Gender in toys

I recently read an article on the guardian’s web site by Charlie Brooker about the state of gender in the computer games industry (Brooker’s article). I have to admit I was less than impressed with the article itself as it failed to include anything about the portrayal of men but that’s besides the point, what it really started thinking about was the more modern understanding of the way children ‘should’ play and what kinds of themes which we ‘should’ expose them to. Brooker’s article is a far cry from what this entry is all about, it just brought something to a head that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I’ve worked in toy shops since I was about fourteen and back then (about 1997) there was a bemused puzzlement about what we should call the previously tagged ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’ throughout the industry. The problem was that despite sizeable evidence to the contrary (sales numbers and the personal experience of shopkeepers) we were being told that it was politically incorrect to market certain toys more towards one gender than the other. Sections in shops became harder to lay out in a way that wouldn’t offend but we tried and we received no complaints so we figured things were fine.

I think the main issue was the idea that if a girl played with a doll she’d end up with only one career goal open to her (mother). Little was said about the kind of expectation that was associated with the heady expectation put on every boy by a football. In my childhood I received a number of footballs and I admit I did play with them but with no more enthusiasm than my little sister did. In this lack of interest a boy is instantly pegged as wimpy or at best different to the other boys. I’m not particularly bitter about this, to get bitter would be somewhat odd considering that this social pegging made me the man I am today (I got interested in music, learned guitar and had a blast of a time in my teens).

However at the time (back in 1997) it confused me that so much importance was being placed on the expectations associated with ‘girls’ toys’ and that next to no one seemed bothered by the gender stereotyping of ‘boys’ toys’. Since then I’ve had time to think it through and look at the issue with a critical eye. The truth is that the numbers don’t lie, my lack of interest in football makes me an exception to a rule, just as the little girl who plays with monster trucks is also ‘different’. The problem isn’t the gender stereotyping: it’s the loaded term ‘different’ that got (and sometimes still gets) parents worried. We don’t want our kids to be seen as ‘different’ as it makes us aware of the social exclusion and other treatments that such a label might bring upon our them. So what are we as parents supposed to do?

Fighting against gender stereotyping is a battle no one is going to win. The reason for this is simple numbers and what appears to be the harsh reality of biology. A couple of recent studies (Kahlenberg and Wrangham, Current Biology Vol 20 No 24 and Hassett, Siebert and Wallenof Hormones and Behavior, 54 (2008) 359–364) studying the behaviour of chimpanzees (both wild and captive) has found that males prefer play which is either mock-aggressive in nature or which incorporates mechanism (the mechanism focus was actually shown in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Bang goes the theory’ and I can’t find an article to correspond with it), females on the other hand have a tendency to mock-nurse a child and engage in other rituals associated with motherhood. I’m not claiming that we can’t escape our biology, but given that even in human beings there’s a prevalent cross cultural preference in toy choice, we can’t escape the sheer brunt of this fact.

So what is my stance on gender stereotyping in toys? Well it’s complicated: I’m all for blue buggies and for girls who collect toys from the ‘Lego friends’ range. In short I’m happy to admit that crossing the boundaries pegs a child as different, this is unavoidable since children by necessity will cling to simpler more digestible concepts than adults. However what I think we do need are toys for those on the fringes which nonetheless still allow them to feel comfortable in their own skin. This doesn’t mean making all toys gender neutral: it has a lot more to do with toy companies taking time and effort to provide toys for genders which they are less than familiar with. Lego has done a remarkable job in this respect: I was never a fan of their previous attempt (‘Lego bellville’) which was basically just pink lego blocks and pleased no one. Their new offering has clearly had a far more careful treatment of their target audience, it incorporates the same level of building challenge which you find in the standard ‘Lego city’ sets but it also presents girls with an array of characters with jobs and lifestyles which can allow them to play ‘girly’ games whilst enjoying building blocks.

But where are the toys for the boy who wants to cross the line? Aside from the blue buggies and dolls for boys (which I have to admit only seem to target the preschooler age group) there doesn’t seem to be the same careful treatment. A boy who wants to try skipping is stuck with colours and designs which are clearly focussed at a girl’s tastes (how hard would it be to make a skipping rope that mimicked video game or car themes?). A boy that might have an interest in owning a fashion doll will have to make do with Ken (basically a male Barbie) or pass over any every day activities which a man might enjoy and go straight to war toys like Action Man and G.I. Joe (toys which, as I have been told by older customers, were themselves met with mistrust by fathers in the 60s and 70s).

Boys simply can’t break gender lines as easily without loosing something; in order to enjoy an activity which is stereotypically ‘girly’ they have to become more ‘girly’ themselves. Girls now don’t have to make such sacrifices, they can enjoy ‘boys’ toys’ yet remain girls thanks to innovations like those released by Lego (the term ‘tom boy’ only seems to be used by grandparents now).

Surely if we want men and women to understand each other better we should start by allowing not just girls but boys too to make forays into the other camp without sacrificing their own sense of gender identity. In fact this seems the best means of making for a more pleasant relationship between the sexes in the future. I like being a man, I liked being a boy, at no point did I wish otherwise but I did like the look of some of the toys which my sister and my cousin played with, I just wanted the toys to be less pink, and more structured (maybe with some flashing lights and sound effects to boot). To be honest I think most girls would welcome an escape from the barrage of pink also. In short there should be girls toys and boys toys (the alternative is a world of very confused children: children need solid concepts) but this shouldn’t prevent some cross over and, most importantly, the room we allow for this kind of cross-play could mean that far less children (girls and boys) feel marginalised by the toys with which they are presented.