With more parents advocating gender equality, toy retailers are making an effort to move with the times.
IN a huge Toys R Us warehouse on the Kungens Kurva retail estate in south-west Stockholm, cute and cuddly rubs shoulders with cool and crazy – closer in layout to the jumble of a child’s bedroom than a normal store.
In Sweden’s largest toy store, play kitchens stand opposite train sets; baby strollers are piled beside a stack of toy guns; My Little Pony stares at swords and ninja costumes; princess dresses brush up against firefighter outfits. Even the Barbie house – that last redoubt of the candy-pink – is under pressure from a Lego display.
“Children are not coded to blue for boys and pink for girls – they should be free to choose what they want to play with,” said Jan Nyberg, sales director in Sweden for Top-Toy, which owns the franchise for Toys R Us in Nordic countries. Top-Toy is the largest toy retailer in northern Europe.
The gender debate in Sweden has intensified in the last few years, he says, and retailers have had to move with the times. The firm is also changing packaging on its own brands, and will gradually spread the gender-neutral concept to stores across the country.
Parents shopping in the store reflect the new awareness that has filtered through Swedish society, driven by heated national debates over gender since the late 1990s, when equality entered the curriculum in nursery schools.
“It is so hard for me to find anything for my daughter. I hate pink princesses,” said Ann-Karin, 39, an insurance broker. She is annoyed by gender-specific toys that teach children to conform to stereotypes. “It’s great that they have changed this store,” she added.
Shopper Teodors’ daughter plays with everything from dolls to cars. “I always choose toys with gender in mind,” said the security guard, 33. “I won’t buy stuff that is too girly, unless she really wants it. If I had boys I would not buy swords or guns.”
Karin, 25, a nurse, is shopping for her four-year-old son, who likes dinosaurs, dolls and anything pink. “The grandparents laugh at him, but I don’t care,” she said.
Top-Toy caused a stir in the Daily Mail last year when it issued a catalogue depicting girls shooting guns and boys pushing prams. The company received customer complaints and a reprimand from the Swedish advertising watchdog for using stereotypes in its marketing. This year, Toys R Us published “gender-neutral” catalogues in Finland, Norway, Germany, Denmark and France, to a mixed reception. In September, it said it would stop labelling toys as boys’ or girls’ and would show children of both genders playing with the same toys.
“Toy companies have taken the first step by trying to communicate that they want to be modern, like a modern society,” said Kristina Henkel, a gender expert and author of Give Your Child 100 Opportunities Instead Of Two.
Toys R Us was resistant in the past, she said, objecting that Spider-Man is an action figure and so should not be sold with other dolls.
“We did many interviews with children about toys, and for example they complained they couldn’t get a sword for their Barbie, or a baby stroller for Spider-Man,” Henkel said. “Why not leave it up to the child’s fantasy?”
Rather than banning play with guns, Henkel suggests that parents add an ambulance to take the wounded to hospital. “We have more gender equality today because parents grew up with it and they are putting a lot of pressure on the companies.”
Kicki, 29, a supermarket worker, and her husband Nicklas, 32, who works in a car rental company, are checking out My Little Pony for their daughters. But they are disappointed by the limited range of Spider-Man toys in the Stockholm store.
“My youngest loves them,” said Kicki. “I want my daughters to play with boys’ and girls’ toys.” – Guardian News & Media
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