The last time you spoke to a pregnant woman, how long did you wait to ask if she was having a boy or a girl? Thus begins the first of a million moments in which adults bombard those malleable little ones with preconceptions of gender, ranging from unconscious body language to outright sexism. Perhaps the most common ritual is surrounding babies with “gender-appropriate” objects: Specific styles and colors of clothing, patterned blankets, picture books, and stuffed animals that convey adult expectations of how kids should behave.
“As much as I hate to say this, it’s all about the money.”
Walking through most toy stores, it’s easy to see the divide that permeates the industry—boys get car, sports, and building toys, while girls get princess, dress-up, and housework toys. Although some social critics claim that preferences for gender-specific toys are natural or innate, science increasingly suggests there are no inborn tastes, and instead, our culture instills a male-female divide that children amplify as they begin to self-define. Though we might pretend these toys have no long-term impact, studies show that women are still underrepresented in traditionally male fields, like science and finance, while also paid less than men for the same jobs (and still doing more housework).
By the time kids can speak, most are asking for playthings that correlate closely with socialized clichés, shaping their sense of self and further enforcing these stereotypes. In modern America, where most believe a person’s sex shouldn’t restrict their passions or career choices, why are children’s toys still so strictly gendered?
Stefanie Eskander, who’s shared her vintage toy collections on our Show & Tell forum as stefdesign, has worked as a designer in the American toy industry for more than 30 years at major companies like Mattel and Hasbro. Today, Eskander is the Design Manager for girls’ toys at Toys “R” Us—though with four children and four grandchildren, she’s familiar with toyland from the parent perspective, too.
After decades of experience, Eskander sees gendered toys as an issue that implicates toy companies, media franchises, advertisers, parents, and sometimes even the kids themselves. “If they want to play with toy soldiers and wear a pink tutu, more power to them,” Eskander says. “I just think kids should feel free to play with whatever toys they want to and not feel that society is frowning at them.” Eskander knows there’s no single solution to letting kids be kids, though she’s hopeful that companies can sell more toys that will open minds rather than close them.
We recently spoke with Eskander about her experiences in the world of girl’s toys and the complicated relationship between gender norms and children’s playthings.
Collectors Weekly: What drives your fascination with toys?
Stefanie Eskander: I think many collectors, especially collectors of children’s objects, are motivated by trying to re-create their childhood. I know I’ve done that. One of my earliest memories is going shopping with my mom. I must have been about 4 years old, and we went to the Woolworths on Grand Boulevard in Glendale, California. My mom bought me a kaleidoscope, a little Steven kaleidoscope, and I spent hours laying on my bed, holding that kaleidoscope up to the light of my window and turning the little dial.
It was just an inexpensive toy; it probably cost a quarter back then. But I think it had a huge impact on me as a future designer because it created these beautiful colors and forms. One of the things that I started collecting when I got older was kaleidoscopes. I collect the old, inexpensive ones, mostly made by Steven, from the ’50s and ’60s with fun patterns and illustrations and funky, dated lithographs on them.
After I got married, my parents were still living in the family home I grew up in, and during a big rainstorm, a tree fell on their house and crushed their roof into the attic. They called me and my husband to help cover the hole, and when my husband went into the attic to put tarps up, he uncovered a cache of my old toys. I didn’t even know they were there. We found a large role-play refrigerator and stove made by Wolverine Tin. They were pink.
Once I found those things, I started actively looking for what I called girls’ role-play toys: Little toy ironing boards, irons, sinks, cupboards, dishes, and all of that kind of stuff. And to me, it’s just re-creating my childhood. There’s no doubt.
In addition to toys, I have lots of doll books, children’s readers, toy catalogs, and reference books that I’ve collected through the years. I like to think of myself as a resource for toy history, but I don’t want you to think I’m a toy historian—there are certainly much more knowledgeable people than me. I do know quite a bit about the toy industry in more recent decades, and I’ve scanned probably hundreds of toy catalogs from the ’50s onward, for all kinds of different categories of girls’ toys.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get into the field of toy design?
Eskander: I was an advertising illustrator before I got into the toy business. When I was in college, I got my BFA in illustration, but I specialized in children’s work. I started illustrating for children’s magazines while still in college, but you have to be practical, so after graduating I worked in advertising illustration. After my first child was born in the late ’70s, I started freelancing in L.A. for major ad agencies with many big clients, and I was lucky enough to get some work doing art for both Mattel and Tomy Toys’ ad agencies, which led to some small freelance jobs designing puzzles and packaging.
Then, in 1984, I decided that I didn’t want to freelance anymore—I wanted to go back to work full-time. Mattel was having this job fair, and I thought, well, do I stay in advertising, which is what I know, or do I take a gamble and try the toy industry? I took my portfolio, which was heavy with children’s art, and I got hired on the spot. I’ve now been in the toy industry for about 30 years and have worked for most of the major toy manufacturers. I worked for Mattel two different times, plus Hasbro, Playskool, Tonka, Fisher-Price, Spin Master, and now Toys “R” Us.
I love the toy industry; it’s just suited me perfectly. Back in the 1980s, when I got into toys, there were a number of us who came into the industry as illustrators, but nowadays, you don’t see that as much. Most toy designers come in with a degree in industrial design. There are a couple of schools that offer toy-design degrees or certificates like FIT in New York or Otis College of Art and Design in L.A., but those didn’t exist when I got into toys. I got in through the back door, and boy, it’s been awesome.
I’m currently the Design Manager for girls’ toys at Toys “R” Us. Our group designs and creates the private-label girls’ toys that are sold exclusively at Toys “R” Us—everything from dolls to dress-up toys. At Toys “R” Us, girls’ toys also includes role-play toys, although many are unisex, like a toy barbecue set or a microwave. We don’t consider them necessarily just for girls, but they fall into the girls’ toys division. We also have crafts and dress-up toys, although, a dress-up doctor or vet kit made for boys and girls would fall more under preschool. Our department does more fantasy outfits—princesses, ballerinas, fairies, and things like that.
Collectors Weekly: How have girls’ toys changed since when you were growing up?
Eskander: The category I know best is dolls. Whether it’s Monster High or Lalaloopsy dolls, which are popular today, versus Alexander-Kins or Hollywood dolls from the 1940s or ’50s, small dolls is a category that’s been very popular for a long time. But let me tell you, there’s a world of difference between a Lalaloopsy and an Alexander-Kin. There’s an edginess in the design of today, which I think started with Bratz and anime influences—this exaggerated look with the big eyes, pouting lips, and big feet—that we really hadn’t seen much before. That was such a unique look.
Now when we see toys that are successful, they often have that stylized, exaggerated look. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, it was a little sweeter and maybe more “wholesome.” But I always appreciate clever design. I love Lalaloopsy, and that’s been around for a good four years or so now. Your average toy lines only last a few short years, so that’s a successful brand. When you have a brand that’s been successful for a long time, it’s called an evergreen brand. Hot Wheels, Barbie, and Fisher-Price’s Little People are evergreen brands.
Collectors Weekly: Has pink become more important to toy styling in recent years?
Eskander: Pink is a funny thing. In the early days of the 20th century, pink was not necessarily a girl color. I’ve even heard that pink was considered a popular color for boys because it was a lighter version of red, which has always been seen as powerful and masculine. But as the 20th century went by, pink became a much more popular color for girls. I’ve heard they’ve done scientific studies that show that women and girls and even female babies are more attracted to redder colors than boys, but I take all of that with a grain of salt. I think girls’ attraction to pink is societal for the most part.
“But Barbie really is to blame for all the pink: Mattel actually has a copyrighted color now called Barbie Pink.”
For my entire life, my favorite color was always red. From the time I was little, I loved wearing red shoes or a red dress. And if I had loved blue, I would’ve worn blue. So even though I didn’t wear a lot of pink growing up, I can see why pink is popular.
Do you know that when Barbie came out in the 1950s, her original look didn’t have a smidgen of pink in it? I don’t think Barbie started using pink as her primary color until the ’70s. Barbie was supposed to be a high-fashion doll, so her first outfit was black and white, not pink. But Barbie really is to blame for all the pink: Mattel actually has a copyrighted color now called Barbie Pink. They own rights to that pink, and you can’t use that exact formula on anything that isn’t Barbie.
Today, pink is a very young color. In other words, younger girls tend to like pink much more than older girls. Older girls are a little more sophisticated. By the time they’re 8 or 9 years old, they’re more conscious of the fashions they’re wearing and the media trends they see, which isn’t all pink. So younger girls tend to like pink and the older girls tend to like other colors. You don’t see the Monster High girls wearing pink. That’s not their schtick. They’re wearing colors that are more edgy and modern.
Barbie and other dolls like that are skewing younger and younger. When I was little, I was the first Barbie generation. I was 10 or 11 when Barbie came out, so I had a very early Barbie doll, which I still have. But nowadays, if you’re 10 or 11 years old, you don’t play with Barbie. If you play with dolls at all, which you probably do with your door locked, you’re more likely to be into some of the more sophisticated, older dolls, maybe something like the Monster High or American Girl dolls.
As a designer and a mom and a grandma, it’s sad to me that little girls—and probably boys, too—outgrow toys at a much earlier age. By the time a girl is 5 years old, she’s pretty much done with Barbie, and even with Disney princesses. By 5 or 6, they start thinking pink looks too young, and they outgrow it.
I’ve read lots of articles about little girls and color. To me it’s like, what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with pink? If they love pink when they’re 4 years old, let them love pink. If they want to play with toy soldiers and wear a pink tutu, more power to them. I just think kids should feel free to play with whatever toys they want to and not feel that society is frowning at them. If you criticize pink, then you’re saying there’s something wrong with it. You’re minimizing it as a valid choice. Let’s just empower little girls in everything that they enjoy. They can play with dolls and be interested in science. There’s nothing that says if you like pink, you’re dumb and you’re not going to grow up to achieve much.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think the ubiquity of pink toys pressures girls to choose them over toys that are more neutral or traditionally marketed to boys?
Eskander: That’s an interesting question. Very recently, we went to Toy Fair in New York, which is the big toy industry trade show, looking at things from toy companies big and small, but mostly small. And there’s an enormous range of choices for kids, and even preschoolers and babies. I think that toy buyers, who are the ones making the choices of what to put in stores, need to be a little bit more adventurous sometimes. It’s really frustrating that at a company like Toys “R” Us, while anything we design ourselves can go in our stores, we still have to deal with buyers. If they don’t like a certain color, then we tend to stay away from it, and I think that’s unfortunate. All pink can get boring. I like to see a variety of options.
I do think that in the mainstream market of big toy companies you see tons of pink stuff. But if you look in girls’ toy aisles at major stores like Toys “R” Us, you’ll see a lot of other colors, too. For example, Toys “R” Us has a line of dolls that is similar to American Girls—it’s called Journey Girls—and they are 18-inch tweenage dolls. They look like they could be 13 years old, and they’re fashion dolls but they wear very little pink. In my opinion, they’re more sophisticated, cute, and cutting-edge than the American Girl dolls.
There was a middle category that was popular for a while in the ’80s and ’90s, which was girls’ action figures, like She-Ra or Sailor Moon that might have been a category that boys would’ve been comfortable playing with, too. But right now in toyland, you don’t see many girls’ action figures. It’s very cyclical, so maybe in five years with new T.V. shows or movies, you will.
So many toys are based on entertainment properties. I don’t know what the percentage is, but it’s huge. If the Merida character from “Brave” or the characters in “Frozen” are wearing pink, then the dolls will be wearing pink. If she’s wearing green, the doll’s going to be green. I guess you could say that those characters are like action figures, but they’re actually sold more like dolls. They’re like hybrid fashion dolls.
Licensing is one of the biggest factors in the design and popularity of toys today. It’s amazing how little say the designers or creators at toy companies sometimes get because they have to follow a style guide that comes from the licensor.
Collectors Weekly: Why aren’t there more toys for older girls?
Eskander: I’ll tell you a little story that was kind of a mind-blower for me. I was working for Hasbro in the mid-1980s. My designer friend and I were in the Hasbro girls group, and we developed this line of toys that we were so excited about. When we were growing up, both of us loved adventure and exploring and solving. We loved books like Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Hardy Boys.
“As a designer and a mom and a grandma, it’s sad to me that little girls outgrow toys at a much earlier age.”
So we came up with this line of girls’ accessories—they weren’t dolls—based on solving mysteries or going on adventures on your bike and solving puzzles and reading maps and finding hidden things. We came up with this whole campaign, the graphics and color combinations and everything. But the marketing people looked at this and they said, “We can’t sell these,” and we said, “Why?” And they said, “Because little girls can’t read.” And we said, “Well of course girls can read, they go to school.” And they said, “No, no, no. The little girls that we would be selling this to aren’t old enough to read,” meaning 5-year-olds.
We were designing these toys for 10-year-olds, and it was such an eye-opener that they wouldn’t even consider marketing this type of toy to a 10-year-old. I was crushed to realize that we’re limiting a whole lot of play by only selling toys to girls who are so young that they can’t read. Any kind of feature that involves reading, whether it’s instructions or a special little book or anything like that, isn’t very marketable.
Not long after that, the American Girl dolls came out, and I was very pleased with the whole philosophy behind them. An educator named Pleasant Rowland started the company because it bothered her that girls were outgrowing dolls at a younger and younger age. As an educator, she also saw that girls didn’t know much about their heritage or history. Rowland lived in Wisconsin, so she was interested in American history, and she created these characters with individualized books to introduce this kind of play for older girls. I really respect her for doing that, because I think that filled this niche for high-quality, complex dolls that older girls really would enjoy. These dolls still let girls be cool and not be considered a baby or an outcast. There’s a need for older girls to play with dolls and toys. It’s really terrible to think that by the time they’re 6 years old, kids are moving on to other kinds of electronic entertainment and getting out of toys entirely. Oh, my gosh, that’s so sad.
Even though 10-year-olds would have liked our set of adventure toys, I think the marketing team felt it was out of their core demographic. They thought that because children were aging out of these toys, it would be difficult to introduce a line for older girls that would become successful. It was too big of a jump, but that’s not to say that today or next year, something like that couldn’t be introduced. Now we’re seeing other toys that are encouraging science or building things. I remember for years people said a building toy for girls was a dead end. Well, it’s not. We always knew that building toys for girls could be very exciting and fun, and LEGO has proven that successfully, but it’s only been a few years. Something that didn’t work in 1986 might work in 2016.
Collectors Weekly: In 1981, LEGO created a famous ad positioning their products for girls as well as boys. Why do you think they recently decided to market different toys for each gender?
Eskander: LEGO was always known for its open-ended play pattern, but today, the company has become very license-focused, with things like Star Wars or its own Ninjago-branded playsets. And those are definitely geared to boys. They do have a few that are generic, like the ‘80s version, but most of them now are very specific. Some are more construction-geared, like you’re building a heliport, while others are more action-geared. I think they needed to counter those with a line that was for girls.
As much as I hate to say this, it’s all about the money. Depending on which week of the year it is, LEGO is the either the number two or the number three toy company in the world, competing with Hasbro. Mattel is number one. They’ve got shareholders they have to please, and they’ve done formulas with these very specific license-driven categories. I’m sure their generic building sets just weren’t as popular, and LEGO doesn’t have the luxury of saying, “Oh, we just want children to enjoy creating and building.” It’s all about the bottom line.
“If you criticize pink, then you’re saying that there’s something wrong with that. You’re minimizing it as a valid choice.”
It’s tough, because as a creative person myself, I’d love to see much more open-ended creative play, but that’s not financially sound for a large toy company. When the choice is My Little Pony or an open-ended toy, which one are they going to choose? They’re going to choose My Little Pony. If you want to be involved with more open-ended creative play, you’re going to have to look in the specialty toy market, with educational toys or small mom-and-pop companies or maybe European companies. They don’t have the big numbers, so they don’t have anything to prove. They’re about childhood development, and they make awesome things, I just happened to have spent my career in the mainstream toy industry.
There’s lots of wonderfully creative and exciting toys out there that aren’t necessarily even sold at Target, Toys “R” Us, or Wal-Mart. They’re going to be at little shops or boutiques or at small independent toy stores. If you’re a parent looking for that kind of thing, you can find it. I only speak from my little corner of the mainstream toy industry. I really appreciate innovation and creativity, but it’s often seen elsewhere rather than the larger companies.
Collectors Weekly: Have big companies like Toys “R” Us or Hasbro made playthings increasingly gendered?
Eskander: No, I don’t think so. There’s always been a girls’ toy market and a boys’ toy market. I don’t think that there’s more gender separation today; I think it’s just following the same patterns it always has. I haven’t seen an increase in the division throughout my career.
My brother is five years older than me, and I still remember when he got the Erector, chemistry, and wood-burning sets, although my sisters and I used them, too. Now, there are just more toys—it’s not that there’s a greater gender division. There are many more boys’ toys and girls’ toys. But I also think a lot of companies and toy lines are striving to bridge the barrier with different toys. If you introduce girls to LEGO through the Friends line, then that’s a stepping stone to something else that might be a bit more gender-neutral. It’s taking a risk to create something that changes the norm. But how are we going to get a girl into the LEGO aisle if there’s nothing that will appeal to her? Once you appeal to her, as she gets older, maybe she’ll jump to another building toy.
I think the store aisles are more segregated than the actual toys. Boys don’t go in the girls’ aisles. Girls don’t go in the boys’ aisles. And it’s not just the kids; it’s also the parents. You’ve got these dads going, “My boy isn’t going to play with a doll, so I’m not going to buy it for him.” I’m not a sociologist, and I can’t solve all these problems. I just try to put a lot of fun and play value and creativity into all our toys.
I certainly believe in giving little girls, in particular, all kinds of opportunities to build and create, or do chemistry and science. I’ve got daughters myself and neither of my girls was particularly “girly,” so they weren’t really doll players, but they weren’t scientists either. I think brands like Goldie Blox are awesome, and I’m pleased to see that kind of toy come out. It would be awesome if all these toys were sold to everyone, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Collectors Weekly: How can we make kids comfortable to play with whatever toys they want, regardless of gender?
Eskander: I think kids naturally gravitate to role play, playing a role that they see in the adult world. I think role play is a universal play pattern for both boys and girls. Girls tend to gravitate toward nurturing toys. Boys gravitate toward action toys. You play house. You play veterinarian. You play school. You play fireman. I think the more you introduce strong role models to children, I think the better off you are.
I do think it’s unfortunate that our industry is so inundated with these entertainment franchises. It was bad when I started in the toy industry in the ’80s, which became the heyday of licensing with Star Wars and G.I. Joe and Rainbow Brite and all those toys that I worked on. But it’s even more focused on entertainment properties now. That’s where the money is, and the toy companies want that money. So these strong role models that girls and boys both want to emulate and role play, many of them come from entertainment.
I think in recent Disney movies, the heroines have been these strong, girl-power kind of role models, and that’s a good thing. If they’re watching “The Hunger Games,” then they’re going to want to role play that kind of adventure. Creating quality entertainment that provides strong role models for girls and boys, I think, is a great way to get stronger toys. But I don’t know what the ultimate answer is.
(Except where noted, all images courtesy Stefanie Eskander.)