Do you want gender norming with that?

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.

On Medium, Elly Vila Dominicis wrote, “I’m a girl and I want the boy’s toy.”

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, 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

12 Replies to “Do you want gender norming with that?”

  1. deb says:

    Not a defense, but a bit of explanation. The choice of colors, poses, looks, function, etc., is not chosen by McDs. It is dictated by the style guide and other reference materials provided by the licensor. The toy designs have to stay very close to the style guide or else the toys wouldn't pass the lisensor approval phase of production.

    To achieve what you are asking, McDs could choose only gender-neutral properties, or at least properties that can cover both "action" and "nurture" play roles. Disney movies are especially good for this, but Disney doesn't release a new movie every month.

    Unfortunately, most juvenile targeted properties are very gender specific. Your goal then is not trying to get McDs to change, but the toy industry in general. Once you have more popular gender neutral toys on the market, you will see mini versions in McDs.

    The other option is to drop the licensor model altogether, and go with non licensed toys. Wendy's does this. But the licensed toys are a huge draw so I don't see McDs ever dropping them.

    1. David Perry says:

      Yes, I totally do not blame McDs for operating in a world in which toys are gendered. It's the world we live in. I'm glad they are going to help with the issue of language anyway so that toys can just be toys.

      And thank you, very much, for the comment!

    2. deb says:

      Nevermind. Forget everything I wrote. Ugh. Seriously, I can't imagine the meetings where McD's leaned on the Spiderman franchise to allow this to happen. It certainly wasn't part of the Spiderman movie style guide, or else you would be seeing similar graphics/colors on products in stores. It had to come from the McD's development team and pushed onto the licensor.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I think so, yeah. Often coinciding with things popular at the time, like movie releases (e.g Lego the Movie, Despicable Me 2). Currently it seems to be book tokens, which is nice. (Albeit they're for Enid Blyton books, which are somewhat outdated in terms of gender representations, but eh, can't have everything):

      (As an aside, I remember being outraged that the Argos catalogue dared separate the toy section into 'toys for boys' and 'toys for girls' and the toys I apparently wasn't allowed seemed like all the fun >.< didn't stop me getting a nerf bow, mind.)

  2. Cate says:

    When I was at McD's the other day, they asked "My Little Pony or Skylanders"? and I said one of each. But on the little screen (at the drive-through where they review your order) it popped up "Doll Toy" and "Truck Toy". I guess those are their generic terms? very odd.

  3. Anonymous says:

    If I had the ear of the fast food executives I would suggest offering one traditionally gendered toy and one traditionally gender neutral toy. For example "My Little Pony toy or coloring book?" one cycle then "Hot Wheels or Mad Libs?" the next.

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