One woman explores the Happy Meal gender gap. By Elly Vila Dominicis (Digital Strategy Consultant)
Every afternoon, my mom diligently picked me up after school and asked me what I wanted to eat. Chicken McNuggets was always the answer, but “Chicken MacNuggah” was what came out of my undeveloped five-year-old mouth.
We routinely went through the McDonald’s drive-through, craning our necks and straining our eyes to scan the menu even though we always ordered the same thing every day — a Happy Meal for me with Chicken MacNuggah, french fries, and a Sprite.
“Boy or girl?” the drive-through loudspeaker would yell.
A quick, expectant glance from my mom looked back at me from the rearview mirror.
A simple knowing nod in response from me.
“Boy,” she assured the loudspeaker.
As we drove up to the window, I would involuntarily scrunch down into my seat while the cashier handed my mom the Happy Meal. It was as if I felt a deep sense of guilt about asking for something that wasn’t meant for me, and if the cashier saw me back there with my ponytail and plaid school skirt, she would definitely and most angrily snatch the illicit Happy Meal back.
I’d excitedly open the box, simultaneously stuffing a fry into my mouth with one hand, and blindly searching for the toy bag with my other hand, trying to discern its shape with my tiny fingers in anticipation for the random reward.
This routine lasted well into high school, where I passed the tradition on to my little sister. Even though I had graduated to McChickens, we’d still whisper to my mom “Say ‘boy,’ say ‘boy!’” when asked the big question about my sister’s Happy Meal, continuing to hide our shame in the backseat when we pulled up to the window.
Racing cars. Action figures of heroes we loved. These were the toys that survived the toy box genocide that happened every couple of years. These were the toys that lived to see another day on my pink ‘90s bedroom carpet.
Some days, I was curious, or I just didn’t feel like pretending, so we’d ask for a girl toy. This usually ended in disappointment. We’d open the bag excitedly, only to find ourselves staring deeply into the dead eyes of a doll with crispy blonde hair. The dolls were ignored or discarded almost immediately, but weeks later I’d feel a pinch on my butt from a hard, pointy doll arm jutting from between the couch cushions — a painful reminder of whom I was expected to be.
A Stroll Down Memory Lane
After disparaging McDonald’s toys, I decided to use the Internet time machine to confirm that they were, in fact, just as terrible as I remembered.
This is 1998's pretty straightforward collection of toys for boys and girls. Barbies for the ladies, Hot Wheels for the dudes. Eatin’ Fun Kelly might be the least fun toy I’ve ever had the displeasure of finding at the bottom of my Happy Meal.
Over a decade later, McDonald’s toy designers continue to innovate new ways of making the girls toys suck. Can there be a more drastic dichotomy than choosing between a superhero and a stamp? A stamp that comes with its own keychain, so that you can conveniently stamp things on the go… you know, in case you need to do that.
2013's options were especially painful. Asking for a boy toy seemed to be vastly rewarding. The pretend plots you could make up with these toys appear to be endless. You’ve got two vehicular choices, a wearable artifact, and three varied figurines for any type of harebrained situation that crazy Batman could get into.
For girls, your options were limited to three ugly shoes you could clip onto your backpack, two of which were the same damn shoe in different colors. Thanks for the effort, really.
I was inspired to write this after learning that McDonald’s is offering Adventure Time toys this week. Being an avid collector of small figurines and a big fan of the show, I was excited to see the options available.
I did some quick Googling only to come across this bullshit:
I haven’t had a Happy Meal in over a decade, yet, this instantly took me back to the Backseat of Shame. If you said “boy,” you were rewarded with your favorite characters from Adventure Time (minus the female characters, of course). If you said “girl,” you got a monkey with an oddly vagina-shaped mouth, its likeness plastered on highly practical items such as stickers, purses, and bracelets.
Thankfully, these toys have generated a fair bit of well-deserved controversy. Adventure Time is widely loved by adults, who now have even more reason to notice the outdated practice of grouping toys by gender at McDonald’s.
On the bright side, there are going to be a lot of little girls that take this opportunity to refuse to let others define which toy is for them, and instead, will speak up to get the toy they want. I’m not going to say that crappy girl toys prepared me for the real-life gender divide, but it gave me one of my first platforms to speak up and not let others tell me what I should want.
And so I stormed into McDonald’s for the first time in a long time to order a Happy Meal in person. Because I’m an adult. And I’m a girl. And I want the goddamn boy toy.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
About the guest blogger: Elly Dominicis has spent over a decade working in the tech industry as a digital strategy consultant for Fortune 500 brands. She enjoys writing on a variety of topics including digital marketing, social media and technology trends. She most recently launched her own food blog, Eat With Your Eyes Closed.