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Are gender-neutral toys the right fit?
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A 13-year-old girl from New Jersey has campaigned to get the makers of Easy-Bake Oven to put gender-neutral colored ovens on the market.

The Easy-Bake Oven was introduced in 1963 and has been marketed to girls since its creation. According to news reports, the company has produced the oven in a variety of colors, but today only offers the oven in purple and pink.

After deciding to buy her 4-year-old brother an Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven for Christmas, McKenna Pope, of Garfield, N.J., asked Hasbro, producers of the oven, to make an oven that didn’t seclude the male sex. Pope posted a video on YouTube and started a petition on Change.org asking Hasbro to include both girls and boys in their ads for the popular oven instead of advertising it as a product solely for young girls. The product reinforced gender stereotypes that say “women cook, men work,” Pope said in her letter on Change.org.

“I want my brother to know that it’s not ‘wrong’ for him to want to be a chef, that it’s okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate,” Pope says in her introduction to the petition. “Please, sign this petition, help me in creating gender equality, and help the children of today become what they’re destined to be tomorrow.”

The petition got the attention of Hasbro executives who expect to release a black, blue and silver model of the oven in the latter part of 2013. Hasbro will not stop selling its classic pink or purple models, but will widen its consumer base with the new options.

A pretty momentous feat for a 13-year-old, but I can’t help to think that in a quest to liberate socially-constructed gender norms, she reinforced socially-constructed gender norms. Why couldn’t the Pope’s just talked to their young son about the insignificance of color? Why couldn’t they have used the purple oven to empower him, by noting that it doesn’t matter what it looks like -- it’s a productive toy that you can enjoy?  Instead, they further boxed him in and reinforced that pink or purple is for girls. It’s not noted whether the family asked the young boy if he would be OK with a purple oven versus determining that it wasn’t OK by their own standards.

This holiday season, some toy producers have chosen to create gender-neutral toys for children. A Swedish toy company sent out their winter magazine which featured boys playing with jewel-collared dogs and girls playing with Nerf machine guns in order to deconstruct “traditional” thoughts about what girls and boys are supposed to playing with. There has been a lot of talk about gender-neutral living in general as of late. A Canadian couple got a lot of media attention in 2011 for keeping their third child’s sex a secret. Another couple, from the United Kingdom, didn’t reveal the sex of their child until he was 5-years-old, in order to let him “fulfill his full potential.” I can understand that if it’s an attempt to allow their child the opportunity to choose how they want to dress and what they like to do, but you need to give your kid some sense of self and most parents do it through gender identification.

Gender neutralizing toys isn’t a big step for toy makers. Noble, yes; but changing the way we see sexual or gender identity? No; they really are just trying to keep up with the route some have already taken. Surely, there is a scientific study that shows that a majority of girls and boys naturally gravitate to certain activities, but we mustn’t forget those who don’t fit in to the socially-constructed gender norms that have been created. We do have some thwarted generalizations and that’s where marketing becomes as issue. Marketing is a gender identity reinforcer, especially when it comes to children. The Easy-Bake Oven is just one example. Pope was right in asking for more males in the advertisements for the Easy-Bake. You could make one in a neutral color or you could simply add a male or two to the advertisements to help eliminate media-related stigmas about certain products. Most people grow up determining what works best for them despite marketing schemes and color preferences, but for children it less likely that they will be able to detach themselves from the gender associations forced on them by TV, their family or their peers. That’s where the family needs to consciously step in and break down the stereotypes.