McKenna Pope – The activist who voices that gender equality should start from toys.
McKenna Pope is the usual teen-aged American girl from Garfield, New Jersey, with an acumen for singing and acting. This was until a chance incident transformed her into an activist and a voice for gender equality.
Pope, shot to fame during 2012-13, at a young age of 13-14 years, and is already a celebrated and respected activist, with a YouTube channel to her credit and a prestigious TED Talk. She started by speaking out about the need for gender-neutral toys so as to break gender stereotypes and now talks about a variety of issues related to adolescence. She believes that to truly bring in gender equality, it is imperative to change mindsets that have typical gender stereotypes ingrained in them. Moreover, she stresses that this should begin with children as they are highly impressionable and that this may be effectively achieved to a large extent, by making products that are gender neutral as far as possible, allowing children to make their own choices instead of giving them pre-conceived notions about what they should choose.
The Push – What propelled her in this direction
It was a small incident at a home that got Pope thinking about these issues. In 2012, when her brother was four years old, he developed an interest in cooking. He really wanted to ask for an Easy-Bake Oven as his Christmas present. He was, however, at an age, where boys like to ‘bond’ with other boys and aggressively shun all things ‘girly’. He watched the television advertisements for the oven and these had girls playing with the toy. Even the pictures on the cover of the toy showed girls, and the colors the oven and its accessories came in, pink and purple, were, in his mind, ‘girly’ colors. All this made him confused about really wanting the oven, even wondering why he was liking a toy for girls! Added to that was his impression that it was women’s job to cook and so he, being a boy, should not like cooking or baking.
This is what got Pope thinking. She now noticed the product, the Easy-Bake Oven by Hasbro, its colors and pictures more keenly and realized the message they would convey to a child. The oven was clearly marketed as a plaything for girls.
The Petition – The action that got things moving
Moved by this incident, she felt the need to change things. She first thought about what changes she wanted and decided that she wanted the packaging and marketing of Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven to be such that it was equally attractive to boys. She wanted the cover pictures and advertisements to include boys and product colors to be different. Next question was, what could she do about it? Very smartly, she used the internet as her resource. She posted a petition and a video, expressing her angst and requesting for a change. She hoped for this to somehow reach the CEO of Hasbro to make her voice heard. Read through her petition here
What happened was much bigger than what she had hoped for – As many as 45000 other people signed her petition, backing her and making her voice (and her own confidence!) several times stronger!! Even celebrity chefs such as Bobby Flay, Manuel Trevino and Jose Andreas also supported the campaign. So much so, that she was actually invited to the headquarters of Hasbro at Pawtucket, Rhode Island–They had made changes to the product design and packaging, and wanted her to see them first.
They decided on a black and silver oven, usable by both, boys and girls. They also developed a marketing strategy addressing both genders. The campaign was covered in top outlets including CNN, The Associated Press, MSNBC, Good Morning America, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.
The Purpose – The cause she is working towards
Toys as tools to break stereotypes and achieve gender equality!
By now she had achieved success at one change that she wanted, and realized that a lot of people agreed with her. This was thus, just a beginning. She noticed the same problem with a lot of other playthings and made this her agenda. She wanted toy manufacturers to move away from this “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” mentality. She began speaking and petitioning widely about this issue.
- On the one hand, she highlighted problems with having gender-specific toys, especially when they may not be required to be specific –
- They create and reinforce the mentality that girls and boys are supposed to like different kinds of things and engage in different kinds of activities.
- Unknowingly, parents participate in this by buying such toys, due to lack of enough choice and even sensitivity about this issue.
- At this early age, the stereotypes take deep root and stay on till adulthood, contributing to an unequal society.
- Their cognition and learning also get hampered and they may not be able to realize their potential due to lack of exposure or opportunity.
- On the other hand, she highlighted the advantages of gender-neutral toys –
- One obvious point is that they prevent stereotypes from developing, making children and hence society when they grow up, more broad-minded, empathetic, sensitive and equal.
- More importantly, in an already divided and unequal society, where it is very difficult to change culture and mind-sets, toys can become an effective and interesting tool for transformation!
- Getting children to engage with the right kind of toys would be a helpful learning aid as well. Adults, and hence children, felt that boys can learn some kinds of things that girls cannot and vice versa. For example, boys should not learn cooking or knitting. STEM (focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) did not include creative and artistic components. Unfortunately, they used to be designed such that they appealed more to boys, depriving girls of the opportunity to learn these concepts through interesting ways. Now. STEAM toys are being designed, that includes the ‘Art’ component as well. Through Pope’s efforts, manufacturers and parents are more sensitized towards such toys being applicable for all.
- Allowing free-play and gender-neutrality also creates a wonderful platform for boys and girls to engage in activities together, leading to a better understanding of each other.
The Persona – Watch her TED Talk to experience her mettle
This is where her TED Talk is available. It is a must-watch and a treat, to listen to the young, energetic and ambitious girl, explaining passionately about her thoughts and the change she wants to see in society. She talks about sensitivity, breaking stereotypes, gender-neutrality and how a simple idea of changing packaging and marketing of toys can help achieve this. This will be especially an inspiring talk for youth to watch, and definitely a constructive way to spend their time on the internet. Her energy and eloquence can motivate many.
The Pioneering Leader – Inspiring teens, especially girls
First, she did not accept things as they are and questioned them. She put in enough mature thought, at her young age, to figure out what change she wanted and why.
Second, having identified some problems with how things are, she did not just sit and crib about it. Rather, she was moved enough to actually try and do something about it. In the process, we learn that there were a lot of people who agree with her but needed someone to initiate and lead the way. This shows her leadership quality, making her an inspiration, especially for youth and girls. This made activists especially happy and proud, as, for once, it was someone other than them who was raising an issue.
Third, she effectively devised a strategy, using the internet to raise her point.
Fourth, she did not stop at one issue. In fact, she made it broader and wider, hoping for sustainable social change.
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The Path – Her journey continues
Now an established teen activist, Pope, is a common public speaker, and attendee at conferences, talking about youth-related issues, particularly on her focus area of the need for gender-neutral toys.
She is part of change.org and has often used this as her platform to bring out issues.
She continues visiting play stores and researching about what has changed and what further needs to change. In 2015, she noticed how toys were arranged in stores, easily identifiable as ‘girl aisles’ and ‘boy aisles’ – Barbie and baby dolls, doll-houses, all pink and purple and sitting together; Nerf guns, trucks and cars, all blue and green and black, sitting together but separate from the dolls. In her true style of working actively, she wrote to ‘Playthings’ highlighting how the toy industry may be unknowingly contributing to gender inequality, giving them suggestions as to how they may fight for gender neutrality, giving examples from her own work.
Final words about Mckenna Pope
This little teenager is working towards gender equality and making a revolution. Let’s salute her efforts and being parents we all must support her initiative. Join hands with the little girl and bring up all underprivileged girls and boys at par with society.