One Teen's Victory Over McDonald's Boy-Girl Happy Meal Toys

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff

Connecticut teen Antonia Ayres-Brown is on her way to becoming a feminist hero this week for standing up to a billion dollar corporation — McDonald’s — over its alleged tendency to box kids in by gender when doling out Happy Meal toys.

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“In the fall of 2008, when I was 11 years old, I wrote to the CEO of McDonald’s and asked him to change the way his stores sold Happy Meals,” Ayres-Brown, now a high-school junior and talented musician, wrote in a Slate essay that’s gone viral since being published on Monday. “I expressed my frustration that McDonald’s always asked if my family preferred a ‘girl toy’ or a ‘boy toy’ when we ordered a Happy Meal at the drive-through. My letter asked if it would be legal for McDonald’s ‘to ask at a job interview whether someone wanted a man’s job or a woman’s job?’”

The precocious inquiry yielded a series of communications between Ayres-Brown and the fast-food chain. It also led to some serious data collecting by the girl and her dad Ian Ayres — who is, unsurprisingly, a heavy-hitting Yale law professor and economist who has previously collaborated with his daughter on research — about McDonald’s employees and the Happy Meal gender bias. The findings had them filing a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in no time. And while McDonald’s was initially dismissive, Ayres-Brown writes, the daughter-father team finally achieved a sort of victory in the form of a letter from McDonald’s chief diversity officer Patricia Harris in December of 2013.

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“We take your concern seriously,” she wrote, according to the letter, which is attached to the Slate essay. “It is McDonald’s intention and goal that each customer who desires a Happy Meal toy be provided the toy of his or her choice, without any classification of the toy as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toy and without any reference to the customer’s gender.” Additionally, Harris noted, the company had said it recently “re-examined our internal guidelines, communications and practices” with regard to how toys are to be given out.

Ayres-Brown noted that the response was “a start” and that a recent photo on DoSomething.org's Facebook page of a local manager’s reiteration of the gender-blind policy was “heartening.” Her dad, meanwhile, in a blog about their efforts for the World Consulting Group, notes, “To my mind, this is evidence that McDonald’s is really trying.”

Indeed, a McDonald’s spokesperson tells Yahoo Shine in an email, “It’s true we occasionally re-share procedures with the restaurants, and in this case have done so from time to time related to the recommended practice around Happy Meals, which is to name the toy properties by name.”

Virtual high-fives for Ayres-Brown have been numerous, with SheKnows calling her “inspirational and forward-thinking” and Jezebel praising her efforts as “not too shabby.” Tweets have called the teen “smart," "persistent,” and “awesome.

But, as Ayres-Brown notes in her piece, “The problem with Happy Meal toys may seem trivial to some, but consider this: McDonald’s is estimated to sell more than 1 billion Happy Meals each year. When it poses this question — ‘Do you want a boy’s toy or a girl’s toy?’ — McDonald’s pressures innumerable children to conform to gender stereotypes.”

And that’s not just teenage conjecture, according to Christia Spears Brown, author of the new “Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Child Free of Gender Stereotypes” and a University of Kentucky associate professor of psychology.

“It is important for two reasons,” Spears Brown tells Yahoo Shine in an email regarding Ayres-Brown’s efforts. “First, research has clearly shown that simply labeling a toy as a boy toy or a girl toy will determine what children are interested in. … So instead of asking children which toy they would like and letting it be based on actual preferences for play, by labeling it for one gender or the other, we are shaping what children will play with. Second, and more importantly,” she adds, labeling toys with “boy” or “girl” actually teaches kids “that gender is such an important part of who they are that it should determine their type of play. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Some food for thought next time your kid is asked to choose between a My Little Pony and Skylanders toy to go with her burger.

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