I keep going back to these gender posts but the whole topic of the role of toys in developing an understanding of gender fascinates me. Probably the most significant thing about it is that looking at this issue forces us to realise that we really can’t just say “it’s just a toy”. Toys can come with loaded concepts attached and can play a massive role in shaping who we become as adults.
I wrote about the topic of gender and toys a while ago and over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a considerable amount of readers seem to be dropping in from various places to look at that old post. I considered simply reposting it but the topic warrants more attention as there is so much more to be said than I could fit into my other post so here we are.
I teach an adult learning course on philosophy and in our aesthetics class we somehow came on to the topic of the accoutrements which we use to define our identity. This moved pretty cleanly onto the topic of gender identity and the subtle identifiers we employ to recognise members of our gender. It was so difficult to describe the specifics of ‘manliness’ or ‘womanliness’ that we came to the conclusion that there probably aren’t any specifics to describe, and if that’s the case then it’s likely to be something highly engrained that we learn through seeing and doing.
It’s for this reason that I think that the gender identity that we are exposed to as children (from, amongst other things, childhood play) plays a, if not the central role in our development of both our personal identity and our understanding of gender, and this is where things get tricky. I have two sons and I’m patently aware that they are growing up in a world where gender identity is in flux, I want them to be responsive to the world they are growing up in but at the same time I don’t want them to develop personalities which are similarly in flux. I want them to be sure of who they are.
The women’s rights movement has been reworking the definition of what it is to be a woman since before I was born. The strange flip side to this is that there has been no parallel conscious redefinition of masculinity. This isn’t to say that masculinity hasn’t been redefined, as new roles, responsibilities and attitudes are developed through the media’s attempts to keep up with the changes in female identity, and this is where children’s play struggles. Whilst it’s funny to watch traditional archetypes be eroded (just look at Homer, ‘head’ of the Simpson’s household) it feels slightly uncomfortable for some parents to break with tradition when raising their sons.
A girl with a tool set is empowered but a boy with a buggy or a doll doesn’t have a similarly positive description to fall back on. It seems that by opening the working world up in the toys girls get to play with we have somehow belittled the importance of the domestic world. As a part-time house-husband I feel slightly offended that my contribution to the household is seen in a negative light, this belittlement is especially clear where a woman chooses a similar position in life. House-wives or ‘Stay at home mums’ can be seen by some as anti-feminist. I’m not getting into a debate about that here but I do want to point out that there is no ‘just’ about keeping a house in order. The resultant attitude towards domestic toys follows quite easily and has been developing in some quarters for years, one that sees these toys as a limiting factor; as some kind of shackle with which we bind our daughters, as ‘anti-feminist’. The reality is that, unless your child manages to leave home and instantly make enough money to hire a cleaner and a cook, they will have to do some domestic tasks for at least some portion of their lives. Why not expose them to this at an age when domestic tasks seem glamorous? Regardless of whether they are male or female there’s nothing wrong with teaching your child to be house-proud.
Because of the negative connotations associated with women as house-wives somehow domestic toys have found themselves somewhat villainised. Personally I don’t see why we can’t help our children to celebrate the domestic. Surely if a child learns to enjoy housework there’s at least a chance that you might find yourself with a teenager who may occasionally help out around the house, or better still an adult who can take care of themselves. Isn’t that a pretty important skill to foster in a child from a young age?
As always thanks for reading and I welcome any opinions that you want to share, Cheers, John