The gender divide has less to do with nature, and more to do with media images of girly dolls and macho trucks, according to a new study.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated January 25, 2018
Child with yellow toy train
Credit: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

When my daughter was around 4 or 5, she had a best friend who lived down the hall. This little boy would come over almost every afternoon, and the two of them would play with stuffed animals, paints, Legos, and dress-up costumes, taking turns being Jasmine and Aladdin. Then one day, the little boy announced, “I can’t play with you anymore. You’re a girl.”

Ugh, heartbreak!

Is it just natural that at a certain age, boys gravitate toward playing with other boys, crashing their monster trucks into each other and pretending to be Storm Troopers, while girls are drawn to tea parties with pink, fluffy animals and baby dolls? Or are they simply following a script fed to them by stereotyped images in magazines and commercials? And does that lead to the inevitable breakup of boy-girl friendships, and even worse, bullying?

It’s an intriguing question, and researchers in England are trying to find the answer. In a study published this month in the journal Sex Roles, researchersat the University of Kent showed 96 boys and girls between ages 4 and 7 a magazine with photos of children playing their favorite toy. In one group, the kids were shown pictures of a girl playing with My Little Pony, and a boy playing with a toy car. For a second group, the toy/gender matches were swapped, with the girl vroom-vrooming with her favorite cars and the boy getting cuddly with the plastic pony.

The children were then given a set of toys and asked who they thought should play with each one. They were also asked which child from the magazine photos they’d like to hand out with, and if they would let other boys or girls to join them.

It turns out that after looking at the pix of a girls playing with a “boy” toy and a boy playing with a “girl” toy, the kids were much more open-minded about who could hang out in their friend squad and who could play with each toy. Kids who were shown the stereotypical photos of kids playing with gender-specific toys stuck to the “no boys (or girls) allowed!” script.

Taking this a step further, the authors of the study said that encouraging a more fluid sense of which toys are meant for which gender could bring more peace and harmony to the playground by combatting gender-related bullying.

Magazine photo editors and TV-commercial directors, are you listening?