My Sons' Easy-Bake Oven Shame

Why, as traditional gender roles are starting to fade, is the Easy-Bake Oven more girly than ever?

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For three weeks I’ve been barraged with requests from my sons for one single toy. And for the first time in years, the toy is not Lego-related.

The toy they’re lusting over has been causing a bit of inner turmoil within my boys, too. Because although they really want it, they seem to sense that there is something wrong with wanting it.

Ladies and gentlemen, my sons are obsessed with the Easy-Bake Oven.

It makes perfect sense, actually. First, these boys have taken after their mother in their unrelenting obsession with sweets. As much as we try to be a hippie-granola family, we’re all a bit enamored of dessert. Second, they love projects. They love to help us cook, organize, and work in the garden. Basically, they’re totally normal kids. And for kids, the only thing better than helping with projects is to feel like they have complete autonomy in doing something that heretofore they’d always been dependent upon a parent for.

Because we wanted them to save up to buy it, it took a few weeks before we were finally able to purchase said appliance. During that time, there were many discussions among them about whether it would be a good purchase. They both wanted it, but… well… they  also kept hearing that the Easy-Bake was for girls.

Izac got into the car after school one day and said, “Mom, I don’t know about the Easy-Bake. Justin says it’s for girls.”

“Do you think it’s for girls?” I asked.

“Well, it’s purple,” he said.

“So?”

“And it has flowers on the outside, too. And girls on the box. And girls in the commercial.”

“Yeah, that does make it seem like it’s for girls… But really, who cares? You want it, it makes you treats. That’s cool.”

They thought about that for a while. I decided to explain to them about marketing -- that companies decide who might want to buy what they’re selling and they design it and make commercials to appeal to that group. For instance, Lego makes Ninjago very boy-ish so they can sell it to boys with lots of dark colors and dragons and tons of weapons. The commercials for the Ninjago line of building sets feature boys exclusively.

“Do you guys think Ninjago is only for boys? Or can girls play it?”

Izac’s eyes lit up. “My friend Bebe loves Ninjago.”

“So see? Even though Ninjago is marketed at boys, it’s super cool that Bebe likes it, right? Well, I think it’s super cool that you guys like the Easy-Bake.”

They thought about that for a while, but the more I sat on it, the more it bothered me. Thing is, even though Ninjago is mainly aimed at boys, they do have a few strong female characters. On top of that, Lego makes a lot of gender-neutral sets and recently launched Lego Friends featuring girl dolls in very girlie scenarios. But the Lego Friends thing didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Many concerned parents asked why the Lego Friends figurines were different than regular Lego minifigures and why the Friends’ initial play sets were so vapid. The girls had a cafe and a hair salon and a boutique. Regular Lego sets contain everything from homes to trucks to ships to science labs to dinosaurs.

Since then, Lego has added some cool stuff to Lego Friends -- among other things a camper, a veterinarian’s office, and an invention lab complete with a robot and beakers. Lego had heard the parental outcry and they responded. And while the girlie figurines still look nothing like traditional minifigures, they are far enough away from Bratz dolls that most parents think they’re fine.

So, given our awareness of how gendered toys can affect our kids, what’s up with the Easy Bake Oven? When I had an Easy Bake, it looked like this:

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This is what it looks like now:

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That’s a pretty dramatic difference. It’s almost as if Hasbro is saying, Hey boys, just in case you thought the home might be a great place for you to feel comfortable working, we want to make it clear that you simply don’t belong here.

Since its launch in the 1960s, Easy-Bake has undergone 11 major revamps. As Salon.com’s Sara Breselor explains in a 2011 article called "Hot Young Thing: Why We Love the Easy-Bake Oven," gender has always been a huge issue when it came to Easy-Bake culture:

Despite such basic toy appeal, the ovens were almost always marketed as a girl’s toy with what Peril calls “hideous gender stereotypes” in the ads (cooking + baking = femininity). Hogan notes that there were early attempts to make the original Easy-Bake Oven more boy-friendly by toning down the aspects that looked like traditional cooking. “Even back in the ’60s, they made an add-on popcorn popper,” Hogan says. “I think the intention was to make the toy more acceptable, probably not just to boys but to their parents too. You’ve got to remember that back in the ’60s gender roles were more rigid than they are today.” But in 2002, Hasbro released a boy-targeted oven lamely called the “Queasy Bake Cookerator” with mixes for “mud n’ crud cake” and “dip n’ drool dog bones.” Even in the age of the foodie, we are still going to great lengths to convince boys that cooking doesn’t make you girly.

And while my boys may have chosen the Queasy Bake had they been side-by-side at Target, where we found the Easy-Bake on sale yesterday, I can tell you that the Queasy Bake wouldn’t really be what they wanted. They make great mud n’ crud cakes outside, in the actual mud n’ crud. If they’re going to bake, they want to make yummy-looking realistic cakes and cookies. With sprinkles.

And that’s nothing new. Boys have wanted in on the Easy-Bake fun for decades, but most of the time were too embarrassed or gender-shamed to partake. An article on KomoNews.com tells the story so many of us girls who grew up with brothers relate to:

Jenn Romig, 31, of Denver, got an Easy-Bake for Christmas in the 1980s and loved it. Her favorite was the heart-shaped pan, which she used to make little cakes that she served to her two brothers.

“I think they wanted to” use the oven themselves, she said, “but it seemed girly. So they just would eat whatever I made.”

Yes, my own Dungeons & Dragons-playing brother looked longingly at my Easy-Bake oven, but to my recollection never so much as touched it. Even in our hippie feminist household.

I think we can all agree that gender roles have softened considerably since the 1960s, and even since the 1980s. So what’s with the current design? If you look through retrospective photos of the Easy-Bake Oven, the current one is about as girly as they’ve come, with the exception of one front-load model about a decade ago that looked like it was straight out of Barbie’s Dream Mansion.

It’s 2012. Women are moving into the workplace faster than ever before, and more and more dads are finding great joy as primary caregivers to their children. In a time when we’re up in arms about Lego Friends’ girls being preoccupied with beauty, why aren’t we up in arms over the exclusion of boys from an entire toy phenomenon?

As we walked out of Target yesterday, giant purple box featuring the airbrushed faces of 3 caucasian tween girls in our our youngest son’s arms, our 7 year-old told his little brother, “Just because it’s purple doesn’t make it a girl’s toy.”

His brother said, “I know!”

Ivan and I looked at one another. We were prepared for this, after all, we are among those 21st Century urbanite parents who have always been committed to accepting our kids’ gender expression and sexuality as it comes. But as I’ve written before, we somehow ended up with boys who like the most hyper-masculine stuff, so this is the first time we’ve butted up against the, “You must be a girl!” type of bullying that still happens on playgrounds.

Finally I told them, “Guys, I think it’s cool we bought the Easy-Bake oven, but if you want to say your mom bought it, you can.”

My husband interrupted, “Or you can say your dad bought it. I love it. I can’t wait to use it.”

“Nah,” our oldest said, “I think the Easy-Bake is for boys and girls. I just think the people who made it don’t know that yet.”

He’s right, Hasbro… You’re a little behind.

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Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?

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