being nurturing!

To be fair, Top Toy’s attempt to market outside the traditional gender box occurred in response to being reprimanded by Swedish advertising watchdog Reklamombudsmannen for their previous catalogs that promoted outdated stereotypes of both boys and girls. But to their credit, Top Toy decided to take the critique to heart and shake things up a bit, instead of ignoring it and continuing on in the same girls can only be princesses/boys can only be superheroes way. I truly wonder if American stores like Toys R Us would react in the same manner. Considering there has been plenty of uproar against this type of advertising in the past, it seems to be falling on deaf ears who aren’t up for experimenting with change.

I have to say that it’s quite refreshing to see a toy catalog that more accurately reflects the reality that my family, and many families, live. Instead of limiting our children in what they “should” and “shouldn’t” play with, why not take a page from Sweden? Market to kids in a way that breaks down stereotypes and promotes a much more diverse, and frankly realistic, vision of childhood: kids, being kids, playing with an array of toys.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto.