Girls’ Toys


Girls’ games and toys are a large yet difficult market for the children’s toy industry. Nancy Zwiers, an industry consultant and former head of worldwide marketing for Mattel’s Barbie doll line, has pointed out the male-centred bias that makes development of girls’ toys difficult: ‘When I tour different company showrooms and look at what they’re doing, many times it’s a bunch of guys making decisions about what girls would like, and they miss the mark.’

‘Age compression’ is a toy industry term that describes the modern trend of children moving through play stages faster than they did in the past. Children have a desire to progress to more complex toys at a faster pace, girls in particular. Barbie dolls, for example, were once marketed to girls around 8 years old, but have been found to be more popular in recent years with girls around 3 years old. The packaging for the dolls labels them appropriate for ages 3 and up.

Boys, in contrast, apparently enjoy games and toys over a longer timespan, gravitating towards toys that meet their interest in assembling and disassembling mechanical toys, and toys that ‘move fast and things that fight.’ An industry executive points out that girls have entered the ‘tween’ phase by the time they are 8 years old and want non-traditional toys, whereas boys have been maintaining an interest in traditional toys until they are 12 years old, meaning the traditional toy industry holds onto their boy customers for 50% longer than their girl customers.

Girls gravitate towards ‘music, clothes, make-up, television talent shows and celebrities.’ Girls also demonstrate a longer loyalty to characters in games and toys marketed towards them. A variety of global toy companies have marketed themselves to this aspect of girls’ development, for example, the Hello Kitty brand, and the Disney princess series of products. Boys have shown an interest in computer games at an ever-younger age in recent years.

In Western countries in recent years, girls’ games and toys have shifted towards a dominant use of the color pink. Adults shopping for girls’ toys can easily spot the girls’ toy section in a store because of the rows of aisles almost entirely stacked with bright pink products. There has been a backlash against the predominant use of pink in girls’ toys. One British parent launched a campaign called Pinkstinks against retailers marketing educational toys to girls in pink. The almost exclusive use of pink for girls’ toys has raised concern that it is polarizing gender identity from an early age, to the detriment of girls, by over-emphasizing beauty and passivity over fun and creativity.

The reasons why girls prefer pink are unknown, and scientists are currently researching the phenomenon. Theories are divided between the nature-versus-nurture question. Social conditioning is one possible factor, since girls are surrounded by pink accessories and clothing from birth in some cultures. However, it has been proposed that a preference for pink is hard-wired.’ One recent study showed ‘a marked preference for pink among girls and women in different cultures.’

Amplifying gender identity differences between boys and girls is to the benefit of toy sellers. Targeted marketing has for many decades used the technique of categorizing children into segments for marketing purposes, much as the industry does with adults. Childhood age segments that are popularly believed to be identified by psychologists were in fact invented by children’s clothing and toy manufacturers. Peggy Orenstein has drawn attention to research by Daniel Cook (a ‘historian of childhood consumerism’) that reveals the marketing origins of the familiar age group known as ‘toddler’:

Trade publications counselled department stores that, in order to increase sales, they should create a ‘third stepping stone’ between infant wear and older kids’ clothes. They also advised segregating girls’ and boys’ clothing no later than age two: parents whose sons were ‘treated like a little man’ were thought to be looser with their purse strings. It was only after ‘toddler’ became common shoppers’ parlance that it evolved into a broadly accepted developmental stage.

Similarly, the age group known as the ‘tween,’ was a marketing invention dating to the mid-1980s, to describe children aged eight to 15. Today it is popularly understood to be a valid developmental phase. Tween marketing has spread beyond Western countries. In India, marketing research shows children in the 8 to 14-year-old age range, predominantly girls, shifting their preferences away from traditional products towards mass-marketed merchandise such as the Disney Princess line and Hannah Montana.

Tween girls became identified as a huge market during the 1990s. The pop music group the Spice Girls were an act based on a group of female performers representing character traits, with nicknames such as Scary Spice, Baby Spice, and Sporty Spice. They were originally a less edgy variation on the girl-group character acts such as the Mary Jane Girls organized by Rick James and Vanity 6 created by Prince, with an intended teenage audience. To the surprise of the recording industry, the Spice Girls were an enormous success with prepubescent ‘tween’ girls, who identified with the flirtatious sexuality of the group and the ‘Girl Power’ theme, which marketers subsequently promoted to the hilt. In 1998, the year the Spice Girls enjoyed their peak success, tweens spent an estimated $1.4 Billion. Marketing to tween girls is a full-fledged entertainment industry trend today, with toys and merchandise associated with television shows, music groups and celebrities, for example Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez.

Technology has been embraced by many toy companies because of the gender-neutral best-selling toys that it helps create. One example is the popular Tamagotchi toy invented in Japan in the 1990s. It has sold tens of millions of units worldwide in its various versions. The Tamagotchi is an egg-shaped computerized toy that mimics a pet, and requires that the user update it regularly to feed it and provide other care. It remains particularly popular with young girls, however, and recent marketing is targeted towards girls; girls ‘like the new outfits and other items that can be downloaded via cellphone and transferred to their Tamagotchi device.’

Worldwide video game sales have soared beyond traditional toy and game sales in the past decade, particularly in North America and the Middle East. Nintendo Wii is a well-known recent innovation, which sells games aimed at either girls or boys, or both. Large traditional toy companies such as Hasbro have joined the trend, creating game applications for the iPhone and other smartphones, which are increasingly being used by children in affluent countries.

Girls show an interest in beauty and grooming at a young age, before they are 10. Jane Davies, a British beauty therapist who provides private onsite makeover parties for preteens: ‘All the magazines for tweens carry articles about mini-makeovers and manicures, so they talk knowledgeably about mascaras that give you a false lash effect and which star uses which product.’ In recent years, a number of companies have opened chain retail outlets in shopping centers to provide a play experience that goes beyond selling toys. Hamley’s flagship store in London opened a ‘Hair and Nail Bar’ dedicated to girls in 2009, and it has shown great popularity with girls in the 7 to 8-year-old range. Justice, a preteen girls’ clothing store chain with more than 40 stores in the northeastern U.S., has a line of beauty and spa products available in its stores as well as clothing. In the United States, store chains in shopping malls that focus solely on makeup and spa experiences for preteen girls have been opening at a brisk pace. Tabby, for example, is a chain offering makeup parties in malls in several states.

Aside from the store chains dedicated to offering beauty services to girls, toy manufacturers have adapted to the trend by tying it to their doll products. The American Girl line of dolls and books has dedicated stores across the United States, such as Mall of America and American Girl Place in Los Angeles, that include a doll hair salon, a photo studio, and party hosting. The Nickelodeon television company’s resort in Florida includes a girls’ spa. The formula is proving to be successful globally. The world’s largest Barbie doll store, a six-floor building in Shanghai, includes a ‘full-service day spa’ where girls can get their hair cut and have a manicure done, as well as buying accessories and clothes emulating a Barbie-influenced style.

Girls’ games and toys are fascinating artifacts of past cultures. The oldest toys for girls are dolls that date from around 2000 BCE in Egypt. Children in Ancient Greece played with dolls made of rags, wood, wax, or clay, sometimes with moveable arms and legs. Rattles, hoops and yo-yos were other common toys. When a young woman was to be married in Ancient Greece, she would sacrifice her dolls and toys and other youthful possessions to Artemis the night before her wedding.

Children’s games during the Middle Ages and earlier are something of a mystery, since the rules of the games were passed from generation to generation orally. In rare cases, the games survived long enough to be recorded in later centuries. Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘Children’s Games’ (1560) depicts many games popular with Flemish children of the time. Girls can be shown playing games that involve balls, musical instruments, and games that involved carrying other children or performing other challenges. Hide-and-seek, Leapfrog and Tag are some perennially popular games that seem to have survived over the centuries in Europe and North America.

Fashion dolls were creations used by adults in early modern Europe. Fashion dolls were prototype samples of clothing styles, passed between adults who were involved in designing or purchasing expensive dresses and suits. Once the dolls were outdated, they were apparently given to girls as toys. Interestingly, a recent trend in the Barbie doll line in particular is to produce ‘collectors’ versions of the doll marketed to adults, with Barbie wearing historic couture reproductions. Board games, paper dolls, doll houses, and other toys were creations of the Victorian era that remain popular today. Other historic and vintage girls’ pastimes include Paper fortune tellers, which date from the 1920s.

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