Want to diminish the influence of toys on gender stereotypes? Stop filling out online anti-Lego petitions and start paying more attention to what you’re buying for your kids.
Before I had a kid, I totally bought into the whole story about how the evil toy industry is responsible for reinforcing gender stereotypes. Now, I realize it’s parents.
This is not to let toymakers totally off the hook. As made crystal-clear by the viral “Gendered Advertising Remixer”—which allows you to mash-up the audio and video of ads for girl- and boy-targeted toys—these corporations market and package their goods completely differently depending on the gender they’re aiming at.
A word cloud on the Achilles Effect parenting blog offered a similar codification of what we all knew anyway: Toy ads for boys use aggro language like “battle,” “power,” “launch,” “stealth” and “weapons,” while girl-oriented ads prefer nurturing words like “love,” “babies,” “magic,” “fun,” and “glitter.”
This topic has come up recently because of Lego Friends, the Danish company’s controversial attempt to go after the girl market with pink-coloured bricks, “taller and curvier” minifigs and sets that include a hot tub and a beauty salon (and, to be fair, a cafe and a lab).
So it’s all well and good to get 55,000 people to sign an online “Liberate Lego” petition in protest, but just because Lego is selling something doesn’t mean you need to buy it—and just because their ads are gender-biased doesn’t mean you need to follow their advertising cues. (The most off-putting line in the petition is the one that complains about Lego “excluding [girls] from your marketing vision” as if a company’s marketing vision should determine what you buy for your own child.)
The other thing is that, while the new Lego line seems over-the-top girlie, it’s intended to address a play differential between boys and girls, where the former predominantly prefer to build and the latter predominantly prefer to act out scenes.
Having a kid is kinda like living an episode of Mythbusters. One of the first realizations my wife and I had was that there actually is a difference between little boys and girls and it’s hardwired. Nurture certainly has an impact, but there’s a lot of nature in there.
Business Week reported a study that found kids as young as nine-months-old chose “gender-specific” toys, with the boys going for the car, digger, and ball while the girls played with the doll, teddy bear, and cooking set. In fact, they reported another study, from 2001, that “found even 1-day-old boys spent longer looking at moving, mechanical options than 1-day-old girls, who spent more time looking at faces.”
So boys and girls do play differently—but they like a lot of the same stuff, too. My two-year-old son Emile was almost immediately unique from his female cousins in terms of his adventurousness (some might say recklessness) and intense interest in stereotypical stuff like cars, robots, dinosaurs, trains, and superheroes. At the same time, when Emile was about 18-months-old, he said he wanted a “baby,” so we went to the toy store and bought him a doll—and a tiny stroller, to boot. He didn’t care that this toy was in the “girl” section and we didn’t, either. (Though, admittedly, I did buy him the blue stroller.)
E learned to roar before he could talk and his favourite items of clothing are a Superman cape, a Tyrannosaurus Rex shirt, and a fedora, but he also loves Glinda and Miss Piggy and Yo Gabba Gabba’s pink, flower-picking Foofa. His most used toy is his toddler-sized kitchen—he likes to make us pretend coffee—and when we pick him up at daycare, he’s occasionally adorned in a fairy dress. Then he comes home and plays with his Spiderman colouring book.
This goes for TV, too. Emile loves My Little Pony. We watch it on TV and play with the stickers and don’t concern ourselves with the fact that it’s supposedly for girls. It’s just a really well-crafted show by Lauren Faust, who previously worked on early 2000s cult hit Powerpuff Girls. Both cartoons are famed for being watched by guys—the former even has a cult online community known as Bronies—and, of course, they’re equally great for boys and girls. As will, I presume, Faust’s upcoming Super Best Friends Forever series, which stars DC Comics’ finest little ladies Supergirl, Batgirl, and Wonder Girl. An action-oriented cartoon with female protagonists hits that sweet spot for both genders.
Remember that little girl Riley in last winter’s viral video railing against toy store stereotyping? “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses! Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses! So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-coloured stuff?”
“But you can buy either, right?” her dad adroitly pointed out. “And boys can buy either.” (Or, more accurately, their parents can buy either since kids don’t, y’know, have any money.)
Toy companies are not engaged in social-engineering experiments, they just want profit—and lots of parents buy stuff based on colour-coded clues. As a spokesperson for the UK’s National Toy Council pointed out in in The Guardian, “Parents tend to have traditional attitudes about the gender roles of their children—and where buying toys is concerned, they tread the path of least resistance. Of course, it is preferable that children are exposed to a wide range of play experiences, because this opens up the world around them, but this is not something we can control or legislate for.”
Nor should they. Parents—not their children, not the government, and certainly not corporations—are in charge. Some argue in favour of gender-neutral toys, but you’ll raise more open-minded kids by giving them access to both rather than neither. So stop blaming sales pitches and start buying toys from both sides of the gender divide.