I cringe every time I walk into a toy store or past toy aisles in a big box store.
Not because of the content of what’s there–I love toys. We all love toys. Jake and I think that one of the best benefits of being parents, other than the obvious love-filled wonderfulness, is getting to collect and play with toys without looking creepy. And getting to go to kid attractions. Toys are great. What bothers me so very much is the sharp division between “boy toys” and “girl toys”.
It makes sense from a marketing perspective. Parents get excited about the sex of a baby. It’s one of the very few things you can learn about a baby when they’re still wombed up, one of the only hints a parent has into the person a little bit will become. So it can be exciting to stock up on pink or blue paint, clothing, and toys. Gender neutral stuff is available, but often harder to find (and usually only reserved for those parents wanting the sex of the baby to be a surprise). It makes sense for companies to want parents to want gender specific stuff. Because, if by some miracle a product wasn’t recalled between baby #1 and baby #2, parents will have to buy that stuff all over again in the event that they have another child of a different sex. It’s the same when kids get older and you’re stuck buying a blue toy camera and a pink one because your different sex kids don’t want to share a toy that isn’t their color.
We asked for neutral stuff when we had Eliza (we were teenagers when we had her, so the pragmatic “we need to be able to use this again” was at the forefront of our concerns), but, for the most part, we didn’t get it. The big stuff that we bought (car seat, stroller, etc.) was neutral, but everything we were gifted was pink. Even after we announced her baby theme as ducks. We could only find about four outfits in our Eliza baby clothes stash that we could use for Jonas, so we were stick buying him a whole new wardrobe. The older generations in our family have been fighting us wanting gender neutral stuff from the very beginning.
The gender separation in baby products illustrate that the “divide and conquer” marketing for kids along gender lines begins early, and it’s profitable for companies making those products. We’re not buying into it. Jonas has tons of pink blankets and toys from when Eliza was a baby. We’re not going so far as to put him in pink striped pajamas with butterflies on them, but he doesn’t care if his teething ring is pink and purple. Not one bit.
Jake and I think that it is good to not push our kids towards only gender specific toys. We’re happy that Eliza plays with princess Barbies play alongside Spiderman, Iron Man, and Darth Vader. I love that she’s watching My Little Ponies one second and X-men the next. I love that she wants to read about dinosaurs, puppies, Harry Potter, earthquakes, and Olivia. I love that she dresses up with necklaces and then goes and examines bugs with her microscope. Job well done, us. Way to go E.
But we’ve met resistance along the way. For instance, no one would buy her Spiderman pajamas when she asked for them because they were only in the boy department. So we bought them for her for Christmas (here she is wearing them and picking up her comic book trail from Santa). She’s wanted (and had) Spiderman birthday parties two years in a row, but she’s been questioned with, “Wouldn’t you rather have your party be princesses or something?”
Eliza has held up really well under this pressure. She’ll answer that there’s not “girl stuff” and “boy stuff”: it’s just what you’re into that’s important. I thought that maybe the gender line at school would break this, but she’s held up really well. When the boys at school wouldn’t let her play Star Wars with them because they already had a Leia and there weren’t more girl parts, she told them that it didn’t matter if she pretended to be one of the boy parts, “You’re not really a Jedi, so why can’t I pretend to be a boy? That’s what pretending IS.”
She’s really tuned in to the fact that society’s view on gender is different than what we’ve been teaching her (that boys and girls are essentially the same). She talks about the boy aisles and girl aisles of the toy store not being fair, notes that it’s silly that boys can walk around without shirts on but girls can’t, and asks why girls can wear make-up and nail polish but boys can’t (except apparently for rock stars, so that’s even more confusing). She seems to be cool with the explanation that theres nothing “wrong” with boys or girls crossing the gender line, that many people do it, and that it’s about what’s socially acceptable, not what’s “normal” or “right and wrong”. She’s really upset about the way life was before the Women’s Rights Movement, and she really likes hearing stories about that history.
Jonas is going along the same path. If Eliza’s doing it, it’s super cool. So he wants her stuff. Also, who doesn’t like shiny, sparkly, light up stuff? No one, that’s who. (He’s really into the Light Sprites right now.)
It will be more difficult for Jonas to be able to outwardly like “girl stuff” than it is for Eliza to like “boy stuff”. A boy’s sexuality is more often questioned if he crosses gender lines (though a girl who loves sports can often be made fun of as well). Sociologically speaking, this is because it is more socially acceptable for a person to “power up” by emulating the qualities of a social group that has more recognized power in a society than it is to “power down” by emulating a social group that is perceived to have weaker qualities.
You may be asking yourself, “Why not just let them play with just the gender specific stuff? What’s the problem with it? Why fight it, it’s natural for girls to want to dress up like princesses and for boys to want to smash things with lightsabers.”
The main reason is that Jake and I don’t believe that those perceived gender differences are natural at all. Most gender differences are just that–gender differences. Not sex differences. Meaning, they’re a social construct, not biologically hard wired. This is not a belief shared by most people, but gender stereotyping has a big impact. For instance, in Russia the implicit gender stereotype is that boys are better at the humanities and girls are better at math and science. Who do you think does the best in these areas? And it’s the opposite in the United States, because the opposite stereotype is true. This is part of the Pygmalion Effect, in which children meet the expectations that you’ve set for them in most instances.
And we also think about what the toys are meant to represent. If playing with a baby doll is supposed to prep a child for nurturing as a future parent, wouldn’t you want your boy playing with one? If Legos are meant to enhance structural and spacial knowledge, wouldn’t you want your girl doing that too? Dressing up is all about enhancing imagination. Cooking toys are to get kids interested in cooking. Playing with stuff from both of the gender aisles will help you raise your kid to be a well rounded, independent human being. And that’s something to fight for.
Do you cross the gender lines with stuff for your kids? If you don’t have kids, did YOU play with boy stuff and girl stuff as a kid?
Let’s Get Serious is a blog series where we share our opinions and put ourselves out there. We get that not everyone thinks the same way; the same things don’t work for everyone. These are our opinions. They don’t have to be your opinions. We’d like to hear about what you think, but please don’t be mean to us. Let’s respect each other and talk about it!
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