Has Amazon lost its way?

amazon box lost in the rainIn my eyes, back in the early days of online shopping Amazon was Cinderella and Ebay, and the many others who have long-since left us, were her ugly stepsisters. For years I smugly admonished friends and relatives who used Ebay, it baffled me that they somehow expected to get what they paid for. In my eyes Amazon pushed for trust every step of the way whilst Ebay (and other sites) left sellers on a very loose leash, allowing all kinds of admonishable behaviour (and you never felt like the sites penalised people for their less-than-honourable selling practices).

Like I said Amazon was the diamond in the rough that was online shopping at the turn of the century. It was the Cinderella to a host of ugly step-sisters, but it turns out Amazon turned up at the ball in a mask and it’s becoming clear that she ain’t no Cinders.

I have been an Amazon customer since I was a student, about five or six years after they started trading (that’s more than a decade ago). Back then I bought books (it was all you really could buy from them in those days), but within a few years I was buying all kinds of things, mainly at Christmas, as Amazon started filling its warehouses with an increasingly broad stock range. Thanks to Amazon (and Amazon alone) I grew to love online shopping, I was sold.

I still love online shopping (though there are a number of things I would always rather buy in person) and Amazon’s digital services are fantastic (and don’t have the high-end price tag you pay to start using iTunes). However, I’m becoming aware of Amazon’s ethics (or lack thereof) more and more. From allegations of tax wrangling, to price wars, to their apparent reluctance to police their growing catalogue of ‘merchant’ stores, there are more and more factors that are putting me off Amazon.

According to 'The Selling Family' Matt C received this counterfeit Frozen Playset directly from Amazon a few days before the big announcement.

According to ‘The Selling Family‘ this is one of the counterfeit Frozen sets

The ‘merchant’ stores in particular are a sticky issue for me, it’s getting harder to tell whether you’re buying from Amazon or from some third party merchant and the problem with third parties who can remain fairly anonymous, is that it’s easier for them to do less than honourable things. Recently there was a bit of controversy when Amazon’s top selling toy actually turned out to be a counterfeit Frozen play set (basically sub-standard tat with ‘Frozen’ written on it), you can find out more about it in John Baulch’s article here. Amazon has since ‘frozen’ third-party sales of Frozen toys but to be honest the damage is already done.

Put on top of this the fact that they price out basically any brick and mortar store, and the fact that even distributors are starting to have problems supplying the retail behemoth, and I’m starting to like them even less. Their only redeeming feature in my eyes is their digital content and the ease of use people can have in accessing the music, videos, and ebooks that they’ve purchased from Amazon.

Unlike purchases from itunes I’ve found Amazon’s attitude to digital content to be surprisingly relaxed; you buy it and then you decide how I want to use it. However, this doesn’t really undo the fact that they don’t pay taxes in the same way that traditional retailers do, nor does it counteract any of the issues addressed above, so despite the fact that I’ve still got a small portion of Amazon fandom I’ve got to admit to a growing dislike for the company.

Sorry for falling a little off the typical toys topic but after reading the articles I’ve linked to above I felt pretty miffed at a company who always used to have a lot of support from me. As I said, I was a full Amazon advocate, trying to persuade friends and relatives alike to buy from them, I don’t do that any more and that’s a sad thing to realise, it’s never good to see a company you trust and admire drop so drastically in your estimation.

Am I the only one with this peculiar sense of loss in regards to Amazon? Do you feel like you’re mourning what Amazon was/could have been or do you still hold them high in your estimations? As always any comments are more than welcome and thanks for stopping by, feel free to have a wander through my other posts, and you can catch me over on Twitter, Cheers, John

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Gendered toys and the Blind Buying problem: ‘What have you got for an eight year old girl?’

create your top model creative studio by depesche

Top Model outsells every other toy (about 5 to 1) for 8 year old girls at Fun Junction. It’s by far the most popular toy picked by the girls themselves.

We’ve all heard parents say things like ‘that’s not a good toy for you, that’s for…’. In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all probably said it ourselves at some point. We tell our children that a toy isn’t appropriate for them for one reason or another. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the reasons for this are completely legitimate, as the toy may be too advanced or pose a danger to your child. However, there are times when some parents just don’t have a reason, or at best we have a reason which is likely to wither in the face of cross examination.

I work in a toy shop, I have done on-and-off for more than half of my life. I hear what parents really say to their children and to be honest the media (/social media) can be kind of harsh on parents who are choosing toys. Despite the occasional shocker like ‘girls don’t build stuff’ or ‘boys that play with dolls turn into p*@fs’ (yes I have heard this, thankfully the boy in question wasn’t actually within earshot) the overall response of parents to their children is fairly open minded. The problem only really hits its zenith when people are buying for other children. When party time comes along parents of the children invited often get a check-list of ‘favourites’; things that will avoid disappointment and assure the buyer that they’ve not wasted their money.

‘She likes horses and fairies’, ‘He likes Lego’, ‘He’s a really active boy’, ‘she likes drawing’

A brilliant set and one I know boys and girls would both love but again it doesn't fit the averages

Really Gross Science‘ is a fantastic science set and one I know boys and girls would both love but it’s generally not picked by 8 year old girls

I hear these descriptions (and many similar wish lists) so often that I’ve got a set list of go-to products to fit. It makes the whole thing easy, seamless, unchallenging and, most importantly for all involved on busy Saturdays (where multiple siblings might all be attending different parties on the same morning/afternoon) such lists save time.

Sidebar: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gender targeting in this kind of situation but less people seem concerned about our growing need to force children from stage to stage whilst exclaiming ‘they sure grow up fast don’t they!’. I personally think it’s just as dangerous as the growing gender segregation of toys (I’ve discussed this before here and here) but I won’t get into that too much just now. Sidebar over.

Anyway, here’s the issue that’s really amping up the gender/age divide in toys: combine the need for speed in the choosing of a birthday present with the gender/age specific advertising that kids are bombarded with and you start to see why toy companies have been favouring the targeting of specific groups with a particular line of toys. If a box is clearly, unambiguously, proclaiming that it’s ‘perfect for an 8 year old girl’, then you can bet your butt that thousands of 8 year old girls across the country will be getting at least one for their birthday.

With this in mind of course when Christmas comes around many of these children will pick the big, expensive, heavily advertised toys from the same range to add it to their Christmas list. But the reason for this isn’t just exposure to Christmas advertising, or even in-store displays; they’ve been playing with a cheaper element/elements from the same range since their birthday. It’s part of their life, they’re emotionally invested in the toy and they want to add to the world they’ve been playing in for months.

Lego Friends a brilliant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

Lego Friends a vibrant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

You will not deny a child this, they won’t allow it and if you force the issue you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent who breaks their dreams and dismantles a world of play that feels comfortable and familiar. Step by step, year by year this relationship between child and brand will grow stronger, until eventually advertising won’t matter, they won’t need to hear about the next thing out, all they’ll know is that they want it. And all this because of a toy/toys they got for their birthday.

I constantly try to explain this problem when discussing gender and toys: it’s not as simple as stopping advertisers/toy companies/toy stores from segregating sections (though this plays it’s part). It’s got a lot more to do with an emerging culture of ‘all the class’ birthday parties where all 30 or so children in a class are expected to attend, and bring a gift, whether they’re the birthday girl’s/boy’s best friend or someone who barely talks to them. With unfamiliarity comes generalisation. If you don’t know a child you have to guess what present they’d like based on the tiny amount of information you have. Sometimes (a lot of the time) that’s just an age and their gender. Of course we’ll see people hurry to buy generalised toys aimed at ‘eight year old girls in general’, they have no other option.

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child's hand, brilliant toy but not generally picked by 8 year old girls

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child’s hand, brilliant toy (but again it doesn’t fit the averages) you can get them here.

I try to show people alternatives and to be honest most are chomping at the bit to find something different (they don’t want the child getting 30 of exactly the same toy). However, the problem remains that we’re both entirely, unalterably, in the dark about the actual personality of the child they’re buying for. All we have to work with is a vague list of interests (if we’re lucky) combined with their age and gender. I apologise to anyone from Let Toys Be Toys who reads this but so long as people are in the dark about who they’re buying for I’ll go for the numbers and help them pick the toy that the average child of that age and gender would like.

This is the real problem driving companies to appeal to a specific age/gender and possibly the only solution will be to get to know a lot more about the children in your child’s class. The only way we’re going to open up diversity in play is by knowing children as individuals and for a large portion of the toy buying population this currently is often just not an option.

Keep in mind that on average a parent will probably be taking their child to parties for around half of the Saturdays in the year. If they have more children then they’ve got more parties to buy for. It’s a big expense, even though the individual purchases don’t look like much (maybe an average of £7-£10 per gift), consider what that mounts up to throughout the year. When you add in the expense of travel and any other peripherals (costumes etc.) it’s easy to see why parents are trying their hardest to avoid wasting money. No one wants to imagine that the gift they bought has been sent un-played-with to a charity shop, so they play the odds, pick something that’s statistically likely to go down well, and keep their fingers crossed.

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

So what’s the solution? I have none, I’m sorry but I don’t. We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class. So Let Toys Be Toys (and the many other groups rightfully campaigning to end the ridiculous segregation of toys by gender) remember: many/most of the people buying toys are just (through no fault of their own) shooting in the dark and despite all the re-named sections and re-packaged toys, these people will still come up to the sales assistant and ask ‘Do you have something that would suit an eight year old girl?’

This is where the next battle will have to be fought and it will be a lot harder going for us all.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what could be done to ease this situation? Do you think I’ve painted too bleak a picture here? As always I welcome any comments/questions/tirades/meanderings, thank you for reading and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up with toy related news/discussions, all the best, Cheers, John

Step asside Barbie, ‘Lammily’ is taking a turn in the spotlight!

LammilyNickolay Lamm has been at it again. You may remember his make-up free Barbie that I posted about a few months ago, well his next step was to re-imagine a Barbie-style doll which met the average proportions of a 19 year old (I assume in the US). His design prompted a demand for an actual working toy and so he put together a crowd-funding page to get the doll into production (with the help of ex-VP of manufacture at Mattel; Roger Rambeau). They’ve already exceeded their goal by double (as of 7th March 2014) so the doll is happening.

average_compositeThe opinions are starting to pour in, some of them surprisingly negative. The primary complaint seems to be that Lammily isn’t ‘average enough’, or that she’s ‘too pretty to be average’ and I don’t know what we could say to this. Is she pretty? Well yes, in an average kind of way, but there seems to be reams of research supporting the notion that when you average out a large number of faces you get an attractive (though perhaps not very distinctive) result. So that sorts the ‘too pretty to be average’ issue. To be honest given the research she’s too average not to be pretty.

The next issue is: is she really average? Do a large portion of young women have body shapes which look like Lammily’s? To be honest we may never get an answer on that. Every community you belong to may have women in it with a very different set of physical qualities. When you average their proportions out perhaps you’ll get something like Lammily’s dimensions but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one young woman in that group will have those proportions herself.

All of that said it’s hard to deny the fact that Lammily looks less alien, a lot more human and, most importantly, a lot more healthy than I’ve ever seen Barbie look. I would agree that Nickolay Lamm hasn’t really succeeded in making the most expressive or dynamic wardrobe for Lammily but in his defence Barbie has 60 years and the brunt of Mattel behind her selection of clothing. Overall there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Lammily apart from one glaring issue (at least for me): Lammily is an average nineteen year old. What age are the girls who will make up the target-audience of Lammily? Possibly nine or ten at the most?

groovyLottie Pony Flag Race CompFor all of Lammily’s positive attributes I have to side with a more realistic girl doll like ‘Lottie’ or Manhattan’s ‘Groovy girls’. This isn’t just because we stock them, in fact we stock them precisely because they’re a more realistic image for a young girl to try and imitate. There’s definitely a place for the aspirational enjoyment of an ‘adult-looking’ fashion doll but when it comes to producing something relatable, and something that places less emphasis on the importance of growing up quickly, I have to side with Lottie and the Groovies every time.

What do you think? Is Lammily ‘average’? Would you still prefer a Barbie? Are fashion dolls in general too mature for girls or is there an important aspirational element to that kind of play? As always your comments are more that welcome either below this post or you can feel free to send me a tweet (you can also find my twitter feed to the right of this post). Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

P.S As a side note, here’s a defence of Barbie dolls ‘written by’ the plastic icon herself (makes for interesting reading).

Tuesday Repost: Engendered toys: Is being domesticated really such a bad thing?

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.

Gender toys, domestic toys

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.

questions of genderI 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.

Homer's 'BBQ'

Homer’s ‘BBQ’

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.

cleaning set for kids

A simple brush and shovel set,  your wee ones will love helping out around the house (I know my two do)

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

Tuesday repost: Engendered toys: Construction toys

Had a couple of conversations on twitter about gender the other day and it made me want to revisit this post, just to clear up any confusion people might have about how I feel about gendering toys for children. Hope you enjoy it and please feel free to fire back any comments you have (good or bad).

Construction toys

I originally wrote this post a few months ago when I came home from work to find Logan and Alexander helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad were watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY. When I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much a constant event in our house. As soon as somebody mentions a dad doing DIY we start to expect the kind of story that highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. This was never the case with my dad, he was generally careful; especially when it came to electrical repairs, to be honest I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without doing at least a bit of research into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I’ll be able to fix most things that go wrong in the house. That said, what I saw on TV sent a very different message, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.

new_4960802_retro-tv-icon-1I often have a good moan at the media blaming them for many of the woes of modern parenting but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’d bet that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop (possibly bigger now than ever, now that we have dedicated kids TV stations). I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you could expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have lost popularity from one generation to the next, and the sad fact is that they have.

Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. There’s no denying the massive role that computer games play in many young boys’ lives now compared even to when I was a kid (back in the 80s). What’s more we can’t ignore the role that the dreaded health and safety regulations (sometimes the killing stroke to some of the best toys) will have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.

tooltimeHowever, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to. However there is nothing inherent in the use of tools that excludes girls from playing. The debate about why girls typically choose pink, dolls, and fashion, and boys pick blue, construction and science toys rages on and my own perspective is hard to get a handle on in one post but I have tried in a previous post.

Describing shows like ‘Bob The Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’ as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.

In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). Sadly this set has sat there since before Christmas. I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s had little to no interest from children of the appropriate age. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).

lgst3241boys-are-stupid-throw-rocks-at-them-boys-are-stupid-poster

Really hate this meme, nothing positive about it and it’s not funny

This post has a lot in common with another post I did  about gender: in both I blame media depictions of day-to-day life which I think is  a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things, this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative. One move is seen as empowerment for girls but the alternative for boys seems to leave them questioning their abilities.

There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands is beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?

A toy is not a thing, it’s an island of happiness

beloved toysI keep telling myself I’ll get round to writing a post about Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project Toy Stories and eventually I’ll write a full post about it but first I want to consider the notion of what constitutes ‘enough’ toys. Many commentators on Galimberti’s work have looked down on the subjects of the more ‘western’ images (see more images later in this post) as horrible examples of materialism gone mad. I disagree wholeheartedly: whilst I can see the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of bemoaning the attitudes of better off parents in providing an near endless supply of toys, I just can’t seem to bring myself to agreement with this notion because anyone who claims to know how many toys are ‘too many’ is in effect claiming to know how many toys are ‘enough’. Can we put a number on that? Is a child with 10 toys less spoiled than a child with 50? What if the financial value of the 10 toys is quadruple that of the 50? The problem is we’re using an adult’s manner of quantification to assess something that can’t be counted.

gabriele_galimberti_5When a toy works; that is when a child takes it into their heart, it fits into a unique band of objects, it is no longer just a ‘thing’ it is gains a value that cannot be gauged by anyone but the child and becomes special in a way that surpasses the sentimental. I’m possibly too much of an adult now to put this thought into words correctly but for that child that particularly perfect toy becomes a key to a world: sometimes this will be a place of comfort and calm where a child can relax and feel truly at ease, sometimes this will be a world of brilliance where the child’s greatest dreams transform into reality, wherever this toy takes them here you will find its value.

In philosophy a distinction is sometimes made between a ‘token’ and a ‘type’ identity. In the case of a book the type is the book as a series of words which can appear any medium (in this case there could be millions of the ‘same’ book), the token would be the particular book lying in front of you (of which there can only be one). Any philosophers reading this will probably criticise my hurried definition, sorry. If you lose your particular book you may be able to buy a new one which comes from the same ‘type’ but this book will obviously be a different token (it’s not physically exactly the same book). I don’t think the same can be said of some toys and sadly too many adults think it is: e.g. a child loses a favourite soft toy on holiday so you go back to the shop where you got it and buy a new one. Unless your child is really young they will know, they may not kick up a major fuss about it but they’ll recognise the switch. If you change the key it won’t unlock the same door, the child will never return to the same world which they did with their lost toy, sometimes this is unavoidable but it is no less sad because of this.

gabriele_galimberti_13When you look at a child with a room full of toys, compare them with a child who has (as far as you can see) only three (or even one), and make the judgement that the first child has ‘too many’ toys you are claiming the right to decide how many worlds a child is allowed to have access to. Of course a child can be spoiled by being given a load of toys but the spoiling doesn’t come from the toys it comes from the idea that somehow these toys can ‘keep the child busy’, when a parent buys toys as a convenient means of keeping their child quiet the toy isn’t to blame for the spoiled child the ‘Laissez-faire’ parent is. If you help your child to engage with their toys and encourage their imagination to grow they simply get to travel through more worlds. No 0ne says ‘Oh they’re too well-travelled’ and I think the same can be true of toys. If the child engages with those toys properly then that’s not too many that’s just enough. Similarly if a child is content with just three toys this doesn’t make them ‘better’ than the other child it simply means that they have fewer keys to use and some must make them work all the harder.

Galimberti’s images of children with less toys tear at my heart strings not simply because of the obvious poverty: on a deeper level they are missing an element of childhood that our ‘wealthy’ children have the potential for easy access to and yet there is dignity and room for joyfulness for these little people. The ‘poor’ children still have toys, they still appear to have been given the time to access other worlds through these beautiful, fragile little keys. The toys look well loved and in some of Galimberti’s images (where the photographer’s attempt to get the child to keep a straight face, in order to keep the images clear for comparison, failed) the children are showing real love and joy in the presence of something beloved.

gabriele_galimberti_4Of course we should bemoan the avarice of our capitalist society but this doesn’t give us a carte blanche to stomp all over the toys that the wealthier children love. It is not our place to (as some commentators have done) demand that the ‘rich’ kids send some of their toys to the ‘poor’ kids, they are not your toys, you have no right to assume that you can gauge their worth with a system based on the exchange of lumps of metal. They are their toys, if the plight of the ‘poor’ children bothers us it is our job as adults to do something about it, not simply by sending them toys but also by being more aware that kids need someone there to play with them and we cannot gauge by the photos just how much of the most valued resource these children receive: time, time to be children, time to explore and importantly time with an adult who cares for them and helps them to do these things. If this bothers us we should do as much as we can to respect the adults who look after these children and ensure that they have some time in their day to play with their kids, Make sure they aren’t walking for 4 hours for safe drinking water- fund a well, make sure that when they do a days work they get paid fairly- buy fair trade, you know the drill.

On the flip side who knows perhaps some of the  ‘rich’ children may lack the most important ingredient to help their toys really work for them as their parents/carers are caught up in the ‘work/life’ balance, barely finding time to make their kids breakfast as they get themselves ready for work and scraping together a bit of time in the evening, just before bed to sit and spend some one on one time with their child.

gabriele_galimberti_3Galimberti’s pictures are beautiful but let’s not turn them into more than they are, of course there is a difference in the quantity but the quality will not show up in a photograph, finally here is an issue that only kids can get a say in, the value of these toys is not a price tag and it never should be. If you would ask the boy in the top picture to part with one of his little dogs, or his scuffed up wee dinosaur, in exchange for 30 new dogs and dinosaurs you aren’t on the same page as me at all. The value of toys goes beyond price or even sentiment as I personally think Galimberti’s work shows. If you think throwing some toys at the ‘poor’ kids will make their life better you’re missing the point, the picture is bigger than that, they need a better life to enjoy more toys, all kids do and better doesn’t always mean more money.

Thanks again for reading, sorry for the lack of a fresh post last week, I’m having a busy time of it at the moment. Cheers, John

Tuesday repost (comes early): ‘Gender in Toys’

I’ve got a computer in front of me so I thought why not just do the re-post today. I wrote this last June but given some of the feedback I got on the post about Barbie losing her make-up on Friday I thought this might fill in some gaps that hadn’t been discussed there. I’m not sure of the etiquette with a re-post but I’m a tinkerer so I’ll be doing a quick little edit of it too just to make sure I still agree with myself (if you know what I mean).

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 me 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. Here at Fun Junction we don’t explicitly label any section as ‘boy’s’ or ‘girl’s’ toys: for example we have ‘pretend play’ (incorporating dolls, cooking and other domestic toys), ‘transport’ (cars, trains and tractors) and we have a section with a mixture of castles, farms dolls houses and pirate ships. It works well and we like to think it helps discourage marginalisation whilst making it easy for people to find what they’re after.

girl doctorbaby stella boyI think the main issue behind the move to removing gender labels from toys was (and often still is) the idea that if a girl plays with a doll she’ll end up with only one career goal open to her (mother). You can see a little of what I think to this notion here. Little was said about the kind of expectation that was associated with some ‘boy’s toys’ like giving a child an army man as an example of ‘true’ masculinity or 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 (actually, if I’m honest I think she was more enthusiastic about them). 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, lacking a sporty focus I needed an interest so I learned guitar, got interested in music  and had a blast of a time in my teens.

However, back when I first started working in toys (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 rampant gender stereotyping of ‘boy’s toys’. Since then I’ve had time to think it through and look at the issue with a critical eye, recognising the historical context of the time I grew up as a time that parents and teachers were being encouraged to broaden the horizons of young women. I can see how difficult it would have been to revolutionise gender stereotypes for boys at the same time but I can’t help but wonder whether we might be able to squeeze it in with this next generation. If you want to tell girls that they can have a career and a family then someone will have to take up the slack at home and who better than the dad (we can’t all have nannies)? If you want dads that act like that when they’re adults you’ll need them to be a bit domesticated when they’re wee boys, so we’ll need toys that do that. The trouble is, without effort being made to enable boys to feel comfortable with dolls etc. we don’t stand a hope of getting boys to play with the more domestic types of toy. On top of this is another tricky issue: is it in our nature to favour certain types of toy?

back of the netThe 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 often 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 them. So what are we as parents supposed to do?

Fighting against gender stereotyping is a battle no one is going to win since the gender roles perform their function so well but do we have to always mark the line between these roles by appeal to the individual’s gender? There are good arguments to suggest that stereotypes find backing in 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 kinds of play which are either mock-aggressive in nature or which incorporates mechanism, females on the other hand have a tendency to mock-nurse a child and engage in other rituals associated with motherhood. The mechanism focus for males and child focus for females was actually shown in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Bang goes the theory’ this time looking at monkey behaviour (even more evolutionarily different, yet still exhibiting the same trend), I’ll add a video at the bottom of this post. In short, it would appear that in terms of nature vs. nurture, nature seems to have a massive role to play in toy preference. I’m not claiming that we can’t escape our biology, but given that in us human beings there’s a prevalent cross cultural preference in toy choice (even the nurture is geared towards  gender roles), we can’t escape the sheer brunt of this fact. The truth is it will be a hard task unless we can open up a social niche for ‘different’ children that the general populace is comfortable with.

lego-friends-laboratory bigSo what is my stance on gender stereotyping in toys? Well it’s complicated: I’m all for blue buggies for wee boys and for girls who play with Lego (Lego friends being a good example) as they play a massive role in de-marginalising loads of kids. 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. Nonetheless, what I think we do need are toys (like those listed above) for those on the fringes which are still able to allow children 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 belville’) 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 what you might call ‘girly’ games (often any play with a social dynamic seems to get pegged as ‘girly’) 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. For example, a boy who has 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) and, what’s more, if the original interest for the boy was fashion then a war toy is straying pretty far away from that.

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 deal with the prospect of being seen as 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. What’s more the term ‘tom boy’ typically only seems to be used by grandparents now. They can take on more traditionally ‘masculine’ activities whilst remaining feminine. Sadly boys often are seen to lose their masculinity as soon as they start playing with more ‘girly’ toys.

Gender toys, domestic toysSurely 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. What’s more, whilst my interests included a lot of ‘boy’s toys’ like Lego, model kits, transformers etc. my lack of interest in sport and my enjoyment of more sedentary/cerebral (‘bookish’)  activities always pegged me as different. On top of this I had a great interest in more domestic activities and I was aware from a very early age that I wanted to be a dad so I liked playing with baby dolls, though I outgrew this as I progressed through primary school I still sewed little outfits for my wee sister’s dolls (you can see what I think about the importance of exposing all children to ‘domestic’ toys here).

So what is my opinion about gender stereotyping in toys. In short there should be ‘girl’s toys’ and ‘boy’s 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) would feel marginalised by the toys with which they are presented, and importantly this could promote greater understanding between the sexes.

When you think back to your childhood were there any times you wished you could make forays into the other camp? Did you make the leap and if so how did you find it? Perhaps you never really noticed a distinction. Whatever your impression I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

As promised here’s the video from BBC’s ‘Bang goes the Theory’, start watching from 8:20 to see their take on the nature/nurture debate about gender: