Wednesday, May 20

Gender-specific Toys

When I was a kid (and I just can see the Grim Reaper rubbing his bony hands and sharpening his scythe), we didn’t have all that many gender-specific toys. At least, they were not marketing toys that way. Yes, on the whole, parents (and other relatives) would often buy ‘typical’ toys for their children, cars for boys, dolls for girls.

But especially when I was a kid (shortly after the mammoths stopped frolicking on the plains), during the late 1970s and very early 1980s, a lot of parents bought toys which were either considered gender-neutral (like building blocks) or they bought what the child wanted to play with. In my case that included toy cars (although I inherited quite some of them from older cousins), stuffed animals, and a few dolls. I was never much of the ‘caregiver’ girl. I didn’t like baby dolls much. I liked dolls I could use to act out the stories in my head. You could say I was writing stories with my dolls before I learned to write and before I really started to write for fun.
The rebellious students from the 1968 revolution and the hippie parents alike didn’t like the fixed gender roles they had often been brought up with. Instead, they usually offered their kids a wide range of different toys and bought what the kids liked, no matter the gender. My mum built me a little wooden base for several old model train houses (including a nice lake) left over from my parents model train days, so I had my own little village for the toy cars, the houses, and three small boxes of model train people I loved to play with.
But then, my parents weren’t the ‘old-fashioned’ parents, either. Even though my mum was a stay-home mum and my dad was working, they split up my education. My dad used to read me stories in the evening and, while I still needed diapers, also changed them. My mum taught me to ride a bike and built me stuff from scratch. They teamed up one year to make me a very special Christmas present: a story written by my dad and illustrated by my mum. I still have it and I treasure it.
Anyway, especially during my childhood (after the ice age had ended), parents made a conscious effort not to force children into a specific gender role.

And these days? Toy stores and toy aisles in other stores are clearly divided by gender. There’s pink stuff for girls and blue or black stuff for boys. Even technically ‘gender neutral’ stuff like Lego blocks are suddenly divided in ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ blocks. Why?
I get it there’s a certain preference hard-wired into most human beings’ brains. It seems girls prefer ‘biological movement’ (meaning they prefer to watch animals or people) and boys prefer ‘mechanical movement’ (meaning they prefer to watch machines, cogwheels and suchlike). This also tells me my brain must have been wired wrong from the beginning, because I always found mechanical motion very fascinating, but I also always liked animals. In school, I tended to build planes with my ruler and my pen, because it was more fun than some boring lessons. And I was comfortable with doing that, because nobody had ever told me it was wrong to like moving my pretend plane around the desk - well, from a gender behaviour point of view, not from a teacher’s point of view.
What I don’t get is the strict diversion between ‘boy stuff’ and ‘girl stuff’ these days. A toy is a toy, no matter who plays with it. What’s bad about a boy playing with dolls? What’s bad about a girl playing with cars? We define what is ‘male’ and what is ‘female,’ when all’s said and done. We tell girls ‘cars are for boys’ and we tell boys ‘dolls are for girls’ and then we’re surprised they only want to play with ‘appropriate’ toys afterwards.
Little kids have no real understanding of the concept of gender. They do what others of their group do, whether that group is ‘family,’ ‘gender,’ or something else entirely. It’s society’s job to show them it’s okay for a girl to like cars and for a boy to like dolls, that they’re not ‘changing gender’ just because they secretly want to play with the ‘wrong’ toy.
And now we’re teaching girls it’s wrong to play with ‘normal’ Lego blocks or want Lego sets like ‘Marvel Superheroes’ (which is still missing Black Widow) or ‘Lego Chima.’ We’re teaching them to only play with the ‘friends’ sets, which include the usual topics such as shops, beauty parlours, or horse ranches.

Then there’s the whole ‘beauty and caring’ versus ‘violence’ topic of the toys themselves. Boys get guns, tanks, and soldiers. Girls get dolls, pretended (or real) make-up, and household appliances. Sure, Neff has released a ‘girl’ series for their weaponry - the ‘Rebelle’ bows and other weapons. But it took “The Hunger Games” for that to happen.
On the whole, we teach boys it’s ok to use violence and we teach girls they have to mind their looks, mind their children, and do household chores. I’m not against children doing some household chores, mind you, but I’m all for all children doing some household chores, not just the ones with the double X chromosomes.

Since the mid-1990s, we’ve had a recoil from Feminism, in all aspects of our lives. TV-series reverted to the old ‘strong guy, weak girl’ lines. Toys were marketed ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ again. More and more pressure has been put on women (and, with a certain delay, men by now as well) to confirm to one, specific, ‘gender’ beauty concept. The concepts differ, of course, and it’s not as rigid (yet) for men, but it’s more rigid now than it used to be in the 1980s.
You don’t believe me? Check TV-series from the early 1980s and compare them to series from the mid-1990s. You’ll find more diverse women in the 1980s and you’ll find much stronger girls (especially in series targeting teens and pre-teens) in the 1980s and early 1990s.

This is one of the best scenes in the whole “Roseanne” TV-series for me. Tomboy Darlene has her first period and thinks her days with sports and ‘boy stuff’ are over and she’ll turn into a clone of her older ‘girlish’ sister Becky and her mother tells her ‘it doesn’t change a thing … everything is for girls, if they want it.’ It’s not one of those ‘cartoon character of your choice says’ moments, it’s just one scene in one episode of a long-running series. It’s just common knowledge and simple facts, delivered from a mother to her daughter. That’s what makes it so good.
I’m not even completely sure whether there would be a series like “Roseanne” today - and whether it would have a character like Darlene in it, if it happened. What about a series like “Clarissa explains it all?” Clarissa was extremely different from the regular girls in TV-series aimed at families or teens when the first season premiered. (In fact, her creator had to defend her against the producers, claiming they wouldn’t have a problem with the same behaviour, if Clarissa were a boy.) She didn’t dress colour-coordinated (a huge thing at that time), she had no ‘normal’ girl’s room, she did computer stuff. (And she regularly broke the fourth wall.) A family like the Darlings would, perhaps, be daring for a series today.

Gender specific toys are a first step of telling children there’s a big gap between the genders. But is there, really? We might have preferences, but there’s no reason why a girl shouldn’t enjoy playing with ‘boy stuff’ or why a boy shouldn’t enjoy playing with ‘girl stuff.’ Toy companies try to convince the children of the opposite and they shouldn’t do that. They’re setting a lot of things in motion for the future of the children. Learning there’s only a small range of acceptable behaviours for girls or boys limits the choices they will feel they can make later in life.

We want more women in technical jobs. We need more women in technical jobs. But that starts with not telling them ‘cars and cogwheels and chemistry sets are for boys.’ It starts with telling them ‘if you’re curious about cars and cogwheels and chemistry sets, have a go at them.’ And we should tell boys ‘if you want to learn how to care for children or animals or a household, have a go at that.’ The important part is always ‘if you want to.’