The Gendered Toys Issue

So let me open up this post with a little Q+A for the dissenting voices in my head, who I know REALLY exist in the broader community, or I wouldn’t be arguing with them to begin with…. for those among us NOT convinced that gendered toys are an issue, the following questions may come to mind. Let’s just go ahead and answer them now before they show up in the comments and keep me away from that naughty pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream in the icebox. MK.

“Why are we talking about this?”

The reason that gendered toys is a concerning issue, is because like it or not, the toys send vastly different messages about values, ideals and moral judgment to both boys and girls. They send them messages that no amount of dinner-table family discussion can completely erase. Some of these particularly scary and/or limiting messages include: girls should like to look pretty, boys  should like to be in action all the time, girls like to spend their time perfecting ‘looks’ and playing with babies and cooking sets, boys like to build things and destroy things. You see where I am going with this? It is a topic because every toy our kids play with sends them a subtle message about who they are, what they should enjoy and how to fit into their peer group. Considering that we all know that play is the work of children, and they spend a whole lot of their time doing it, I think this warrants some conversation, no?

“What is wrong with little girls liking pink” 

Not a darn thing. But there is something wrong when a little boy stands at the edge of the entirely pink and purple aisle of Target, desperately wanting to find a toy kitchen, and feeling unsure that he will be emotionally safe, or that his identity will be harmed if he goes down that aisle, because as he tells his mother “that is the girl aisle”. There is something REALLY REALLY not OK with that. There is also something wrong with  a little girl being manipulated/steered into cheer classes and cheer dolls, books and sheets when she tells her parents she wants to be an athlete and no one ever thinks to ask her what KIND of athlete she wants to be. More importantly perhaps, she never even gets a chance to think about it, either.

“Why are we seeking to make boys more effeminate and girls more masculine?”

I don’t think that is what we are doing here at all, but first we have to examine what we MEAN by effeminate and masculine. Are these not relative terms? What is feminine? According to my grandmother, a prompt thank you note and crossed ankles when sitting denotes femininity, as does avoiding certain topics in conversation, such as politics and religion. Upon closer inspection, the subtext to these ideas is that women should be seen (but not too much!) and not heard (unless in writing, and in formal language ifyouplease). To me, this is deeply unfeminine, because my idea of femininity includes using my voice (clearly) and in not fearing judgement because my short chubby legs aren’t comfortable crossing at the ankles. Tough cookies. I WILL discuss politics and religion, because women comprise 51% of the US yet are represented in only 17% of elected government offices. This silence starts EARLY with implicit messages inherent in the toys we give our children…what do the toys TEACH? Don’t think for a second that they are not careful constructed to appeal to a stereotype of what a little boy or a little girl should be doing with their time or what they should enjoy. And how can we even fight the mammoth pink and blue aisles? When we have media and popular culture jamming these archetypes of boy-ness and girl-ness down our throats, how can we empower our kids to make their own choices and follow their hearts? It is tough business. But pink is not, and never will be the enemy.

“Can’t a kid just be a kid?”

Of course. But that doesn’t necessarily mean “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls” because we are products of our socialization, like it or not…they are NOT born to like babies and cooking and barrettes (girls) or cars, trains and faux weapons (boys). They LEARN to like them because we give them toys which encourage and develop those interests. 

Ok. Hopefully that answers some of the basics.

How did this all come up? Well…as usual I am reading a book. Packaging Boyhood was one of my first books once kiddo turned the age that they even start looking at toys instead of languidly batting at a stuffed lion or whatever dangling over them on a playmat. So…maybe about six to eight months ago. That is when I started sort of ‘pecking’ at this book. I knew the messages were already coming in loud and clear via onesie messaging: “Mama’s Tough Guy”, “Daddy’s Little Man” and various iterations of trucks, trains and sports themes emerging all over my sweet baby’s clothes. I even received a onesie with a tool belt stitched across the midsection. Essentially, I thought they were ridiculous, and even if they didn’t send the kid a message, as was essentially just a linguine for the first few months, it would send ZPB and myself a message every time we dressed him, and I didn’t think it was necessary. Why all the pressure to grow up, to be a be a “man” or a “tough guy”. What is with all the big “lotsa action” theme splashed across everything he would ever wear? To convince people he wasn’t a girl? Why was that even important at this stage? It was a suggested performance, one I felt aversive to from the start.

I want to point out also, that in our home, we are very big on cultivating strong masculinity, even past the point many of my colleagues who care deeply about gender would understand. Why is this? Well, it is our personal belief that the current popular narrative around masculinity goes something like this: prove you belong to the man-club by being violent, being a ‘slacker’ and/or by being ‘the funny guy’. There are plenty of books about this, and plenty of mamas and papas blogging about itBut what is interesting about these roles, is that none of them coincide with the kinds of boys we hope to raise: conscious, cerebral, polite, loving, nurturing and strong young men. The slacker isn’t going to college or graduate school, and our countries declining rates of college-going men buttress this point. In higher education administration (my former field) we even call this “the boy crisis”. The violent kid is not going to be in healthy relationships, nor will he contribute to his community fully, because he needs to tear people down to feel good about himself. Finally, the funny guy is terrified of being taken seriously, because it undercuts his identity. He can never really show his heart to anyone, because that level of vulnerability could shred his image and render him a social pariah at a time when he desperately needs his peer group for support. How does he fall in love, then? So, in our house, we talk a lot about these popular images and how toys (and indeed media, but that is another post) support our kids developing the skills and VALUES we deeply want them to cultivate. Can we control them this way, can we protect them from everything? Nope. But we have more power than any other single influence and dammit, we will use it. You know why? Because my friends’ sons and daughters will grow up. And when they do, they will deserve great, loving and hard-working men in their lives. My grandchildren will deserve wonderful dads. Dads who know how to change diapers, support early feeding techniques, night wakings and how to enjoy the feeling of holding their infant without fear they have somehow traded in their Man-Card. Dads who don’t question what people think of them when they help their little girls get ready for school, like this fantastic father of two. I desperately want my boys to enjoy these moments in their lifetime, and I want their spouses to have the support, because they deserve it too.

Leaving my son alone for hours on end with a first-person shooter once he hits middle school will not support that goal. OK, let’s be real, letting him play them regularly at ALL will not support that goal. Why do we even have them? Sure, there are kids who have cut their teeth on that stuff and can be good dads. Great. You can also do the whole “Steve Jobs didn’t go to colege and still made it big, I can too”-thing and know that what we are referring to is the exception to the rule. Sure it exists, but how much do you really want to bet on it?

Those types of games still send a value judgement to kids on what is and is not important for them to engage in and enjoy. Fundamentally, what I am saying is that as parents, we should be ON BOARD with that message, and understand what it leaves out (ie: girls can like pink…but are they allowed to like anything else? Boys can like sports, but is figure skating a problem?).

Your thoughts? Experiences?

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2 responses to “The Gendered Toys Issue

  1. Hi. I have a blog that sometimes explores gender(mostly as it relates to religion). So I thought I should have a good well reasoned response to this post but I really don’t. I can share some experiences though.

    My kids are past the toy age now. We bought our kids toys that were typical for their gender, and then ones that were more neutral as well…games, building toys, puzzles etc. My son tended to gravitate toward the building toys much more than my daughter. My daughter did play with them some though. My son would look at stuff like dolls, maybe play with them or examine them once or twice and move on.

    I’m not sure I gave great thought to the issue of gender and toys, but did make an effort to have some toys I thought were gender neutral. I’d say more for my daughter, but I think I was more concerned with age appropriateness than whether a toy was in the realm of “pink”.

    I’d definitely agree steering a girl toward cheer is problematic, if that isn’t something she really wants to do. In particular I think steering a very young girl on such a path would be questionable. That is sort of “pink” on steroids.

    As far as the media goes, we can make a choice how much we let into our homes, and screen out what we feel doesn’t align with our values. I feel media is much more powerful in giving messages about gender to kids, in part because we can’t always anticipate what those messages will be, I think for today the problem isn’t any particular program, but more the 24/7 nature of access to media. There used to be a show on DIsney called “Kim Possible” and the character almost always was wearing a crop top, and I always had mixed feelings about why her character would need to wear a crop top and what message were the show’s creators trying to send there.

    As far as the faux weapons stuff, boys will have more of a tendency than girls to come across something like a a stick outdoors, a yardstick, or the leftover cardboard tube and make into a weapon….so I don’t think it is all strictly messages they are getting from toys.

    • Thanks for sharing, Carly. I have a friend who routinely tells me that a boy’s shmecki is his first ‘weapon’-yikes, right? But seriously, she says that little boys just seem to gravitate toward aggressive play like wrestling and tackling. We shall see: I am pregnant with little boy #2 (The Baby) and The Boy is 14 months so we are not quite at that point yet… And I am not against cheer to be sure, I just want our kids to have opportunities to think for themselves and not feel pushed or steered…or even just to wonder why they never felt like there were all that many options, you know?

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