Michigan legislators want fast-food companies to stop offering gendered toys with kids’ meals. On Wednesday, Michigan House Democrat Leslie Love and 14 Democratic colleagues introduced House Resolution No. 429, which is meant to “urge food establishments and franchisees in Michigan to stop gender classification of toys offered in its kids’ meals.” But while the non-binding resolution shows a good faith effort to combat gender stereotyping in kids’ products, it will have exactly zero impact. Nada. Zilch. None. Because the fact is that businesses are staffed by workers who often have their own ideas about gender, and the only way to overcome that barrier is to change the toys themselves.
The resolution that has been referred to the Michigan House Committee on Commerce and Trade would be essentially worthless if it were not for the fact that it does contain some excellent information. Not only do the resolution authors point out that gender identification begins as early as age two, it leans on Monmouth University Gender Development Laboratory research to address the potential harms of gendered toys.
“As the child grows older and develops, his or her play activities change based on societal connection to their gender,” the resolution reads. It’s that science that leads the authors to suggest that gendered toys are bad for play. “This practice can influence and limit children’s imaginations and interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls and others only for boys.”
That’s all incredibly valid, and it’s good to know this information is now part of the state’s public record, but that’s where the resolution’s merit ends. Because the fact is that many corporations are already discouraging gender stereotyping. It’s just that those policies aren’t being communicated well to employees or actively enforced. The problem isn’t actually institutional in a strict sense. McDonald’s doesn’t have backwards corporate policies about gendered toy distribution. The company and its franchisees simply don’t allocate enough time and resource to train poorly paid hourly workers.
This isn’t really an issue about gender. It’s an issue of large companies failing to invest meaningfully in their workers.
Earlier this year, a McDonald’s customer-service representative explained to me that their happy meal toy policy was to describe the toy itself and leave gender out of it. This has never happened at my local McDonalds. I’m only ever asked if the toy is for a girl or a boy. And apparently, the same problem exists in Michigan. After all, as the resolution points out: “While some food establishments claim to have abandoned this practice, many stores in Michigan continue to offer gender-classified options to customers.”
If a busy minimum wage worker is presented with offering two toy options, they will look for the easiest way to differentiate between them. Consider a recent example when the options were a pink Shopkins stove and a purple gun-toting transformer robot. It’s human nature to default to easy stereotypical classifications. The context is clear that one of those toys is for girls and the other for boys. Why else would there be two options?
A strongly worded and non-binding resolution is not going to fix centuries of human gender programming. So, then, what would work? Offering one toy that is either educational or creative. Last February, for instance, I was pleasantly surprised when I was not asked the gender of my children in the drive-through. That’s because the toy was a Make Your Own Valentine kit in partnership with American Greetings. The bonus? My two boys loved it.
This is the way forward. In order to do an end-run around the natural human inclination to default to stereotypes, fast-food companies need to stop giving toy options. It is possible that legislation could force fast food’s hand. Lawmakers could, for instance, demand educational standards for kids’ meal toys the same way they demand nutritional labeling. But Michigan House Resolution No. 429 is not that legislation. And much like the gendered toys it seeks to change, it will be forgotten in the blink of an eye.