Tag Archives: toys

I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.

I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.

Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.

It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.

And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.

So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?

Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.

If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.

But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.

Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.

One of the things that has really stood out in children’s shows over the last ten years is the industry’s search for the elusive next Dora, the next Spongebob. I’ve mentioned this here before. For me, well, neither Dora nor Spongebob were the next anything. That’s a big part of what made them special.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a really interesting discussion with some people more in the licensing end of things. They were telling me about how buyers choose products, how they end up on the shelves and the boy/girl rules that go with all that – buyers who, by all accounts, file shows and characters into very simple categories that mean they will either work or not work in the marketplace. There are years of market research so it’s a pretty exact science. All very interesting stuff and reminiscent of discussions I had with the distributors of Fluffy Gardens.

In this conversation, Peppa Pig came up as an exception.

It’s a show that, apparently, licensees would not have bought. This is something I’ve heard before too. They wouldn’t have seen the success coming. Girl main character, even coloured pink (well, she is a pig) and it broke out well beyond the limited perception of what a girl’s property is. It was a surprise. At least, for the licensing experts. And now it’s a massive success.

And I couldn’t help but think, yet again, of the failed search for the next Dora.

So is it really that Peppa Pig is an exception? An anomaly? A mistake in the market?

Or is it more likely that the show is excellent, funny, speaks to children in a way they totally understand regardless of gender and children want more of that, be it in toy form, book form or whatever? Is it more likely that the science is flawed?

I honestly don’t know. Being perfectly truthful, the licensing end of things is not somewhere I go. So I’m no expert. I’d have to bow to the experience of those in that area.

But here’s something I think is relevant to all areas of business, creativity, even just everyday life:

There are exceptions to rules. But when following the rules leads to few results of value and the big successes seem to be the exceptions, I’d guess it’s more likely just that the rules are wrong. ‘Try, try again’ only works if you’re doing it right.