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Having trouble dodging the princess aisle this Christmas? Despite some gains, toys seem more stereotypically gendered than ever before.

In fact they are more segregated than they were in the 1970s, ostensibly a far more sexist era, says Elizabeth Sweet, a postdoctoral scholar and sociology lecturer at the University of California, Davis, who studies toy advertisements. Sweet argues that while ads from the 1920s to 1960s had reflected a highly gendered world – kitchenware sets for girls inching them toward domesticity and mechanical toys for boys pushing industrial work – things came refreshingly loose in the 1970s. Scanning a 1975 Sears catalogue, Sweet discovered that just 2 per cent of the ads were marketed specifically toward boys or girls. The vast majority were gender-neutral and, in some cases, reversed traditional roles: a boy rifling through a miniature fridge, a girl beaming over her carpenter’s set.

That progressive stance faded in the 1980s as G.I. Joe and My Little Pony stomped in. So what happened, and how can we get back to a less pink-and-blue world this holiday season? Sweet spoke by phone with The Globe.

What happened in the 1970s? How did we get Little Johnny playing in the kitchen?

There was a lot of demographic change in the labour force and in the home and family. Women were entering the labour force in much greater numbers, including married women and women with children. After the Baby Boom, marriage rates and fertility declined. The family starts to change form. Along with that we have huge social movements happening: the second-wave feminist movement, the civil-rights movement and the gay movement. Ms. Magazine ran essays about gender neutrality with toys in the 1970s. Then came the record, book and TV program Free to Be … You and Me and the song “William Wants a Doll.” They were really challenging essential gender difference and the idea that boys and girls can’t do the same kinds of things.

In that context it would have been very risky to blatantly play upon gender stereotypes and sexism to sell toys. I saw a real change that happened in the advertisements. In 1972, you get the first ad that shows a boy playing with kitchen toys. There were no boys anywhere near the kitchen in the 1940s, so for boys to be portrayed doing domestic tasks, that really was a new thing.

There was an image of a girl carpenter in the 1975 Sears catalogue and a girl building a skyscraper. Today, when girls are sold building toys, they tend to be these very feminized themes. By 1995, they have Mega Bloks sets in the catalogues and you see boys with viking-ship sets in primary colours and little girls with a “fantasy shopping avenue” that’s all pastel and pink.

How did we move backward?

It’s an economic story. The toy industry is trying to sell more product in the growing global consumer economy and puts greater focus on marketing and segmenting the market. You see a greater gender segmentation of the market; that technique becomes more prevalent through the 1980s. Today, if you look at the annual report of toy companies, they report their categories as “boys” and “girls.” You can only sell each family one Monopoly game, right? Unless you make different versions so that each family might need two or three Monopoly games.

Increasingly there’s also this tie-in with media. In 1984 in the United States, regulations which had previously prevented toy companies from creating television programs for children as a mechanism to advertise their products, those regulations were dismantled. The next year, the top 10 toys had TV shows to go along with them. The TV shows were very much created along gender lines: Transformers versus My Little Pony.

You’ve said the “little homemaker” of the 1950s has become the “little princess” of today.

I find that the little homemaker role practically disappears from girls' toys after the 1960s while the princess role so common today was largely absent prior to the 1990s.

Did your experiences with your own daughter get you interested in the topic?

First were my own recollections of being a child of the 1970s and the kinds of toys I played with growing up in New Mexico. I had an older brother and an older sister and parents who were pretty committed to feminism and gender equality. They didn’t limit our toys, with the exception that we weren’t allowed to play with toy guns. I had Lego and I loved Star Wars, I had the action figures. I had a lot of trucks but I certainly also had Barbie. I used to put Barbie and the Lone Ranger in this T-Top Blazer toy car and they’d be four-wheeling. Barbie would drive.

I had this sense based on my own experience that there had been a real change in the kinds of toys available to my daughter. She’s never been interested in the pink and the princessy and always gravitated toward toys in the boy aisle. When she was little she preferred Thomas the Tank Engine. As she got to preschool it got to be a challenge. Her peers were telling her, “That’s not for you, that’s for boys.”

People say this is an issue of parents just choosing more broadly and helping their kids understand what’s going on. I’d say that’s not enough. Peer-sanctioning is huge. Even if kids understand that these gender distinctions are arbitrary they also know that the pain of going to school and being teased is intense. It takes a lot of courage for kids to go against that. It’s a lot to ask kids to have to do that.

People say, “I played with Barbie and I turned out fine.” What do you say to them?

Lots of people think that this doesn’t matter. But the deep reliance on rigid gender categories from birth onward, we haven’t yet come to the point where we see the ramifications of that. But we do know from a wealth of research that gender stereotypes are at the core of processes of social inequality, like occupational segregation among adults by gender.

Another argument I hear is this fear that gender neutrality would mean that everything would have to be exactly the same and there could be no colour and no princesses and no superheroes. That’s false.

So what’s the fix?

The fix really is to decouple gender from toys and from colours. Pink has no genitals. This distinction with pink being feminine is arbitrary and recent; it only really took hold in the second part of the 20th century.

To decouple toys and gender would really allow kids to explore their interests. Ultimately that is a solution based on the social understanding that reinforcing gender stereotypes for children can have real consequences. Young kids respond to gender stereotypes because they’re forming gender identities. These simplifying cognitive mechanisms – “girls are pink” – they’re appealing. That’s why toy companies do it. Ultimately the solution is to look beyond toy-company profit and think about the social good and what’s important for kids.

There is a growing call for something different. There’s increasing frustration on the part of many parents as evident in activist campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys in Britain and Play Unlimited in Australia. They’ve been pressuring retailers to stop relying on gender to market products and they’ve had some success.

Why should we care about toys? Because kids are being sent the message that boys and girls are fundamentally a different species.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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