McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys – The Controversies and What’s Next

Mcdonalds Happy Meal toys seem to have been around forever with more on the way. But there have been issues as well for this brand

By Rick Gonzales | Updated

McDonald's Happy Meal Toys

Since 1979, the most popular fast-food chain in the world, McDonald’s, has been entertaining children with the introduction of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. They have come in all shapes and sizes and included partnerships with well-known entities such as Disney, Nintendo, Sony, and countless other movies and cartoons. Since the advent of the Happy Meal Toys, McDonald’s has been dealing with numerous controversies concerning the health and safety of the children these toys were intended for as well as the general health and safety of the public at large based on the materials McDonald’s was using to build these toys. They have fought through it all and have continued to put smiles on kids’ faces.


The phrase, “you can’t please everyone,” comes into play with McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. Over the years. McDonald’s has offered separate toys for girls and boys, mainly based on gender. For instance, back in the early ‘80s, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys offered kids Hot Wheels or Barbie toys. Parents would even be asked if their child was a boy or a girl so they could include the proper toy. While at one point there didn’t appear to be anything wrong with this, as the years went on, certain parents became less and less enamored with this practice.

This issue became especially divisive over the past few years and led to research that has shown that perhaps with McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, the fast-food giant might be sending out gender-biased messages to little girls and little boys. What the research showed was that there were subtle differences in the language McDonald’s used on their Happy Meal boxes that were suggestive of girls being less capable, less active, and in need of more instructions on the boxes than their little boy counterparts.

What got UCLA sociology professor Kristen Discola interested in studying the McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes was when she brought the meals home for her children. “For example, with the word ‘try,’ I had never seen the word ‘try’ on the boy side. Over nine years, never were the boys told to try to do anything, to guess or to let something happen – so I wanted to quantify it,” she explained to Forbes.

Discola then went about collecting every McDonald’s Happy Meal box from 2011 through 2019 that had two distinct toys included in it. She then went about comparing the language used on boy boxes versus the language used on girl boxes. The differences, according to Discola, were shocking.

“The Strawberry Shortcake/Clone Wars-themed box was particularly telling because the questions posed on the girl-oriented and boy-oriented sides are nearly identical, but a subtle difference in language creates a powerful differentiation between the gendered expectations,” Discola said. “Here, girls are asked ‘Can you draw a picture?’ on the Strawberry Shortcake-themed side, whereas boys are asked ‘Can you draw a different droid every evening?’ on the Clone Wars-themed side of the same box. This subtle difference in language implies that girls may be unable to draw a picture, whereas it is assumed that boys are able to draw a picture and are therefore being challenged to take the task a step further by creating a different picture every day.”

Discola went on to more detail about the differences between boys and the instructions they receive versus the more detailed instructions girls receive. In their attempt to quell any further boy/girl Happy Meal toy controversy, McDonald’s chose to reduce the number of Happy Meal toy promotions that would include separate toys for boys and girls and instead make them all-inclusive. They said in their full statement:

Providing the best possible Happy Meal experience to families is among our top priorities. We appreciate and deeply value all concerns from our customers, which inspires us to constantly improve and enhance our programs. For example, we updated our policies several years ago to ask restaurant crew to offer guests the toy of their choice by theme, without any reference to gender, and in recent years have reduced the number of Happy Meal promotions with multiple toy options offered at a time. With our fans at the forefront of everything we do, we’ll continue to explore ways to ensure Happy Meal promotions are inclusive and unbiased.


2022 has seen McDonald’s live up to its word of inclusivity by wiping away the lines that define girls’ and boys’ toys. What they now offer is a group of toys that have crossover appeal, and it has become a hit (again) with kids. The first McDonald’s Happy Meal toy offered in January was from the cartoon, Teen Titans Go! In February, McDonald’s celebrated its return partnership with Disney and was offering Disney’s Stitch toys. March saw McDonald’s release Nintendo’s Mario Kart, which was remastered from their 2014 offering. In April, McDonald’s Happy Meal toy celebrated the release of the film Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and May brought even more celebration as the Happy Meal included toys that honored Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. In June, McDonald’s went back to the Disney well one more time with toys from Pixar’s Lightyear and the most recent McDonald’s Happy Meal toy release was all about Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder. This one features Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon and Groot, Korg, Valkyrie, the goats Toothgrinder and Toothgnasher, the Mighty Thor (Jane), and of course, Thor himself.


As for the future of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, it certainly looks bright. We have been able to get a peek at the upcoming toy menu and in August kids will get to choose from various Pokémon toys. September will offer the Dreamworks All-Stars and in October kids will see toys from The Patrick Star Show. The holidays will bring Disney’s Strange World toys in November and just in time for the December 16, 2022 premiere, the McDonald’s Happy Meal will feature toys from the highly anticipated film, Avatar: The Way of Water.


The McDonald’s Happy Meal toy has not been the only source of controversy to concern the Happy Meal. The fast-food giant has also been accused of promoting obesity through what they had been serving inside the box. In 2018, McDonald’s partnered up with Alliance for a Healthier Generation to usher in a healthier happy meal and said by the end of 2022, the company will have a much more balanced Happy Meal and they will be using fewer artificial ingredients.

To make this happen, McDonald’s chose to make their cheeseburgers an available Happy Meal item by request only. They have shrunk the size of the portions of French fries in the Happy Meal and they have also reduced the amount of sugar in their chocolate milk. Along with the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, they are also offering fruit with their meals.