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How the Sears Catalog Captures a Time When Toys Were Less Pink

Toys are more gendered than they’ve ever been—even more than a half century ago, when gender discrimination was rampant.

A view from the author’s desk, featuring two of his favorite fictional characters (and Yadier Molina)   Photo: Whet Moser

The other day I found myself telling my four-year-old daughter that there’s no such thing as “boys colors” and “girls colors.” My favorite shirt is pink; my favorite shoes have pink soles. As soon as I started reading fairy tales to my daughter I knew that atavistic gender ideas would be omnipresent, but I didn’t realize how much they would come to permeate my existence. She likes pink; that’s fine, I do too. She likes ballet and ballet clothing, that’s great. But it comes freighted sometimes with expectations for who can and can’t like these things. I was wondering where that feeling comes from.

It kind of comes from everywhere, but in particular it comes through toys. I was thinking back through all of this when Sears announced it was rebooting its famous Wish Book, a staple of my childhood for the reasons the Tribune’s Christopher Borelli outlines in his lamentation for it.

What I didn’t know as a child of the 1980s is that in the decade prior, the Wish Book had captured a period of American life when toys weren’t so girlish and boyish, and that the peak toy-gendering we’re living through now had begun during my childhood.

This revelation comes from a University of California-Davis sociologist named Elizabeth Sweet. She grew up in the 1970s, went on to have a kid, and went on to marvel at how saturated toys have become with gender. But unlike me, because she’s just a bit older, she had a reference point to a time when it wasn’t so—childhood memories of Legos and Lincoln Logs. So she started catalog-digging and had a revelation, which she explains here, centering around a tragedy about a boy who was bullied into a suicide attempt for liking My Little Pony (I liked it too as a kid).

Sweet went back to the Sears catalogs of the 1970s, so I decided to as well, through the engrossing wishbookweb.com. And it’s remarkable: it’s not so freaking pink. Barbie has a pink Sleep ‘n’ Keep case, but you can also get skiing Barbie or golf/tennis Barbie. Barbie has a beauty salon, but you can also get Mod Hair Ken (“add stick-on mustaches, beard, or sideburns to match his rooted mod-length brown hair"). There’s a girl depicted bathing a baby doll, and not a boy, but there’s also a girl building a massive Sears Tower model from an absolutely fantastic-looking “World Famous Buildings Set” that allows you to build highlights of the International Style like the UN Building, the World Trade Center, the Lever Bros. Building, and the Hotel Brasilia. (Think Magnatiles if Mies had designed them.)

1991, when I was a kid? There’s a boy with the tool bench; boys with the computers; boys with the Erector set; a boy with the woodworking toys. You can find the girls with the Deluxe Bead Activity Set, the knitting and weaving set, and in the garden. And in pages and pages of wall-to-wall pink, even though the association between pink and girls and blue with boys is a 20th-century marketing invention.

Sweet ran the numbers over decades and decades of these advertisements, over 7,000 of them. She found that “the princess role that’s ubiquitous in girls’ toys today was exceedingly rare prior to the 1990s—and the marketing of toys is more gendered now than even 50 years ago, when gender and discrimination were the norm.”

What happened? One theory is that the deregulation of children’s television in 1984 spurred a flood of essentially show-length advertisements, which combined with a marketing trend that relied on dividing the market between girls and boys in order to sell twice as many toys.

But another theory is that the gendering of toys took advantage of a conservative backlash to the gender politics of the 1960s and 1970s. (One study comparing advertisements from the 1950s and the 1980s found that, while women were more frequently depicted in professional occupations, “stereotypical gender display actually increased for men from the [1950s] to the 1980s.") Sweet linked this with broader trends:

Gendered toys showed resurgence by 1995 and interestingly, this reversion coincides with a stalling of progress towards structural gender inequality on nearly all measures during the 1990s. Many gender scholars have argued that this stalled progress reflects the persistent effects of cultural stereotypes and beliefs about gender even as the idea that men and women should have equal opportunity has flourished.

It’s possible we’re going through another backlash. Around the time that a wide gulf was opening between physical toys, Nintendo jumped into the vacuum with ”the ultimate gender-neutral toy, with games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda operating outside the strict boy/girl binary on which the toy industry is so often premised.”

This seems like an exaggeration; those games feature male protagonists rescuing a princess and the data from 1988 bears out a masculine audience, but video games have shifted towards a more equal audience. That’s come with its own backlash as well: the GamerGate hideousness, in which online mobs “coalesced around a particular hatred of what they saw as outsiders—women, in particular—attacking video games,” turned out to be both metaphorically and literally connected to larger backlashes in American culture.

But it can go the other way. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens centered a heroine as a protagonist, marketers were caught flat-footed with a dearth of Rey action figures and an absence from the Monopoly board-game cash-in. Consumers expressed their ire, and chastened by the market, the pendulum has begun swinging back the other way, as marketers, playing catch-up to culture again, wonder what other Rens are out there.

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