London department store, Harrods, appears to have taken the musings of 4-year-old Riley Maida, who railed against toy marketers to stop forcing pink stuff and princesses on little girls, to heart. Last week, the store unveiled a 26,000 square foot gender-neutral toy department called “Toy Kingdom.” Instead of grouping products into boys and girls, it is organized by theme, DeZeen Magazine reports.
Interior architectural firm, Shed, was commissioned to create the “ultimate fantasy land,” according to Retail Week, complete with an enchanted forest, miniature toy world, reading room and candy shop (where kids can, naturally, create their own custom lollipops). Click over to DeZeen to see photos.
But beyond the breathtaking aesthetics, David Miller, director of Harrods Home, told The Telegraph that their overhaul was primarily about changing how toys are bought and sold. "We felt it was a bit of a risk, when that formula traditionally works, to turn around and break the mold," he said.
Lead designer, Matt Smith expanded on that notion. The different zones, called Dreamscapes, “are deliberately non-gender-specific, because we felt that was an antiquated way of looking at toys … I think increasingly kids are playing with an array of different toys and we wanted to give that balance," he told The Telegraph.
Toy Kingdom’s opening comes at a time when gender-neutral marketing is in high demand. Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” has argued for years that “Princess Culture” -– “Disney Princess Band-Aids, Disney Princess paper cups, Disney Princess lip balm…” –- is negatively affecting young girls. The inescapable princess is a “trigger for the bigger question of how, over the years, I can help my daughter with the contradictions she will inevitably face as a girl, the dissonance that is as endemic as ever to growing up female,” Orenstein wrote in 2006.
More recently, parents were outraged when LEGO released “LEGO Friends,” designed specifically for girls. Over 57,000 people signed a petition started by two women to persuade LEGO to commit to gender parity in its marketing. Similarly, U.K. based campaign, Pinkstinks, aims to “challenge and reverse” to growing trends of heavily stereotyping kid products.
Harrods, however, isn't the first retailer to try a new approach. London toy store, Hamsleys, rid their store of pink and blue “boy” and “girl” signs and replaced them with red and white signage last year, and Orenstein commended them for their efforts. “Stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine,” she wrote in the New York Times. Swedish catalogue, Leklust, recently featured a little boy in a Spiderman costume pushing a pink baby doll carriage and a little girl driving a tractor. In the U.S., PrincessFreeZone.com and PigtailPals.com, true to their names, are stores that offer girls alternatives to princess gear.
While the newly opened Toy Kingdom strives to break gender stereotypes, some question how committed Harrods really is to being neutral. According to the Telegraph, male employees of Toy Kingdom wear blue shirts while women who work there wear Pink -- a decision that, David Miller says, was just because they’re “nice colors.” Emma Moore, founder of Pink Stinks, isn’t impressed. She told the news source that Harrods' ploy is “a small step, but it's a step in the right direction. But if retailers do not do this they are missing a trick. There is a growing movement of mums and dads who want toys designed for children –- not girls and boys."
One commenter on Jezebel, Haleyt, is skeptical as well. “Am I the only one who thinks that the 'zones' still seem pretty blatantly gender segregated? I can still very easily tell that there are 'girl areas' (forests! hello kitty!) and 'boy areas' (cars! dark wood panelling!),” she wrote.
If Riley Maida’s parents decide to take their daughter across the pond to visit the Toy Kingdom, they might want to stick to the time-honored Harrods tradition of browsing. The Telegraph reports that a giant dollhouse costs £9,000 –- approximately $14,000.