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The New Feminists: Girls at the Toy Store

Seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin, with her letter to Lego, is the latest young girl to publicly decry gender inequality in toys.Watch out, world. A new kind of feminist is in town — she’s very young, she’s outspoken and she’s taking the battle for gender equality to the toy store.

Seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin, whose handwritten letter to one of the world’s most beloved toy brands went viral last week, is just one of the latest young women to call for marketers to stop dividing toys along gender lines. Charlotte called out Lego for making female figurines that only “sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and…had no jobs” while the company’s male counterparts “went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks.”

Charlotte’s letter comes a little more than a year after McKenna Pope, 13, started a petition asking toymaker Hasbro to offer a gender-neutral color for its famous Easy Bake Oven and to include boys in its commercials. McKenna’s motivation? She wanted to get a gift for her younger brother, an aspiring chef.

And who can forget the 2011 YouTube rant by a young girl named Riley? As she stood in front of a (very pink) toy aisle, she lamented the fact that “girls have to buy pink stuff” and princess dolls, while boys are offered superheroes. “Girls want superheroes and the boys want superheroes,” she declared.

Riley, McKenna and Charlotte — you are my superheroes. If more young women follow your lead, maybe toy companies will increasingly start changing their ways and stop conforming to gender stereotypes about playtime. The girls have already seen some results — Hasbro rolled out a black-and-silver oven following McKenna’s petition.

Lego responded to Charlotte recently with a statement that didn’t exactly spell out future action, but did acknowledge the importance of having female figurines representing different walks of life. The company, Yahoo Shine reports, said that while Legos have been “more appealing to boys,” Lego has also focused on themes and characters targeting girls. Those characters included “a warrior, a surgeon, a zoologist, athletes, extreme sports characters, rock stars and a scientist.”

The depressing thing about this otherwise inspiring movement is that there were glimmers of gender equality in toys long before these girls were born. Lego itself put out this now-famous ad in 1981 showing a young girl in overalls smiling ear-to-ear as she holds a Lego structure that evinced no gender bias — none of the pastels that have shown up in the company’s more recent products and, perhaps more importantly, no female figures in hair salons and kitchens, as Ms. Magazine reports.

So why the backslide? It’s particularly counterintuitive given that, in the adult world, women have now held virtually every high ranking position in every sphere of public life with the exception of a couple in the White House.

Then again, as leaders like Facebook COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg point out, the majority of leadership positions are still held by men. Meanwhile, while there are gender-neutral toys and toys targeting girls that don’t conform to antiquated stereotypes — the engineering toy line GoldieBlox and Disney’s Doc McStuffins kid doctor toys are notable recent additions to the mix — they can be hard to find amid the sea of girl-targeted toys focused on domestic (kitchen sets), vanity (fashion and princess dolls) and caregiver (more dolls) themes.

Is there a connection? If gender-neutral toys become the norm, will young women find further encouragement to pursue their highest ambitions or, as Charlotte might put it, have adventures? Will even more young boys, no longer stigmatized for playing with dolls or My Little Pony toys, grow up to become men who embrace the idea of stay-at-home fatherhood? Given the various other pressures put on both sexes today — having it all, anyone? — toys alone probably won’t make the difference.

But they certainly couldn’t hurt.

 

Image: Twitter/@SocImages

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