I went to McDonalds a week ago with my 2-year-old daughter Zoe. Before you scold me for endangering my child's health and nutrition with junk food, let me say two things. First, if you don't have kids, you may not fully grasp how powerfully the McDonalds PR machine worms its way into the minds of our children. With no provocation whatsoever from me or my wife, our daughter has managed (via daycare, we're sure) to learn all about McDonalds, and the mere mention of going there sends her into fits of manic joy.
Second, making your kid happy when you're exhausted at the end of the day and you haven't had time to shop for food...well, it's a seductive thing. Plus, you can substitute apple slices for french fries. So, see, it's healthy. Healthier. Okay, look, it's fast and easy, she squeals when she sees Ronald, and we do it once in a blue moon. :-/
So I'm at the counter, I order Zoe a Happy Meal, and the woman says to me "Would you like a girl or a boy toy?" I didn't know we had a choice. I look at Zoe who's wearing a hat and jacket, and I realize this woman can't make out Zoe's sex, so I ask her "What's the difference?" She tells me that girls get an iCarly Happy Meal and boys get a Star Wars Happy Meal. I ask Zoe, "Would you like Star Wars or iCarly?" She stares at me clueless and then says "Carly," and I immediately kick myself for listing it second. Zoe always chooses the last item offered if she doesn't know what you're talking about.
When we opened the box we found an iCarly "Lip Gloss Phone," a purple and silver flip phone that opens to a makeup mirror and container of lip gloss. A visit to McDonalds' HappyMeal website lists the other iCarly toys we might have received:
A pink plastic toy with a digital smiley face.
A small pink, purple, and orange purse with the cast of iCarly on the front.
A sticker dispenser in the shape of a locker and a roll of iCarly cast stickers.
A plastic dog you can write on and erase.
A pink and green case containing a pad of paper and a pencil.
A pink and purple bracelet with with changeable inserts featuring the iCarly cast.
"Spencer's Magic Meatball"
Ask it a question, push a button, and it responds Yes, No, or Ask again later.
You can see all the current Happy Meal girl toys here.
I could go on about why gendering toys reinforces all sorts of limiting assumptions and behaviors, but I have other fish to fry in this post. Suffice it to say my daughter doesn't need McDonalds to tell her which toys she ought to play with.
After this experience I decided to try a little experiment. For each of the next 5 days I purchased a Happy Meal from the drive-thru at my two local McDonalds, alternating between restaurants, and always driving a car with a child's car-seat in the back.
Each time the attendant asked if I wanted a girl or boy toy, I answered, "Give me whatever is the most fun." 5 times out of 5 I received a Star Wars toy. Four women (all different employees I'm fairly sure) and one man all responded to my request in the same way.
It didn't occur to me until the last day to follow up and ask why each chose the Star Wars toy. On that occasion, when the attendant handed me the bag, I asked "Which toy did you give me?" She replied "The Star Wars." When I asked why, she responded, "They're more fun to play with." "Even for a girl?" I asked. "Unless she likes iCarly, yeah. For sure."
The next day Zoe accompanied me inside McDonalds, but this time she wore no hat and a pink shirt. We ordered from the same employee I spoke to the day before, and we received a Happy Meal for girls containing the iCarly tote bag.
In case you're interested, the Happy Meal boy toy collection consists of 4 Star Wars character keychains (Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, Darth Vader, and R2-D2) that open to contain a corresponding peel-off tattoo; and 4 plastic models of spaceships (X-Wing, Jedi Starfighter, Millennium Falcon, and Republic Gunship) each with an insertable key enabling it to be launched.
You can see all the Happy Meal boy toys here.
I don't claim my simple little experiment proves anything conclusive, but for me and my wife, the "Happy Meal" delivers more irony than joy.