Gender stereotypes continue to be reinforced by toy companies and the parents that bankroll them. But there’s another, equally insidious factor that forces our children to see the world in blue-and-pink terms.
The best present our three-year-old son, Emile, received for Chrismukkah this year was about three decades older than he is: my wife Carrie’s wooden dollhouse, hand-built by her father when she was around E’s age. My contribution was a Magneto action figure from my own childhood, which I placed in the wooden bathtub. It boy’d the gift up a bit, but not much—after all, the X-Men villain wears an orange and purple unitard.
Not that Emile needed it any more macho. His first outright toy demand of us, at 18-months-old, was a doll and stroller. (His current favourite is a toddler-sized, plush Homer Simpson.) When we pick him up at daycare, he’s often adorned in a fairy costume, though he arrives clad in superhero clothes if we let him pick his own outfit. He just likes what he likes, regardless of which gender it’s intended for—and kid-oriented products are almost always intended for one or the other.
Though great strides have been made in gender equality since Emile’s dollhouse was first built, it has not extended to toys. More progressive toy stores like Mastermind or hipster shops like Kol Kid simply sort according to age or type, but major players like Toys R Us still segregate their stores into boy and girl sections, with dolls sold strictly in the girl section.
Unless, of course, they’re called “action figures.” That’s the ridiculous part of all this: Boys have always played with dolls; they were simply deemed okay so long as the dolls were soldiers, transforming robots, or caped crusaders. But both boys and girls equally want to role-play, and there’s no reason to gender restrict them to crime-fighting and house-keeping, respectively.
Point of fact: when Emile’s five-year-old cousin came over for a Christmas playdate, she brought him a My Little Pony as a present (Twilight Sparkle, if you were wondering) and then the two of ’em, pretty ponies in hand, fought a pitched pretend-battle with Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin before searching the cracks in our hardwood floor for spiders and then redecorating the dollhouse.
This is how kids play—ideally, anyway. But everyone is conspiring against them, from toy stores and toymakers to parents—and, especially, playmates, who tend to be the ultimate enforcers of toy segregation.
Toy companies are the first line of offence, of course. Even if all stores desegregated their aisles, the packaging alone lets parents and kids know just how many X chromosomes the toy is aimed at.
Some incremental change did occur this holiday season, though. Thirteen-year-old McKenna Pope went viral with a YouTube video demanding an Easy-Bake Oven that her four-year-old brother would play with—i.e., one not in purple and pink, with only girls on the box and in the ads—and notched up 45,000 signatures for her Change.org petition.
Under pressure, Hasbro announced a black-and-silver oven that will launch at next month’s New York Toy Fair and be sold in addition to the current “girl” model. But that doesn’t fix the problem. They might as well have attached an Easy Bake gun to it—or, as they tried in 2002, dumbly dubbed it the “Queasy Bake Cookerator” in hopes of making it less girly.
The real issue is that there doesn’t need to be a purple and pink model at all—in fact, the 1963 original was blue and, by the 1970s, it was avocado green, just like real ovens of the era. Lego and Mega Bloks don’t need to be pastel, either, in order for girls to build stuff. Same goes for boys’ dollhouses, which Toys R Us’ Imaginarium brand and KidKraft have started selling as police and fire-fighter play sets.
Those are pretty cool and all, but why wouldn’t girls also want to play with a cop station or fire hall? And why wouldn’t boys want to play with a house? They live in one, right? Just like how they love to eat cakes and cookies and would have fun baking them if Hasbro’s product colouring didn’t ward them off.
When I first addressed this topic, most of my ire was reserved for lazy and/or gender role–rigid parents who pick their kids’ toys based on where they fall along the colour spectrum and what gender is featured on the box. I still place much of the responsibility for reinforcing stereotypes on parents, who are the ones actually buying these toys. But, as my own son has gotten older, I now better understand how much of an influence other kids are.
The New York Times recently reported a study that found parents buy more sex-typed toys than sex-neutral or “sex-inappropriate” ones, but also that they do it more often when picking up a child-requested toy than when choosing one on their own.
Toy colours and gender-based marketing are designed to let boys and girls know what they should be playing with. This is not necessarily what they want to play with, but little kids can be fascist about following rules (bedtime and broccoli excluded, of course) and conforming to social norms. Their world is very black and white, making them especially susceptible to colour-based gender directives—and eager to make everyone else fall in line, too.
Emile has a huge collection of action figures and jungle animals, dresses like a dragon, and builds Lego towers that he drives his trucks into. He also loves playing with dolls, pretending to be a fairy, and rocking his pink Powerpuff Girls backpack because, thus far, he doesn’t know he’s not supposed to. It helps that he has older female cousins he looks up to, and that his pre-school classmates and care-givers don’t discourage him. But this may change when he moves to the older kinder room, where boys and girls will more likely exert peer pressure to conform to gender roles.
We are proud of how honest, unaffected, and well-rounded his play choices are. But he’s three, and the other night he asked if only girls can walk on their tip-toes; someone at daycare told him that in reference to ballerinas (which Emile also sometimes pretends to be). So it’s starting already. All we can do as parents is try to raise our kids to be strong enough to stick with what they really like while not supporting the gratuitously gender-typed toys that make that decision so difficult for them.
In the meantime, I’ll just play dollhouse with Emile while he’s wearing his Superman cape—which, come to think of it, is also a homemade relic from my wife’s childhood.