Kids’ products and gender: What’s on the packaging?

Preschoolers can be quick to notice gendered illustrations on products. If a package has a picture of a boy on it, that item must be for boys; if it has a picture of a girl on it, it must be for girls. Likewise, if a package has pink, flowers, and/or hearts, it must be a girl’s product; if it has cars, trucks, or construction vehicles, it must be for boys.

I saw this in action this weekend, when we took our four-and-a-half year old son, T., shopping for a new bicycle helmet.

His favorite colors are blue, red, green, and purple; so to avoid buying a helmet covered in licensed characters (we do not need one more Lightning McQueen anything!), I offered him a few choices: A black helmet with blue and green stripes; a solid red helmet; and a solid dark purple helmet.

For a moment, I thought he was going to choose the purple helmet. But then, he announced: “No, mama, that one’s for girls.”

It looked pretty gender-neutral to me, so I was puzzled. “What makes you think it’s for girls?” I asked.

“From the picture, mama. See? That’s a girl.”

I took a closer look, and sure enough, the helmet–though labeled a “youth” helment–showcased a photo of a smiling girl with a long ponytail and a pink shirt.

Purple helmet

Other helmets either had photos of boys or girls on them, or did not feature a photo at all. I realized that any helmet that was remotely girlish–with even the smallest touch of pink or purple–had a girl on the packaging; those that seemed boyish or gender-neutral (e.g., black and white) only depicted boys.

After much deliberation, my son chose the blue and green helmet. It did not have a photo of a child on it, but its colors clearly coded it as appropriate for boys–and it had flashing lights on the back! No way could any other helmet compete with that.

Before he made his choice, I explained something to him: “Just so you know, the purple helmet is for boys AND girls,” I said. “Purple is not just for boys or just for girls. Colors are for everyone!”

“Hm. Okay, mama.”

Phew. So far, he seems pretty open to this concept. I saw this in action a few months ago, when my son was shopping for Hot Wheels cars to go with his T-Rex Takedown set.

T-Rex Hot Wheels

He decided that he wanted a blue car, a green car…and a pink car. I was thrilled! But then I was disappointed: there was not a single pink Hot Wheels car in the store.

“I’m sorry we can’t find a pink car,” I said. “I’ll try to find you one at another store.”

“Okay,” T. replied, “because I really want one. It really really needs a pink car!”

I went home and posted about it on facebook, and within minutes, friends and family were helping me with my search. My mom came through; she found a pink car in her local store. My son was thrilled.

Only later did I think to ask: Why did he need a pink car, anyway?

His answer: “Because it shows it on the box!”


I took a closer look, and sure enough, he’d noticed something that I had entirely missed: in the upper right-hand corner, a pink Hot Wheels car was careening down the tracks.

Pink car on T-Rex Hot Wheels

I hadn’t picked up on this small detail at all, but for my son, it was significant enough to make him request a color other than one of his favorites. Amazing!

I’m sure that detail isn’t lost on other children, either. In fact, the inclusion of a pink car on the package might help make girls feel that this toy–though stereotypically boyish–is for them, too. And I think that’s really great.

What if the purple helmet had a photo of both a boy and a girl on the packaging? Maybe my son would have selected it. Maybe the manufacturer would be able to sell that model to twice as many kids!

But unfortunately, that’s not how marketing usually works nowadays. It’s all about segmentation, about separating the boys from the girls, in hopes of selling twice as many products. The logic seems to be that if a product is just for girls, it won’t be handed down to their baby brothers, and vice-versa–so segregation and segmentation is seen as good for business.

That’s a shame, since it’s important for boys and girls to learn to play together. In too many cases, marketers are shortchanging our kids. The T-Rex Takedown packaging is the exception, not the norm.

In sum, packaging is important. The way manufacturers label things matters. It plays a role in the socialization of our kids. It’s worth paying attention to it, so that you can talk about it with your children when you need to: I’m guessing that your kids, like mine, have already noticed.

Parents: Have you seen any interesting examples of gendering on packaging, whether stereotypical or defying stereotypes? How have your kids responded to them? I’d love to know.

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11 Comments on “Kids’ products and gender: What’s on the packaging?

  1. I think it has already been written a lot on the subject of color coding and stereotypical toys, but I don’t see a different trend yet. Recently I noted another prevalent aspect: the toys aimed at boys are generally in cardboard with illustrations, those aimed at girls have a transparent window: immagination versus visualization, dynamism versus stillness, construction versus pret-a-jouer. Also, the opaque box is generally much bigger than the content (I posted some examples
    here, but the text is in Italian).
    I have a girl and a boy, they share the same room and it has been madness not to have clashing colors and separate activities. I still cringe when someone limits their choice end even worse when they self-exclude. Anyway, words are not enough when there are so many opposite examples around them. Recently I saw two “different” sets of milk enzimes with pictures of the ubiquitous Disney Princesses versus Cars and took the opportunity to show my kids how the other sides of the boxes were identical and in no way we would have bought something we didn’t need nor two boxes of the same item if we did because of a picture. My son, four and a half seemed less convinced than his older sister.

  2. When my mom had us, she started noticing the packaging on toys and it wasn’t as bad as it was today when I was little. Hot Wheels didn’t have boys or girls when they introduced large track series like this; I swear it was in the 80s. My mom and dad didn’t have this when they were kids. I was born in 1989. My dad freaked out when he first saw us come home with one of these! Of course, they didn’t quite work….also, we had Matchbox cars! (They don’t exist anymore; they were absorbed by Hot Wheels.)

    Power Rangers were marketed to boys and girls when I was little, but Barbie and G.I. Joe weren’t (I still played with both. I stole my brother’s G.I. Joe’s and dressed them up in Ken’s clothing. Ask my brother how pleased he was with that arrangement. I dressed Ken in G.I. Joe’s clothing too. I called Joe a doll. My dad then had something to say about that. “THEY’RE ACTION FIGURES!!!!” he says to this day. No, Dad, they are dolls. They lack private parts. He says otherwise.) Tonka trucks….marketed to boys. Who played with them more? I did. I would shove Barbie halfway inside the metal firetruck in fact. Kelly I could manage to fit all the way inside.

    I kind of cringe at Sleeping Beauty costumes only being available in pink (um, she wears blue 98% throughout the film everyone) and there being no Mulan armor and WHY CAN WOMEN NOT WEAR BATMAN OUTFITS?! (This one really gets me. I love Batman. Why do I have do be BATWOMAN? I don’t want to be the one that always needs help. I want to be Batman, okay?)

    • You comments were really funny. And I never thought about the “action figure” vs. “doll” phrasing! Both are plastic with movable limbs. I guess maybe the main difference is that the dolls have moving hair and no painted on clothes.

  3. Kids really notice this stuff, I agree. I have a son and daughter (also share rooms and mostly play together). My 3 year old son looked at the box of his new marble run, which featured a boy and girl playing together and said, ‘R can play with this with me, because it’s for boys and girls’.

  4. Rebecca – another blog I read (Rachel Marie Stone) has been curating posts about toys that have been “sexified” over the years – like Polly Pocket, My Little Pony… etc. I think you would be interested in reading it, based on what I’ve read on your blog before – here is the link to the series:

  5. Pingback: Is Blue Only A Boys Color - Dad Blunders | Life As I Know It | Dad Blunders | Life As I Know It

  6. Great article 😊 I have a 4 year old and 2year old boys, my older one wants creative making toys but sees the adverts as just girls playing with them so quickly changes his mind, we often buy them for him as we know he loves them, my youngest loves all the ‘girls’ toys, my little pony, carebears, little live pets, dolls houses, babies ect and we have never discouraged him infact the opposit we encourage both of our boys to play with what ever makes them happy. I hate that when people ask me what to get my youngest for presents I always have to say ‘girlie’ things, I really don’t think its just girlie to be kind, nurturing and empathetic all of which both my boys are, my older one does have weapons (swords ect) but he played with (and still does) all the ‘girlie’ toys, he is so sweet and kind, I wish more little boys were able to play with what they wanted. (sorry for the long post ) x

  7. My daughter was never fazed by the packaging of toys, thank goodness, and just went for what she wanted. But I’ve read the stories (including the ones here) about kids being sad thinking that they’re not meant to play a certain toy they want. It’s so stupid and frustrating! I first noticed the modern hyper-gendering of toys when I went shopping for baby toys after she was born. I was horrified to see all-pink versions of toys I’d loved as a baby, like the popcorn vacuum and the stacking rings. It’s sad that we have actually gone BACKWARD in this area. Our local chain stores didn’t have “boys” and “girls” signs over the sections, which was great, but still…

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