Why Dolls Are Action Figures And Other Lessons From Toy History

Like the real origin of babies and the color pink.

by Richard Gottlieb
Originally Published: 
A little girl sitting on the floor, holding a baby doll up in the air, while the sun shines upon her...

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Do toys have a negative impact on a girl’s self-esteem? These are the kinds of questions that were asked at the Building Our Future Conferences in New York (in conjunction with Women and Toys) and in Nuremberg (in conjunction with the Spielwarenmesse). The theme for the conference was “Girls and Toys,” and we aggressively questioned generally accepted notions of toys and gender.

Is Pink A Girl’s Color?

The idea for the conference arose from an interchange at a previous year’s meeting. At that occasion, some of our female participants were passionate in their belief that the toys sold to girls were too much about nurturance and as a result failed to challenge females in the way that boy’s toys challenge males. They felt strongly that the toys that girls played with as children limited them as adult women in the courses of study they pursued and the professions they chose. In fact, some felt that this was a major reason that women did not enter the sciences or engineering to the degree that men did.

Did everyone agree? Certainly not. There were others who felt that girls were by nature nurturing creatures and that the toy industry was simply providing them with the toys they wanted.

Do The Toys That Girls Play With As Children Have An Impact On The Choices They Make As Adult Women?

I felt that this subject deserved to be considered in far more depth. As a result, the conferences brought together very small groups (fewer than 25) of thought leaders from inside and outside the toy industry to consider the question: “Do the toys that girls play with as children have an impact on the choices they make as adult women?” It is my hope that by having this conversation, we were able to shed some light on the subject and better understand the toys we make and the girls to whom we sell them.

Because of my newfound interest in the subject of gender and toys, I have, over the last year, kept my eyes and ears open for conversation on the subject. I soon discovered that some of our notions about girls and what they want are not necessarily hardwired.

For example, consider the color pink. I found that pink only became a predominant girl’s color in the 1950s. Prior to that, color choice as to gender was a pretty open question. As Ben Goldacre of the Guardian puts it in his article, “Out Of The Blue And In The Pink,” The Sunday Sentinel in 1914 told American mothers: “… use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” Some sources suggest it wasn’t until the 1940s that the modern gender associations of girly pink became universally accepted. Pink is, therefore, perhaps not biologically girly. Boys who were raised in pink frilly dresses fought in the Second World War.

Another discovery was that perhaps fashion dolls weren’t dolls at all but the first action figures. Maybe GI Joe and his cohorts are (gasp) descended from Barbie and hers.

How might fashion dolls be action figures? Think about it; action figures give boys a way to act out being an adult. They come with special clothes and accessories that allow the boy to safely act out serious adult themes of violence and even death.

Fashion dolls in a similar way give girls a way to act out being an adult as well. Instead of dealing with issues of death and destruction, they come with accessories that allow the girl to act out similarly serious adult themes of socialization and sexuality.

All of this raises the question: Are we marketing toys that are too much about nurturance, sexuality and body consciousness? In short, does the toy industry fail girls? The U.K.-based “Pink Stinks” movement thinks so. They are against what they see as a pervasive “pink culture” they find in toys, clothes and media. This, they believe, teaches girls to be to be passive and overly sexualized. In short, there are too many fairy princess castles and not enough rocket ships.

Some, maybe you, may think: “What is the big deal? Toys are trivial pieces of plastic that end up taking much too long to decay in landfills. They are part of the ephemera of life that have little or no meaning.”

Others, myself included, feel that toys are extremely important. Ask any adult what their favorite toy was and their face will light up as they bring back the memory. Ask them what they do for a living and don’t be surprised if you find a connection between their employment and their youthful play.

As inventor Bruce Lund wrote in a Global Toy News blog posting entitled “Don’t take the toys away”: “Frank Lloyd Wright’s toy blocks inspired him to become an architect…The Wright Brothers credit a toy airplane they received as a birthday gift as inspiring their fascination with flight…”

Bottom line is, I don’t know whether toys have an impact on women’s choices, but I do believe strongly that we need to discuss it. And when we do, I am not so sure the answers are going to be so simple. They will, however, be very interesting.

Richard is the CEO of Global Toy Experts, a global consultancy and resource for knowledge and guidance for competing in the 21st century play and children’s media businesses. He is also the publisher of Global Toy News, the industry resource for toy news, toy trends and analysis of the business of play.

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