Monday, April 20, 2015

Letting toys be toys

Normally I boycott overly-commercialized holidays, but during the last winter holidays season I visited a retail location of a well-known chain of toy stores to buy gifts for my three-year old nephew and one-year old niece. I had no idea what I was going to buy, but I kept a mental checklist of the attributes I wanted the toys to have. First, they couldn’t promote violence. Second, they had to be educational as well as fun. And, most importantly, they had to be as gender-neutral as possible. I’m sure that sounds simple enough, but I ended up spending at least five hours combing every inch of that store over two trips. The entire store was divided into “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” sections, and the degree of sexism on display was shocking -- and more than a little disappointing.

I’m sure that my nephew will feel the pressure to “play like a boy” -- and my niece the pressure to “play like a girl” -- soon enough. But I desperately didn’t want to contribute to it. For my nephew’s gift, this meant I skipped over any toy that would (a) glorify violence/war, or (b) suggest that some professions were exclusive to men. I was particularly mindful of (b) because I thought that one day the toy might be passed down to my niece, and I wouldn’t want her to feel conflicted by playing with a set of firefighters, for example, if all the firefighters were male, or the box only had a picture of a group of boys on it. I also wanted my nephew to have figures of female characters because I didn’t want him to feel as if there was anything wrong with that, and I thought it may help him practice empathy.

My requirements eliminated around 99.9% of the products on the shelves for 3- to 5-year olds. I’m certain Fisher-Price, Disney, Lego, etc., have some of the best focus group testing operations in the industry, but surely 3-year old boys don’t innately want toys so fundamentally different from 3-year old girls, or vice versa. I could barely believe what I was seeing in 2014.

Ultimately, I decided to compromise by buying my nephew seven small Playmobil build-a-figure packets. Four of them were “boys’” figures, and could be assembled to create male characters. These were sold in blue packaging. The other three were “girls’” characters, and were in pink packaging. Obviously.

Everything aimed at girls was in pink. Everything. The toys as well as their packaging. The girls’ toys sections are simply walls of pink shelves. Of pink princesses, pink pretend make-up sets, pink pretend cooking sets, or pink fashion design sets. “Boys’” Legos are multicolored. “Girls’” Legos were various shade of pink. Originally, Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven was green, yellow and orange. It turned gender-specific pink in 1993. The message was pretty clear: Every color other than pink is okay for boys. No color other than pink is okay for girls. And most disturbing of all are the aisles of infant dolls -- presumably so that your female toddler could get a jumpstart at training for motherhood.

Thus, buying a gift for my niece proved a lot more challenging. After my first sweep of the store, I decided to check on Amazon if there were any books or toys aimed at girls that encouraged science experiments, or encouraged them to become something like an astronaut. There weren’t any. I then checked the store for any children’s book with a female protagonist that wasn’t about being a princess or having a tea party. There weren’t any. However, they were all pink.

At the end, I settled on buying my niece two books. One was a story about anthropomorphized planes, and the other about anthropomorphized crayons. That’s right -- I decided that I would rather her aspire to be like a crayon rather than like how any of the so-called girls’ toys would brainwash her to be.

Perhaps I took this a little too seriously, but these are the types of things I find important. I do recognize, however, that these sentiments are not shared by many. For example, the childrens toy company Fat Brain Toys originally refrained from gender-specifying their products, but started to do so after customers overwhelmed them with requests.

The long-term societal consequences of gender-specifying children's toys has yet to be researched in depth, but what is clear is that play does affect childhood development, and how children's products are marketed affect how others see a child's gender, as well as how a child sees his/her own gender. It seems to me that taking gender out of toys would positively affect play, and therefore childhood development. Research shows that toys typically identified as “feminine” were associated with promoting physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills; whereas, toys identified as “masculine” were associated with excitement, violence, and competitiveness. Although the violent aspect of boys’ toys may be controversial, studies have shown that moderately masculine toys better develop children's physical, cognitive, academic, musical, and artistic skills. Moderately feminine toys typically encourage more passive learning.

As argued previously on this blog, greater gender equality in the children's toy market is long past due. There is no reliable evidence showing that there are innate differences in how male and female children want to play, and limiting how children play based on their gender can only serve to reinforce gender inequality as the next generation grows up. I’m not necessarily saying that the entire toy baby doll industry needs to go away, but if it plans on sticking around, it shouldn’t be financed in entirety by our society’s irrational compulsion to force young girls to playact as mothers/caretakers. And it shouldn’t only be a “girls’ toy.” A good way to start this process would be by organizing toys by function, rather than gender.


Rebecca F. said...

Gender equality in the children's toy market is certainly long past due. As is more thorough research into the consequences of our society's current gendered delineation.

I've shared in your frustrating shopping experience, and won a battle or two, only to lose the war, as my nephews and niece have gotten older. Even when we work hard to avoid contributing to the problem, children still experience gendered socialization through toys and play. Now, my attempts at gender-neutral gifts are ignored for the newest war inspired video game or Barbie doll.

I have to admit, I'm quite disheartened to hear that companies have been flooded with requests to separate their toys by gender - I'd heard enough promising reports about children and parents challenging gender normative toys that I thought this problem was improving.

Jessica S. said...

This is very frustrating, and it really shows that many people still put boys and girls into gender roles- they're almost forced to when the situation is this bad. There is some public awareness about what is wrong with these toys(in the mainstream media, from time to time), but then parents demand gendered toys? It seems like it is very difficult to make even small changes with things like this.

Juliana said...

I also share your frustration. Not only are the strict gender roles perpetuated by children's toys an issue, but also their lack of ethnic diversity is problematic. While I think this might have improved somewhat, when I used to look for dolls to give to minority kids on behalf of a non-profit I worked for, it was alarming that anything other than light-skinned dolls were few and far between.