PARIS, France - With firefighter kits for girls and baby dolls for boys, toys are breaking out of the gender ghetto this Christmas thanks to retailers willing to brush aside some hard-to-shift stereotypes.
The latest to chip away at the toy apartheid, French supermarket Super-U, has printed a holiday season catalogue showing boys cradling dolls and girls piloting remote-controlled cars, billed as a first for the country.
"This is not activism," said Thierry Desouches, the group's head of external relations. "But it's about keeping up with changes in society, with the shifting roles of men and women," he told AFP.
"It's about breaking down stereotypes -- pink and ironing boards for girls, blue and cars for boys, it's really too narrow."
Retailer La Grande Recre has also brought in a line of gender-neutral DIY kits, kitchens and cleaning trolleys, aimed at boys and girls alike.
Sold in France, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium and Morocco, the toys are packaged in orange, white or purple with no pink or blue in sight.
The line is doing well, says the chain's sales director Franck Mathais, with sales of the toy vacuum cleaner up 40% in a year.
The French moves bring the country into line with a snowballing trend in Britain and the United States.
Last year a four-year-old American girl named Riley Maida shot to prominence for a YouTube video showing her rant against the tyranny of princess gear for girls, and superhero stuff for boys.
The clip, which went viral, summed up the frustration many families feel with what they perceive as forceful gender stereotyping by toy manufacturers.
In Britain, campaigners have claimed a string of victories in the past year or so.
London's Harrods this summer unveiled a vast "gender-neutral" zone organized by theme instead of by sex, and last December the Hamleys toy store removed "boy" and "girl" signposts, replacing them with red and white ones.
Britain's Early Learning Centre, a leading toy retailer, was targeted in 2009 by a grassroots campaign dubbed "Pinkstinks" denouncing stereotyping in toys.
"Back then, the ELC had a double page spread on things people do, fireman, policeman etc, which were all boys except for a girl as an old-fashioned nurse," said Emma Moore, who launched the drive with her sister Abi five years ago.
"The next page was all girls in princess dresses."
Stung into action, the ELC's website now pointedly shows girls playing with construction sets or dressed as firefighters and boys rocking baby dolls.
'It's just so boring, apart from being damaging!'
So how much is really changing?
Haude Constantin-Bienaime runs a day care centre in the Paris suburbs that was the first in the country to adopt a policy on gender discrimination.
"Little children will try anything. It's what we adults offer that influences them. And society is full of gender stereotypes," she told AFP.
"This is one way to tackle stereotyping," she said of the retailers' moves. "But walk into a toy store and there's still a very clear divide between games for boys and ones for girls."
"There is movement but it is fairly superficial," agreed Moore, who feels girls have most to lose from the current state of affairs.
"Boys get adventure, action, science and discovery. What girls get is very often a dumbed down version of that, or go and sit in front of a mirror.
"You still see a glut of toys which are about being pretty," with make-up kits targeting toddlers as young as two. "Little girls are encouraged through play to become obsessed with what they look like."
Pinkstinks uses Twitter and Facebook to name and shame bad practice -- and often gets its own way, like recently when Sainsbury's supermarket removed the "boy" and "girl" tags from a doctor's and beautician's outfits.
It has logged messages of support from all over the world, including every country in South America.
"We were first to verbalize what was actually bothering quite a few people," said Moore. "As a culture, we are obsessed by gender but it didn't used to be like this."
"If you go back 20 or 30 years and look at toy catalogues it's fascinating, you see pages of toys for children -- not for boys and girls."
She, like many campaigners, believes the core driver for splitting the market into his and hers is purely economic: you get to sell twice as much.
"I have no doubt there are differences between boys and girls -- I can see it in my children and my nephews. But there is growing evidence that suggests the differences are fairly minute."
"It's just so boring, apart from being damaging!"
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