Meet the activist toddler

A Q+A with social entrepreneur and female empowerment advocate
Jess Weiner

CEO and self-proclaimed “change maker” Jess Weiner, founder of the consultancy Talk to Jess, knows that promoting confidence in women and girls isn’t just talk. In her opinion, a generation of what she calls “purposeful parents” and their kids seek experiences that are inclusive and free of stereotypes—and that applies to everything from the causes they support to the toys they purchase.

Weiner’s perspective stems from her work with dozens of brands and organizations who have asked her to help them form more authentic conversations with consumers. In 2016, for example, she worked with Mattel to introduce to Barbie new body types, skin tones, hair styles and eye colors to better reflect her fans. Such projects have earned Weiner accolades, including being named one of the “Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company in the areas of diversity and education.

Below, Weiner shares her insight on how brands can better embrace both girls and boys, and what she sees as the future of play (hint: it looks bright!)

Q: For girls, how can toys aid in confidence and self-discovery? 

A: What I think is so important is that girls tend to be a little bit more emotional and verbal at younger ages. Storytelling is an important part of a young girl’s play pattern. She explores language, roles, relationships and feelings that help her dream about what she wants to be and do, and also how she’s engaging in the world. I remember that being imperative in my own growth as a child; stuffed animals were my kids, my students, my friends. For girls, toys create a palette, and they paint with the many colors of their imagination, and also their identity.

Q: Tell us about your concept of the rise of the “activist toddler.”

A: The idea was born out of the last couple of years of public protests, from Black Lives Matter to the March for Women’s Lives and the March for Our Lives. The state of activism is picking up among millennial parents, and their children are showing the first signs of what we call the “activist toddler”—meaning that these kids are getting engaged in public displays of activism and developing a social consciousness earlier than we’ve seen in other generations.

Kids are getting engaged in public displays of activism and developing a social consciousness earlier than we’ve seen in other generations

You see a lot of parents bringing their children to these events rather than leaving them at home. I think it’s emblematic of their parents’ purposeful drive right now; obviously they’re talking about these issues directly at home. One of the best-selling children’s books right now is A is for Activist, a really cool picture book about social justice aimed at early readers.

Q: How are brands evolving to talk not at, but with, parents and kids to forge a more emotional, intelligent connection?

A: Parents are very conscious about what brands they bring into the home, including what toys they choose to buy for their kids. They’re looking for brand affinity for a product that matches their value system. If a toy brand seems out of step with that, I think that can be a turn off for this generation. My trademark warning is “SFSN”—it sounds fabulous, but it signifies nothing. If [a brand is] going to stand for girls’ empowerment, they have to “live into it”. What is your philanthropic model? How do people get involved in the brand beyond point of purchase? What does your content look like? Who is on your marketing team? If you proclaim you’re an empowerment brand for kids, how are you empowering your employees?

Q: What is needed to facilitate a more gender-neutral approach to advertising products?

A: I think there’s a really interesting dynamic happening right now, which is that it’s okay for girls to act “boyish” but it’s not okay for boys to be “girlish.” We’ve given permission for girls to play with typically-coded-boy things—trucks, sports equipment, science kits. It’s not that girls are not good at them, but [those items] haven’t always been marketed to them. But boys don’t get the same opportunity; we don’t market dolls or baking sets to boys. There are plenty of boys that play with Barbies with their sisters. I’m a fan of democratizing toys so that boys and girls see each other playing with them.

Q: What do you envision as the future of play, and what do brands and consumers need to do to get there?

A: It’s an interesting moment where we’re looking at inclusivity and intersectionality. It’s an issue that brands are having to pay attention to because their consumer base is changing. I know Barbie is looking at all the ways that kids who have not been represented in toys can be reflected somehow, either in marketing or product. It still blows my mind when mothers say that the Barbie redesign opened a door for them, because their daughters felt like they could finally see themselves in Barbie.

There are lots of roads for the future of play. I think one will be a merging of online and offline play; another, democratizing toys so they’re not so gender-specific. I also think there’s going to be a lot of customization in the future. By virtue of who the consumer is, they want what they want, when they want it and where they want it.  Toy companies are going to be looking at that!

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