McDonald’s toys are in the zeitgeist. More specifically, the gender-normative ways in which McDonald’s describes their toys are in the zeitgest, and perhaps some progress has been made.
Last year I wrote a “straight married white male feminist manifesto.” I wrote it for the Good Men Project which means I deliberately waved a red flag in front of Men’s Rights Advocates (MRAs). It was a good learning experience and I like the essay. I reacted to current events (at the time) to explain why I am a feminist:
I am a feminist because when I go to McDonald’s (and yes, I know I shouldn’t go to McDonald’s), and order a Happy Meal, they ask me whether I want a “boy’s toy or a girl’s toy.” The boys’ toys are active, with moving parts, and often violent: cars, giants, aliens, catapults, action figures, heroes, and heroic paraphernalia. Girls’ toys come in pink, purple, yellow, and orange. They are passive—at most, they sparkle. Dolls, plastic versions of clothing, and animals—but not animals that might climb or hunt, but cute little things you can snuggle. Right now, boys get Hot Wheels ™. Girls get Sparkle shoes (little plastic keychain shoes, covered in hearts and flowers) from Sketchers ™. The people at the counter are supposed to say—do you want the shoe or the car? But they never do. What am I supposed to do if my son wants the shoe and my daughter the car? Of course, having heard the gender norming question, they just go with what’s expected.
I discovered that the daughter of a friend of mine got angry when she was a child about this, so wrote McDonald’s and received a nice corporate letter saying it wasn’t their policy. She used to wave it at people who asked if she wanted the girl or boy toy. This has been on my mind for awhile.
And it turns out on other minds as well.
Every afternoon, my mom diligently picked me up after school and asked me what I wanted to eat. Chicken McNuggets was always the answer, but“Chicken MacNuggah” was what came out of my undeveloped five-year-old mouth.
We routinely went through the McDonald’s drive-through, craning our necks and straining our eyes to scan the menu even though we always ordered the same thing every day — a Happy Meal for me with Chicken MacNuggah, french fries, and a Sprite.
“Boy or girl?” the drive-through loudspeaker would yell.
A quick, expectant glance from my mom looked back at me from the rearview mirror.
A simple knowing nod in response from me.
“Boy,” she assured the loudspeaker.
The piece goes on to show the toys and their gender split.
Meanwhile, in Slate, a 14-year-old girl named Antonia Ayres-Brown wrote about her campaign to really change the language. Like my friend’s daughter, she too got that letter from corporate HQ, but noted it didn’t change anything. She contacted the CEO, and:
Instead of filing another complaint, I tried a more conciliatory approach. I again wrote to the CEO of McDonald’s, now Donald Thompson, sharing the results of our recent study and expressing my continued concern with the harmful effects of gender-classified toys. On Dec. 17, I received an amazing letter back from McDonald’s chief diversity officer, Patricia Harris, saying, “It is McDonald’s intention and goal that each customer who desires a Happy Meal toy be provided the toy of his or her choice, without any classification of the toy as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toy and without any reference to the customer’s gender. We have recently reexamined our internal guidelines, communications and practices and are making improvements to better ensure that our toys are distributed consistent with our policy.”
Even more heartening, DoSomething.org just posted a photo of a manager’s notice on the wall of an actual McDonald’s store instructing employees: “When a customer orders a happy meal you must ask ‘will that be a My Little Pony toy? Or a Skylanders toy?’. We will no longer refer to them as ‘boy or girl toys.’ ”
So that’s nice. I suspect the toys will still emerge in pink and passive vs colorful and active. Why can’t we have a pink ninja robot? A bright blue lipstick with lightning bolts? There’s room for variety here.
Still, small victories are victories. Good work Ayres-Brown