The first toy I fell in love with was a red dump truck I received after a cousin said he was tired of it. Here was a 4-year-old girl, in pigtails and ribbons, dragging a dump truck around after my mother rigged it with a rope. At that age, all I knew was that the truck was fun and I was going to play with it until the wheels fell off.
As I got older and eventually acquired more siblings, my tastes in toys seemingly didn’t change. I preferred my younger brother’s WWF figurines over my sisters’ Barbie playgroups. Then something happened that made me realize not everyone believed that toys were genderless.
At the age of 6, my little brother asked for a doll. It wasn’t a Barbie or anything similar, but a My Buddy doll. Remember the boy doll that resembled Chucky from Child’s Play, minus the knives and blood? My Buddy was marketed as a doll for boys. Along with My Buddy was his counterpart, Kid Sister—which was something none of us girls wanted to play with.
When my brother stepped out of the house with his new My Buddy, kids laughed. They called him a sissy. No one understood why a little boy wanted to play with a doll, regardless of the fact that it was a boy doll. Fortunately for my brother, he had older, protective sisters, and we put those kids in their place. We were ride or die. You mess with one, you mess with all.
Gender-specific toys were something we never worried about while growing up. Pink toys, blue toys, boy toys, girl toys? It didn’t matter to us. We just knew what was fun and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, for some kids growing up nowadays, it’s not that simple.
Take Michael Morones. Michael is an 11-year-old with a love for My Little Pony. My Little Pony is typically marketed to girls because of its pink equestrian look. But Michael was a fan who happened to be a boy, and he isn’t the only boy out there who’s into the toy ponies. There’s a growing group of males of all ages, called bronies, who are diehard fans.
Unfortunately for Michael, his love of ponies caused him relentless bullying. Classmates called him gay and tormented him for not being manly enough. It was this ridicule that led an 11-year-old to attempt suicide by hanging himself in his bedroom. Michael survived but still has a long recovery ahead of him.
Although Michael’s is an extreme case, bullying is something that plenty of boys deal with when they ignore their stereotypical gender roles. Rarely is it mentioned that a girl is shooting water guns or playing with cars, but the minute a boy plays with a toy that’s not considered masculine or is just too “girlie,” accusations regarding his sexuality begin to fly.
But what makes some boys gravitate toward toys that aren’t labeled boy toys? Issa Mas, the parent of a 6-year-old boy, saw that her son had a natural inclination for boy toys. “My son has always naturally gravitated toward toys that are historically viewed as toys for boys: trucks, trains, vehicles of all kinds. Even when I have given him toys that have been historically girls’ toys, he has always gravitated toward boys’ toys.”
But when asked if she would have a problem with her son playing with a My Little Pony, she responded, “Absolutely not.”
Some see gender-specific toys as a problem and are demanding that major toy companies change their marketing. One major toy retailer in the United Kingdom is making a point of ridding itself of the classic pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys aisles in its stores. Before the 2013 holiday season, under mounting pressure from a group called Let Toys Be Toys, retail giant Toys R Us agreed to drop gender labels from all of its products sold in the U.K.
Let Toys Be Toys consists of shoppers who are concerned about the sexist labels in the toy industry. They feel that having gender-specific labels on toys can be detrimental to children. Not only were the labels dropped, but Toys R Us in the U.K. also decided to change its marketing efforts to be more inclusive. Its advertisements now feature boys and girls playing with the same toys.
Although the British subsidiary has made huge strides in ridding its stores of gender-specific labels, Toys R Us in the U.S. has not made any major changes. But one toy manufacturer has. Hasbro recently launched a unisex Easy-Bake oven after complaints from parents who said that the ovens should not be marketed specifically to girls. Because, you know, boys like to cook, too. Can you say “G. Garvin” or “Emeril Lagasse”?
Nowadays, kids have more than enough stuff to worry about without wondering if they’re going to be teased for playing with a certain toy. If a boy wants to play with a doll, an Easy-Bake oven or a kitchen set, why shouldn’t he? The same goes for a girl who’d rather make her WWE action figures jump off the right turnbuckle than dress up Barbie for a night out on the town with Ken. We can only hope that Michael fully recovers from his suicide attempt and doesn’t let his peers ever destroy his love for My Little Pony dolls.
Yesha Callahan is a full-time writer and single mother living in Columbia, Md. She has written for BlogHer, Jezebel and The Grio and has been seen on HuffPost Live and TV One’s NewsOne Now With Roland Martin. She is currently the managing editor of Clutch magazine and is a former comedy and politics writer for BET’s Don’t Sleep! Hosted by T.J. Holmes.