If you take a walk down the aisles of a department store’s toy section, what do you usually see? An aisle ‘for girls’ and an aisle ‘for boys’. What is the first thing that a retail assistant will ask you when helping you find a gift for a child? “Are they a boy or a girl?” is usually the go-to introduction. The idea that toys, objects meant for fun, learning, and creating, are categorised by gender instead of function, is simply peculiar.
It all traces back to Western society’s overwhelming acceptance of gender binaries as a social norm. If male and female are seen as the only genders, with everything deemed ‘feminine’ being for girls and ‘masculine’ for boys, it is an advertiser’s dream. It is easier, and sometimes more profitable, to give into this dominant concept. If you can separate toy marketing into two separate categories, ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ then it only makes it simpler to market products. You see that little doll, with all the cute pink clothes and accessories, it’s so pretty every girl must like it… right? That truck looks big and tough, and boys like cars, it must be a great gift for any little boy… shouldn’t it? Assuming that a child will love a doll because she is a girl, or worship a truck because he is a boy, is borderline illogical and sexist. Is this they way we want to raise our next generation? Pressuring children into thinking a certain way because its just ‘easier’?
As a boy that loved (and still loves) the colour pink, and would always play with his friend’s sister’s dolls after he got sick of playing PlayStation, I experienced this kind of pressure first hand. Yes, I did like swinging my Action Man from a toy helicopter (it was on its harness, don’t worry), but I also loved a good fashion show with the Barbie. Coming to think of it actually, why couldn’t Action Man have a wardrobe and a runway, and Barbie have a harness and swing from a helicopter? From the get-go, kids are being engrained with these harmful gender stereotypes.
If that isn’t ridiculous enough, then let’s have a look at some colours. The notorious pink/blue debacle. If we go back to the 19th century, pink actually used to be a male colour. Pink ribbons and decorations were usually worn by young boys. Pink was seen as a stronger colour, and thus apparently more suitable for boys, while the more delicate blue was associated to girls. For a variety of reasons, pink later became more strongly associated with femininity, and so here we are today.
However, movements are being made, slowly but surely. Let Toys Be Toys is a parent-led campaign. According to their website:
Let Toys Be Toys is asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.
So far, they have helped to achieve a reduction in ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labelling of toys and books, and sectioning in children’s retail departments.
Customers who raised concerns about gender-based signage in Target stores in the United States led a movement by Target to start eliminating gendered signage and categorisation on many children’s products. The 2013 Play Unlimited Campaign in Australia encouraged Toys R Us to drop the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ categories from their website.
Multiple studies, such as a recent analysis in the American Psychologist in 2005, showed that psychologically, there are not that many differences between genders, nor are these differences stable or fixed. Science shows that a child’s interests and environment are the major factors that influence their toy preferences, rather than gender. If a child is constantly told that boys are meant to be tough like Action Man, and girls are meant to stay at home and nurture, like they do with their little baby dolls, they are sending destructive messages to the next generation. How are we meant to make any advancements in gender equality and diversity awareness if children are programmed into this way of thinking from birth?
This is something that everyone can make a difference on in a really easy and simple way. Petitions and complaints do make a difference, they tell companies that their customers care about these issues, and it motivates them to make a change. But even more simply, support toys and outlets that are helping fight harmful gender stereotypes and empower the next generation beyond gender binaries and stereotypes. When buying a gift for the young ones this Christmas, give them a gift that really keeps on giving.