Why does McDonald’s still label toys based on gender?

A Calgary mom started up a petition asking McDonald's to abandon the gendered marketing of their Happy Meals toys.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

When we pulled up to McDonald’s one afternoon, the line at the drive-through was so long, I decided to take the kids inside. When it was finally our turn, we ordered two Happy Meals. The cashier looked at my kids and asked, “One boy toy and one girl toy?” But because of all the driving we’ve done this summer—with frequent Mickey D’s stops—my daughter looked directly at the cashier and replied, “No, the boy toy is way more fun.” (The mirror she had received from her last Happy Meal was “very boring,” she informed me—and it was.)

The cashier asked if she was sure and wasted her breath trying to sell the Hello Kitty figurine, but my daughter would have none of it. So off we went, with two identical “boy toys” that they could use to stage mock battles with each other in the back seat for the rest of the car ride home (my headache notwithstanding).

The decision to separate Happy Meal toys based on gender is something that has always rubbed me the wrong way. So I was thrilled when Calgary mom Jennifer Larson started up a Change.org petition that asks McDonald’s to abandon the gendered marketing of its Happy Meal toys. When she took her two-year-old son to McDonald’s recently, he asked for the pink toy and the receipt read “One Happy Meal Toy Girl.” Larson wrote:

“What’s a girl toy? Boy toy? My son should have the freedom to choose whichever toy he wants to play with, regardless of colour or type. Such basic values of tolerance and acceptance should be encouraged for our children.”

The petition is addressed to John E. Betts, president and CEO of McDonald’s Canada, as well as two senior VPs in charge of marketing and corporate social responsibility. The American arm of Mickey D’s abandoned this practice in 2008, after 11-year-old Antonia Ayres-Brown wrote numerous letters to the company about the issue. They initially dismissed her concerns until a later study found that staff actively labelled the toys as “boy” and “girl” toys. Chief diversity officer Patricia Harris eventually responded to Ayres-Brown:

“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 re-examined our internal guidelines, communications and practices and are making improvements to better ensure that our toys are distributed consistent with our policy.”

Personally, I would prefer an even more radical approach that eliminates the concept of two toys appealing to each gender. McDonald’s didn’t start separating the toys by gender until the ’90s. Perhaps the company can go backwards in time and start offering one general toy instead of making the toys blatantly pink or blue. But, hey, baby steps.

In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter how McDonald’s labels its toys? I think so. Every time gender division is reinforced, it sends messages about the potential and limitations of our boys and girls. And every time a company chooses to change its policies, it sends a message to other companies that they can do better, too.

Will you sign the petition?

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of which are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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