Playful Diversity: New emojis and inclusive toys

Gender and other stereotypes are formed during childhood. Therefore, toys and emojis that promoted traditional roles or assumptions have been criticised for long. Now, several new developments occur.

It appears like a publicity gig when Apple announces their new emojis to be launched this autumn. Female mechanics, single parents, a rainbow flag and a water pistol instead of the previous revolver. Users will continue to be able to choose the skin tone of emojis. Apple celebrates its commitment to Diversity. However, the providers of operating systems (Apple for iOS or Google for Android) are not in charge of implementing emojis, it’s the Unicode Consortium, but they can influence the development. From a diversity perspective, the new emoji design will correct errors from the past – actually a quite recent past when inappropriate messages should not have occurred in the first place: Emojis were introduced in Unicode in 2010.

Companies implement what the local market wants

Some stereotypical offers for much younger children are actually much older: Toys have been existing literally since ages. From the medieval era, dolls for girls and knight figures for boys are known, which reflect the pronounced gender roles of those times. Toy manufacturers and retailers have been under attack over recent years for continuing or promoting that segregation. Where and when critique was loud enough, it led to changes. In Sweden, for instance, the retailer Top Toys – which belongs to Toys’R’us – introduced a gender neutral catalogue in 2012, following massive customer feedback. Their competitor BR Toys did the same. Changes in their shops followed. The statements of company representatives showed that adaptation was a response to local client preferences. Hence, it would not have happened based on their commitment or mission, neither would it lead to similar moves in other countries.

Playmobil with a disability: ToyLikeMe

Toy giant Playmobil made a big step towards inclusion in 2015. Since Mattel’s wheelchair user Becky and sign language Barbie had disappeared in the late 1990s, disability was almost non-existing in the mainstream toy market. Last year, Playmobil presented a number of figures with a disability, including wheelchair users or figures with a guide dog / seeing-eye dog. They also promoted the campaign #ToyLikeMe, which requests the inclusion of disabilities in the world of toys. In the UK, Playmobil increased the credibility of the new products by donating part of the revenues to selected initiatives from the field. Other toy makers also introduced accessories that relate to a disability, including hearing aids, and started to ensure some figures would wear glasses. Another toy giant, Lego, introduced their first wheelchair user in 2016.

Multi-ethnic toys

A Berlin-based start-up follows the ambition to offer ‘Diversity Toys’. With currently some 150 products, including 60 dolls, the online retailer aims at providing ‘diverse and empowering toys and books’. The portfolio shows, at first sight, that the focus clearly lies on skin colour and ethnicity. In this area, however, the diversity appears between individual dolls or sets, which are either white or of colour. Prevalent multi-racial families do not exist. Also regarding gender, the portfolio appears quite stereotypical. Sticker books with princesses for girls, and with football/soccer for boys – at least with multi-ethnic representation. In an ordinary mainstream shop, this diversity might be considered advanced, but in a diversity shop, the deficits actually causes disappointment. But then, we should realise that this evaluation reveals bias within diversity.