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Why the Loss of Toys R Us Would Be a Loss for Feminism

With Toys R Us’ recent bankruptcy filing, store closures are expected post-holiday season.  This will not only be a blow to the toy industry; it could negatively impact our cultural, feminist progress as well.

I know.  That sounds extreme and overstuffed, one writer taking simple store closures way too far.  But let’s look at facts.  Toys R Us has 1,600 stores.  That’s 1,600 stores devoted to selling toys as their primary product.  To put that into perspective, Target, who sells toys on a fraction of their overall floor space, has 1,828 stores, roughly equivalent to the number of Toys R Us locations out there (though more Targets are located within the U.S.).  Disney pales in comparison, with its 387 stores that, of course, sell strictly Disney properties.

This is because, like it or not, Toys R Us has spent years eliminating or absorbing its competition.  The once-diverse toy store market populated by Kay Bee Toys, FAO Schwarz, Children’s Palace, and others has been reduced to one: Toys R Us.  As a result, the company has created and maintained strong relationships with major toy makers like Hasbro and Mattel, who have, in turn, kept Toys R Us afloat as they sailed through previous choppy seas, never letting the company cave to discount juggernauts like Amazon and Walmart.  For these reasons, Toys R Us has been labeled a “Category Killer,” a name reserved for businesses that dominate a sector.

This is all to say: erase Toys R Us from the economic landscape, and you open up a lot of holes that will take time to fill.  If you’re now at a place where you can accept Toys R Us as a generally important cultural fixture, let’s now shift to zero in on how Toys R Us can operate as a feminist space, too.

Given their strong histories with toy giants, Toys R Us stores are literally mapped by toy store cartographers at Hasbro and Mattel.  End caps and aisles are the result of these companies working with Toys R Us to feature products in a way that best supports sales.  With both Hasbro and Mattel gently stepping into the waters of de-gendering toys, these layouts start to matter.

For example, it is important that Hasbro work with Toys R Us to get end cap displays for their Star Wars: Forces of Destiny doll line in the “boys” section (which they currently have).  It is also important that Mattel blend their DC Superhero Girls action figures and dolls into displays for DC’s recent Wonder Woman film.  This sort of blending allows boys to see other boys buying dolls.  It allows girls to see other girls buying action figures.  And, perhaps most importantly, it provides a store, not just an aisle, where parents can see other parents buy their children toys that may have been traditionally labeled as incongruous with certain genders.

To offer a deeper, anecdotal personal example: I was recently in a toy store to buy a DC Superhero Girls Supergirl doll.  It just so happened that a father was standing near me, in the “boys” section, with his young son.  His young son wanted the Wonder Woman doll from the same line.  I heard the father say, “No, you can’t have that.  That’s for girls.”  At that point, I, someone who looks masculine most of the time, picked up my Supergirl doll and started to read the back of the box.  I held onto it, clearly intending to buy.  The father looked over at me.  I then walked off.  Later, I saw the father and son duo at the register.  They were buying the Wonder Woman.  I’m not saying my buying choice made this father permit his son to have a Wonder Woman doll, but I do think he noticed, and that may have been factored into his understanding of his son’s toy desires.

I visit NYC-area Toys R Us stores once or twice a week.  That includes the Times Square pop-up, the Herald Square Express, the Queens stores, and others.  Whenever I’m in a different city, I always try to stop at their local store, too.  Each one is packed with families there for one reason: toy shopping.  From this research (yeah, let’s call it “research”), I’ve seen my experience replicated in Toys R Us stores across the country.

This type of dialogue is much harder to have at a Target, where many adults go for toiletries and new pants, and their children’s toys are the afterthought.  I praise Target for removing gender labels from their toy aisles, but it still can’t change the fact that those stores’ main profit is not made by toys alone.  In a space devoted solely to toys, intent is clear: parent and child are there to pick out a toy.  They are there to pick out a toy out of rows of other toys, toys that have just now begun to gender-mix, thanks to the decisions of toy giants, and the influence of the indie toy world.

Toys R Us is our last common area where the feminist texts that are toys like DC Superhero Girls and Star Wars: Forces of Destiny can be read and discussed by all ages, audiences, and genders in a toy-only environment.  It is a singular environment that, largely thanks to its own business success, has no one else in its league.  Remove this place, these 1,600 stores, from the equation, and all that’s left is the click-what-you-want-and-go Amazon, and the discount megastores like Walmart and Target, where toy buying is often the distraction from getting the “real” products like food and clothing.  Sure, other places sell toys, but no other place is a Toys R Us, an exclusive home to toys and the conversations surrounding them.

Of course, no one is saying that all 1,600 Toys R Us stores will close.  Not yet, anyway.  However, recognition of the impact of their absence should help us treasure their presence all the more.

Jonathan Alexandratos writes plays and essays about action figures and grief.  His Twitter account is open 24/7 @jalexan.

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Jonathan Alexandratos

Jonathan Alexandratos is a New York City-based playwright and essayist. His most recent play, We See What Happen, was created with Nashville Repertory Theatre, and is the immigration story of Jonathan's grandmother, as told by superhero action figures. Jonathan's book of academic essays on action figures, Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages, is due out in May from McFarland.

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