Before Reagan's FCC deregulated kids' TV and allowed toy-makers to produce 22-minute commercials disguised as cartoons, there had been major strides in de-gendering toys, grouping them by interest, rather than by constraining who was "supposed" to play with them.
Elizabeth Sweet, a postdoc at UC Davis, rounds up the research on how toys are marketed and presented as being exclusively for one gender or another (the Disney Store website only has "For boys" and "For girls" sections, with no toys presented as unisex at all). She traces the regressive trend to excluding children from toys based on gender to the deregulation of the 1980s.
It's an interesting codicil to Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, which argues that most progressive, humane, and humanitarian rules arose in the post-war period, when the capital of the world's wealthiest had been eroded by two great wars, depriving the rich establishment of the power to exclusively rule government. Piketty argues that this changed around 1980, when capital accumulation meant that the rich were once again in the driver's seat, able to elect (or impose) political rulers who were friendly to their interests (Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, Pinochet), and that this set in motion an accelerating feedback loop through which policies that upheld the establishment and its practices became the norm.
Although gender inequality in the adult world continued to diminish between the 1970s and 1990s, the de-gendering trend in toys was short-lived. In 1984, the deregulation of children’s television programming suddenly freed toy companies to create program-length advertisements for their products, and gender became an increasingly important differentiator of these shows and the toys advertised alongside them. During the 1980s, gender-neutral advertising receded, and by 1995, gendered toys made up roughly half of the Sears catalog’s offerings—the same proportion as during the interwar years.
However, late-century marketing relied less on explicit sexism and more on implicit gender cues, such as color, and new fantasy-based gender roles like the beautiful princess or the muscle-bound action hero. These roles were still built upon regressive gender stereotypes—they portrayed a powerful, skill-oriented masculinity and a passive, relational femininity—that were obscured with bright new packaging. In essence, the "little homemaker" of the 1950s had become the "little princess" we see today.
It doesn’t have to be this way. While gender is what’s traditionally used to sort target markets, the toy industry (which is largely run by men) could categorize its customers in a number of other ways—in terms of age and interest, for example. (This could arguably broaden the consumer base.) However, the reliance on gender categorization comes from the top: I found no evidence that the trends of the past 40 years are the result of consumer demand. That said, the late-20th-century increase in the percentage of Americans who believe in gender differences suggests that the public wasn’t exactly rejecting gendered toys, either.
Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago [Elizabeth Sweet/The Atlantic]