I Went to Three Mumbai Toy Stores to Test Gender Stereotyping

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May 16, 2018

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In recent years, gender neutral toys and marketing has been a big topic of discussion. In the West, parent movements have led major retailers to overhaul their in-store displays, no longer separating toys into ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ sections, but by function or age group. I find this gender neutral approach to toys rather refreshing and sensible. Recent research has shown that affinity for pink or blue toys is a trait kids pick up from their adults around them. And Sweden’s gender-neutral education, which focuses on encouraging kids in all kinds of play, even games and toys typically associated with the opposite gender, seems to be resulting in better rapport between boys and girls, and less stereotyping in adulthood.

So, I wanted to see if these campaigns and attitudes have filtered to the on-the-ground realities of Mumbai’s toy stores. How does gender stereotyping affect toy stores’ stocking and recommendations — and parents’ shopping experience?

My plan was to approach toy store salespeople, telling them I want to buy a toy for a kid. The aim was to discover the first (and presumably most important) piece of information the store assistants would ask for in order to offer guidance: the child’s gender? their age? I would then clarify it was a 7-year-old boy. What toys would they show me for a young boy? I wondered. And how would they react to a traditionally feminine toy preference?

I was pleasantly surprised.

Hamley’s, Lower Parel

The store was organized in sections demarcating the toy type – puzzles, action figures, dolls, soft toys, dollhouse, cars, remote-controlled, and more. This place was huge, with a section dedicated to every type of toy thinkable. I have to say I was impressed. They had chosen to arrange the shop according to types of toy, rather than by gender. There wasn’t a boy or girl section in sight.

I approached a shop assistant armed with a shopping strategy and a point to prove, but never got to it. He asked me the child’s age and then, not only did he immediately usher me to puzzles and other gender-neutral toys, but, upon being asked for a doll for a young boy, he didn’t even bat an eye. He just pointed me in the right direction.

Crosswords, Goregaon

Crosswords is predominantly a bookstore, but it’s recently branched out into selling kids’ toys as well as a variety of stationary. The front of the store is usually dedicated to books galore, while the back is where they house all sorts of toys for kids, that include puzzles, dolls, board games, cars and more.

So in I went, ready to unleash my questions. I approached a salesperson and asked him for a toy for a kid. He responded by asking me what age. When I said 7, he asked if it was a boy or a girl. Boy, I responded. I was happy when he started showing me rather gender-neutral toys — puzzles, to be precise. That’s when I said, “He likes dolls.” The man paused, flashed a surprised smile, but immediately took me to the doll section. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the most thorough stock of dolls, but I definitely walked out a happy customer.

Your typical, neighborhood toy store, Kandivali

My next stop was the regular local toy store you come across at every corner. Like all toy stores of the kind, it was small, toys filling the store from floor to ceiling, and superbly colorful and vibrant. Toys here are usually arranged according to type, and they aim to fit in as many as they can in the tiny space. I began my routine. “I need a toy for a kid,” I told the shopkeeper. How old? 7. Boy or girl? Boy, I answered, mentally rubbing my hands together. The man began showing me an array of remote-controlled cars, but I was having none of it.

“He likes dolls.”

“Huh!?” he gasped. “Dolls? Boy or girl you said?”

“Boy,” I replied.

Arre baap re,” he said. After a beat he continued, “Chalo, theek hai, if the boy likes dolls I’ll show you dolls.”

And then he fluidly showed me a great array of Barbie dolls — including a set of Barbie and Ken in the kitchen.

I went in expecting a lot of gender stereotyping in terms of stock and advice. I went in expecting salespeople to begin by asking me if the child I was shopping for was a boy or a girl. But I found that often that information was sort of secondary to the age of the kid, as it should be. Far from being the gender-bias warrior I had imagined myself as, I guess my own biases have been proven wrong.

I can’t say absolutely no gender stereotyping goes on in these toy stores. But in all these occasions, retailers’ reactions to my made-up boy-who-likes-dolls seemed more surprised by the uncommon scenario than shocked because they thought it wasn’t okay. Yet, I can’t forget that money speaks in the end; toy store owners and employees may not fully express shock or disapproval when their ultimate goal is to make a sale. But if it amounts to the same gender-neutral shopping experience, does it matter?

Interestingly, I visited another, newly opened Hamley’s, this one in Goregaon, for a personal errand and discovered some differences in the set up. This store had a haphazardly placed boys’ section, and an equally random girls’ section. Narrow shelves in the middle of much bigger sections, the signage seemed an afterthought more than anything.

Or perhaps, it may be, that while toy stores such as Hamley’s, which is an international brand, are trying to keep with international norms and awareness, customers are still used to shopping for toys in a gendered way. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a parent discourage a child from playing with a certain kind of toy because of the gender associated with the toy — even though the child had shown a keen interest for it. While society is more open to non-traditional gender roles, including choice of toys for boys and girls, we still have a long way to go.

As for me, my shopping experiments netted a set of colored pencils — a perfectly gender-neutral toy for any kid (including myself).

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Written By Angelina Shah

Angelina Shah is a staff writer with The Swaddle. In her previous life she was a copywriter in advertising. She has a penchant for reading, singing, travelling and being obsessed with superheroes.

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