Apologies for starting this post with a fairly obvious spoiler for how I feel. Actually, y’know what? I take that back. I’m not sorry. I wrote about this after last year’s Toy Fair, and not much has changed. In fact, you could even argue that the situation has gotten worse.
But first, some background. Toy Fair 2016 took place this past weekend in New York City. The event is produced by the Toy Industry Association, which is a not-for-profit trade association “representing all businesses involved in creating and bringing toys and youth entertainment products to kids of all ages.” Its more than 900 members account for approximately 90% of the annual U.S. domestic toy market of $22B.
And the night before Toy Fair opened its doors, the Toy Industry Association held the 16th annual Toy of the Year Awards. The annual celebration honors the most outstanding new toy products to hit the marketplace during the previous year.
Listen, I’m not here to pass judgment on any of the companies or specific products that won awards, but when taken as a whole, these awards appear to be quite…questionable.
Game of the Year? Pie Face by Hasbro. Hey, I can appreciate a good pie to the face, just like anyone else, but GAME OF THE FREAKIN’ YEAR?
E-Connected Toy of the Year? Disney Infinity 3.0. This category is supposed to be the “best toy that through play helps children develop special skills and/or knowledge.” I like Infinity just fine, but I’m not entirely sure what “special skills” are getting developed that aren’t present in almost every other video game, especially the two previous iterations of the game.
Toy of the Year? Doc McStuffins Pet Vet Checkup Center by Just Play. This is the best toy of the year. Really? I walked every aisle in the Javits Center, and I could probably have found a more innovative and exciting toy in each one.
But none of that – NONE OF THAT – is as bad as the continued existence of the Boy Toy of the Year and Girl Toy of the Year categories.
Boy Toy of the Year? LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens Millennium Falcon by LEGO.
Girl Toy of the Year? Shopkins Scoops Ice Cream Truck by Moose Toys.
Where do I even begin? Last year, the awards made it clear that boys are supposed to like dinosaurs and girls should be content to go shopping. So congrats to Shopkins for winning two years in a row. I guess.
Again, this isn’t a slight against either product. The LEGO Millennium Falcon is way cool, and I know a lot of kids adore Shopkins. But when can we finally be past the top-down enforcement of gender labels on toys?
Despite what Target would like us to believe, the pink aisle (both literal and figurative) is still very much a reality in toy merchandising. But should it still be enforced as gospel from the very organization whose sole purpose is to be a tireless champion of all kinds of toys available to all kinds of kids?
One of the overwhelming themes I saw among new toys at this year’s Toy Fair is that STEM-focused toys are now mainstream. Toys that teach robotics, electric currents, and chemistry to kids as young as 5 are now competing in an incredibly crowded marketplace. Many of these specifically target girls in their marketing and advertising, but I don’t think any of these companies would classify their products as “girls toys.”
I also had the pleasure of sitting in a presentation by three incredibly bright young women who are strong, vocal advocates for getting girls involved in science at all levels. Thank goodness that they were encouraged and inspired to dream big and not settle for living in a real-life Shopkins world. This is something for which we should all advocate. Instead, according to the Toy Industry Association, this is something we should be resisting.
This bears repeating: the UK Toy Retailers Association also has a Toy of the Year award, but they’ve dispensed with gendered labels. They instead have categories such as “construction toy of the year” and “doll of the year.” (And it’s worth pointing out that Shopkins, LEGO, and Pie Face all won UK awards.)
See what they did there? They can still award deserving toys without being condescending or judgmental. They’re not presuming to tell us who can play with what toys or which toys I’m supposed to buy for my son or daughter.
I have nothing against Shopkins as a toy line. I really don’t. But I’d like my daughter to aspire to something more than just shopping and domestic chores. I’m not saying that aspiring to be a Jedi aboard the Millennium Falcon is inherently better, but it does require a certain measure of creative imagination and the self-confidence to cast herself as the hero.
And, hey, the set even includes Rey!