Toys "R" Us schooled by sixth-graders

The company is scolded for gender discrimination thanks to a complaint made by Swedish middle-schoolers

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published October 9, 2009 6:01PM (EDT)

Some sixth-graders in Sweden have tattled on Toys "R" Us for relying on  gender stereotypes. Now, the country's advertising watchdog is publicly giving the company a rap on the knuckles. Ooh, you're in trou-ble!

A class at Gustavslund school in south central Sweden spent more than two years studying gender roles before setting sights on the 2008 Toys "R" Us Christmas catalog. When they did, they were more than prepared to recognize the sexist crud inside. “Small girls in princess stuff … and here are boys dressed as super heroes," 13-year-old Hannes Psajd told a local newspaper while flipping through the catalog. "It’s obvious that you get affected by this." Indeed: I recently spoke to a neuroscientist about how small sex differences at birth are magnified over time, and cultural policing of sex-appropriate toys and play is a big part of that. He added: “When I see that only girls play with certain things then, as a guy, I don’t want it.” Classmate Moa Averin says boys and girls should be allowed to be true to themselves -- even if “guys want to be princesses sometimes." Sing it, sister.

The class filed a complaint with Swedish regulatory agency Reklamombudsmannen, which is a member of the European Advertising Standards Alliance, arguing that the catalog modeled restrictive sex stereotypes. The agency reviewed the complaint and found that, indeed, boys are shown "playing in action filled environments," while girls "are shown sitting or standing in passive poses," the agency said in a statement. As a whole, "the catalogue portrays children’s games and choice of toys in a narrow-minded way, and this exclusion of boys and girls from different types of toys is, in itself, degrading to both genders," the organization said. Ultimately, the agency issued an official rebuke this week of Toys "R" Us, arguing that it “discriminates based on gender and counteracts positive social behaviour, lifestyles, and attitudes."

The agency doesn't have the power (nor should it) to force Toys "R" Us to show boy princesses heroically saved by girl princes in its next catalog. The primary purpose of the agency is to bring negative attention and pressure to bear on companies with unsavory advertising practices. That Toys "R" Us has been publicly scolded is refreshing, but chances are the U.S.-based company will stick to its formulaic ways, regardless.  In this case, the real victory happened inside that sixth grade classroom.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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