Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Controversy Corner: Gender Specific Toys

When I was a child, my favourite toys were Hot Wheels. I had a vast collection of those miniature sports cars and spent hours perfecting my "vroom" sounds. I had no idea that these were considered boys toys and that I was being subversive by preferring them over dollhouses. (Although, my number one favourite toy was my Cabbage Patch doll Christina.) My parents encouraged me to choose the toys I liked - regardless of gender stereotypes.

Fast forward a couple of years, I worked in a children's book and toy store and was taken aback by the intense gender segregation of products being sold to children. The boys costumes were fire fighters and the girls got fairy princesses. The boys books were about sports and the girls books were about first crushes. Children who start their lives with no specific tastes or interests are quickly ushered into the appropriate gender camp. But, what purpose do these stringent rules serve? It is not to the benefit of the child and, let's face it, it's silly. Why is a kitchen set a girl toy? Many of the world's most accomplished chefs are men. Why can't a boy play with a baby doll? Most of the women I know find a man who's a good father really sexy.

When it comes to toys, girls have it a bit easier than boys. They are not generally chastised or shamed for wanting toys that have been segregated into the "male" category (sports equipment, building blocks, etc) - so long as they get them in "girly"colours like pink and purple. Lego is an excellent (and sad) example of this requirement; while boys are building cities and vehicles and secret agents and medieval scenarios, girls are building cupcake shops, hair salons, juice bars, shopping malls, and "Cinderella's Romantic Castle." All in shades of pink, purple, teal, and pale yellow. It's true you can just buy any Lego set for either gender, but the commercials make it pretty clear to the children who should buy each kit.

The fault does not lie only with the toy companies. They are businesses looking to make money and thus create products based on consumer demand. If parents made more of a fuss about the advertising practices and blatent sexism in the toy market, the businesses would make changes. They're not, though. When the Lego Friends line was launched, I overhead many a mother say "finally, a Lego set for girls!" Sigh.

The answer isn't "gender neutral" toys (play doh, for example) either, because that should not be a distinct category. All toys should be available and encouraged for all children inclined to play with them. As parents it is our job to help our children navigate the world by exploring, creating, imagining, learning, and playing, no matter what they choose to use in order to do this. Girls can be superheroes fighting crime and boys can be princes preparing the castle for a ball. Let's take the shame out of play.

Merry Christmas Eve! What was your favourite toy as a child?

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