When families are asked whether a kid's meal is for a boy or girl, it means kids get toys based on stereotypes—not their actual interests. Is it time to rethink drive-thru toys?


When my daughter’s internal honing beacon for McDonald’s went off and then we saw the “M” appear over the hill on the side of the highway, my husband and I gave in. Try as we might to keep them eating healthy, I’m convinced there's a McDonald’s-locating GPS microchip that somehow made its way into my daughter’s body years ago. It’s far more reliable than “Find My iPhone,” because it will not let you shut it off; “Find My McDonald's” never fails.

So there we were, pulling off the road and into the drive-thru underneath the “Order Here” sign. My husband proceeded to rattle off the orders for the kids, but after he asked for two kids' meals, the voice through the speaker box responded: “Boy or girl?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Boy or girl? It’s for the toys.”

I looked at my husband. I had a hunch where this was going, but I wanted to see how this played out. He ordered two chicken nugget meals—one for a boy and one for a girl. We got their respective meals at the final window and got back on the road.

Eight miles and ten minutes later, both kids had inhaled their food and were digging into the box for the toys. Our daughter managed to tear into hers first: a “Careers Barbie” firewoman. She was dressed in a red firesuit, had a non-removable fire helmet, and her arms moved rigidly up and down. Our son required some assistance, but he was ecstatic with his: a red hot wheels car with a ramp and a page of stickers to decorate it.

At this point, I noticed a marked negative reaction from our daughter: “Why is it that he gets the Hot Wheels? His actually does something. Mine doesn’t do anything.”

McDonald's Career Barbie Firewoman and Hot Wheels Car Happy Meal Toys
Credit: Sarina Finkelstein

She spent a solid 5 minutes attempting to needle her brother into letting her play with the toy, unsuccessfully. And I spent the next 30 minutes trying to talk up the doll—that did absolutely nothing—in my most excited voice. “But it’s so great! She can fight fires with her hose!" (Wait, no, she doesn't have a hose.) "Ok, I’m sure she has some kind of ax or fire extinguisher." (No.) "Does her helmet come off?" (No.) I finally settled on: "Look how red she is! Isn’t it funny, she matches the Hot wheels car!" (Gah, shouldn’t have brought that up again.) "Can she sit on the car to go to the fire?" (Oh, no, she can’t sit either.) Then we both wondered: What are the other Career Barbies that we could get next time?

The other Happy Meal Career Barbies include a tennis player, rock star, veterinarian, surfer, princess, ballerina, and astronaut. It’s admirable that McDonald’s made the effort to show women in other roles than just ballerina-princess-fashionista. But what upset me was the binary equation that signified Girl=doll and Boy=car. I was frustrated not just for my daughter but also for my son, even though he went sticker-crazy with his Hot Wheels ramp.

Fast-food chains have been facing pressure to take the gender out of kids' meals for years, to various results. Many corporations' official policies state that the companies don't require employees to ask a child's gender before giving them a toy, however, it's undebatably a common shorthand. Right now, McDonald's has Career Barbies and Hot Wheels on offer for the kiddos and Burger King has My Little Pony and Transformers, and while workers at some locations might ask kids straight-up whether they want a doll or a car, some still go for the stereotypes. In those cases, I especially feel for parents of children who are gender nonbinary, who pull up to a speaker and suddenly must apply a gender label with which their child doesn’t fully identify.

But not all fast food chains opt for an either/or choice: Wendy’s has 3D sticker books, Arby’s has tokens for an online Angry Birds game, and Subway has a selection of SpongeBob activities. And earlier this month, Burger King decided to stop giving away toys entirely in kids’ meals in the United Kingdom after two young customers pointed out the problematic amount of plastic waste generated by toys that kids play with for a hot second and then discard.

The truth is there are no “girl” and “boy” toys. If my son wants to play with a doll or cook in the miniature play kitchen at home, great. I look forward to pretending to eat the plastic and wood pizza he makes, because it’s not just Julia Child or Paula Dean or Martha Stewart out there, it’s José Andres and Thomas Keller. If my daughter wants to kick a soccer ball or examine things in the toy microscope, that’s great too, because Megan Rapinoe and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi paved the way for her. And if, at the end of the day, she chooses a Barbie or he wants to play with a race car, it will be because they were empowered to make that choice, not because a fast-food chain asked for (or worse, assumed) their genders and gave them the designated “girl” or “boy” toys.