Culture  /  Explainer

Toys Are Ditching Genders for the Same Reason They First Took Them On

Why the Potato Heads are the latest toys becoming more inclusive.

Hasbro announced in tentative and confusing language last week that it was essentially expanding its iconic Potato Head toy brand to include a gender-neutral option. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head will remain available for purchase separately, and the family pack of the toy will include diverse body parts and clothes to empower children “to imagine and create their own Potato Head family.”

This decision accelerates a recent trend toward wider representation and inclusivity in consumer products for children. Producers of toys, books, movies and television programs for children have striven to portray people with different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and body types. Some of these products, including mainstream blockbusters such as 2019’s “Captain Marvel” movie and the newest Star Wars trilogy, also promote women’s empowerment. Yet with the exception of Mattel’s Creatable World gender-neutral dolls, few offerings for younger children have acknowledged a fuller spectrum of gender identities, reflecting the increasing gender diversity among younger generations of Americans.

Hasbro’s hesitant step into this territory ignited a predictable response of sarcasm and anger from right-wing media. These highly dramatized reactions reflect anxiety about the social influences of children’s products that stretches back to the late 19th century. From Anthony Comstock’s labeling of dime novels as “traps for the young” in 1883 to the Boy Scouts’ chief librarian worrying that series books were “Blowing Out the Boys Brains” in 1914 to Fredric Wertham’s 1954 anti-comic-book diatribe “Seduction of the Innocent,” vehement opposition to change in children’s consumer cultures is a recurring pattern in American history. Yet this opposition typically ends up losing out to market incentives and profit motives.

Maintaining traditional gender identities is a long-standing element of this anxiety, though that was not always the case. Both the children’s publishing and toy industries in the United States began with a predominantly non-gendered approach. The mass production of books and magazines for children started in the 1820s mostly through religious organizations, and these publications’ push to save the souls of young readers made few significant efforts to distinguish between the experiences of boys and girls.

The possibilities and the perils of secular commerce instigated efforts to segment the youth market along gender lines during the 1850s. As publishers discovered the financial potential of this market, they sought to maximize their profits and their respectability by targeting older boys. This piece of the youth audience had a greater degree of financial independence, and targeting the older boys was least objectionable to adults, since their relative freedom had already exposed them to consumer temptations more often than their sisters and younger siblings.

The success of boys’ books like Oliver Optic’s “Boat Club” series that launched in 1854 and “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” in 1857 led to the development of a girls’ genre, which achieved its most famous success through Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women.” By the turn of the century, popular children’s magazines like the Youth’s Companion and St. Nicholas were further subdividing their young readers based on age, class and occasionally even religious denomination. The only major demographic line that publishers did not cross was racial; their target audience remained entirely White.

The American toy industry began to emerge around 1900, following a similar trajectory. According to sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, who tracked the content of toys and toy ads in the Sears catalogue over the course of the 20th century, there was no express and little implicit marketing to gender in the 1905 catalogue. This approach is puzzling given the specialization that already pervaded the children’s literature business; given the small number of toys offered in this catalogue in comparison to subsequent decades, perhaps the nation’s manufacturers did not yet have the capacity to diversify their products.

By midcentury, however, overtly gendered marketing had begun. In contrast to the publishing industry, the toy business initially prioritized girl consumers; the 1945 Sears catalogue marketed dolls and homemaking products that underscored the physical and cultural restrictions imposed on American girlhood.

“The realm of science, building and aggression,” by contrast, would become clearly prescribed to boys — but not until the 1960s. As with children’s books and magazines a century earlier, awareness of the potential for increased profitability through gender-based marketing fueled this growing divide. As scholar Megan K. Maas notes, “manufacturers quickly caught on to the idea that wealthier families would buy an entire new set of clothing, toys and other gadgets if the products were marketed differently for both genders. And so the idea of pink for girls and blue for boys was born.”

The gender gap for toys dwindled during the 1970s and early 1980s. In the Sears catalogue ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls, and many ads actively challenged gender stereotypes. Two factors drove this change. Entertainment influenced by the counterculture, such as the feminist children’s project “Free to Be … You and Me” explicitly challenged established gender roles. Professional football player Rosey Grier taught boys “It’s Alright to Cry,” while actress Marlo Thomas sang about mommies who are ranchers, doctors and taxi drivers. Sweet argues that economics also drove this change in marketing. With more women in the workforce and the declining fertility rates at the end of the baby boom, “playing upon gender stereotypes to sell toys had become a risky strategy.”

The pendulum swung back with the revival of conservative political power. When the Reagan administration deregulated advertising for children’s television in 1984, gender distinctions in toy marketing surged — aiming to capture the fancy of boys and girls glued to TVs. By 1995, approximately half of the toys in the Sears catalogue were gendered. The backlash against second-wave feminism during this era permeated children’s culture, from the revival of Disney princesses beginning with 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” to the relentless physical aggression of young male characters such as Kevin McCallister in the “Home Alone” movies, and the toy industry followed these broader trends.

Just as in American politics, the conservative vision in the toy industry remained powerful in recent decades. A 2012 study found that all the toys sold on the Disney Store’s website were categorized by gender, though a few appeared in both categories.

Yet cracks have begun to appear. In 2015, Target degendered its toy aisles, a decision that drew backlash from conservative commentators who called it a “radical … and completely baseless view of gender” and compared it to the “massive and embarrassing failure for the gender activists” of the 1970s.

Rather than worrying about this backlash, toy companies seem more concerned that gendering toys might be leaving revenue on the table. When “The Force Awakens” came out during the 2015 holiday season, Hasbro left Rey, the hero of the movie, out of the six-pack of action figures it sold through Target. When demand surged for Rey toys, the retailer did not have enough.

Today, it appears the commercial impulse that launched the gender divide within children’s commercial cultures is now undercutting that tradition. The constant search for new segments within the market — a search that began with gender — has led to the pursuit of socially conscious consumer parents who want diverse voices in their children’s books and different body shapes for their Barbie dolls and, yes, gender-neutral potatoes.

The rebranding of the Potato Head toy is an easy target for humor. It also may be an indication of a shifting tide in the culture war. Indeed, it appeared on the same day that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) used inaccurate and inflammatory language about genital mutilation in an attempt to derail the confirmation of the highest-ranking openly transgender government official in American history. Transphobia is an animating force on the far right, with attacks on trans athletes fueling resistance to the Equality Act recently passed by the House. This synchrony suggests that, while the opposition may be fierce, commercial markets recognize and are responding to the increasing gap between the ideological mainstream of American youths (and parents) and right-wing commentators and political leaders.