Girls with toy guns and boys with doll's houses - what on earth is the problem?

A crumb of comfort from Sweden on the aggressive gender stereotyping of toys as a manufacturer reverses gender roles in its catalogue.

This Christmas my youngest son will be receiving a pink doll’s house. I am sure that when he opens it, certain relatives will be convinced that Mummy and Daddy only bought it “to make a point”. They will assume that despite his apparent joy, Youngest is secretly yearning for a mega murder machine, or whatever it is boys are meant to want. This isn’t true, though; we got him the doll’s house because he saw one in Toys R Us and has had his heart set on it ever since (hence we got him a second-hand, not-quite-as-good-but-he’ll-never-notice-it version off eBay).

You may think I’m wrong to second-guess the reactions of my nearest and dearest to our stereotype-busting purchase. Believe me, they’ve got form. Two years ago my eldest son got a dressing up set so he could look like the witch in Julia Donaldson’s Room On The Broom. All day he ran around the house chanting “I’m a witch, I’m a witch” and every single time a helpful grandparent felt the need to chip in with “no, you’re a wizard”. But he wasn’t a wizard. Apart from anything else, “wizard” wouldn’t scan or rhyme if you tried to put it into the story. “You’ll confuse him”, they said. Yet my son wasn’t feeling remotely confused, at least not until he was told he couldn’t be who he was pretending to be and that he had to pretend to be a person whom he hadn’t even imagined yet.

I don’t have particularly strict ideas about which toys my children should or shouldn’t play with, although I prefer it if said things are one, cheap and two, not mind-numbingly boring. I buy some things which are deemed to be for boys and some things which aren’t. This shouldn’t be a big deal, yet it is. Giving your children gifts that transgress “accepted” gender boundaries can be surprisingly controversial. Even so, those who object the most tend to be the same people who’ll tell you “but they’re only toys!” the minute you point out how rubbish the gender stereotyping that goes into all the advertising can be.

This year the Swedish toy chain Top Toy has caused something of a stir by producing a gender-reversed toy catalogue, in which girls play with toy guns and boys with doll’s houses. This is just for Sweden, mind. They’ve produced the same catalogue for Denmark, but with everything back to “normal” – the same layout but with the boys getting their guns and the girls trooping back to the home. Funny, that. The fact that Top Toy have previously been sanctioned – in Sweden but not in Denmark – for using stereotypical images does suggest that there’s more than a little cynicism in this apparently revolutionary vision. Either that, or they’re just taking the piss. Ah, well. It’s not great but if you’re a parent who’s against aggressive gender stereotyping, you’ll take whatever crumbs of comfort you can find. So I’m still slightly heartened by this.

The catalogue isn’t gender-neutral – they’ve picked up on the same binary roles but switched them around. Hence a terribly lazy criticism to make – and one which occurs frequently in response to Sarah Ditum’s Guardian piece on the subject – is “ha! They’ve got girls playing with guns! Is that what you feminists want?” To be honest, I’d rather not have anyone playing with guns (this is why I bought plastic light sabres instead. On reflection, this was not much better, but I’m less worried about my sons getting drawn into Jedi gang warfare later in life). Another desperate criticism is that this kind of “reversal” stops children from exploring their “gender identity” – which, apparently, they already have, right from the moment they draw their first breath. It’s a strange kind of fear that drives this. On the one hand we’re told to just let the children play, but on the other there’s a massive desire to police this supposed “freedom”.

It strikes me that gender stereotyping in toys is worse than it used to be. When I was a child there were girls’ toys (which I received and played with), boys’ toys (which my brother received and I played with) and neutral toys (which everyone played with, usually ending in a massive fight). These days nothing is allowed to be in-between. Two days ago I came across a special “girlz talk” edition of Jenga. Jenga! It’s “the original wood stacking game, with a pretty pink twist, and cool questions”! So now you can pull out a pretty pink block and get asked to “name someone you have a crush on right now”. Whatever happened to just pulling out a normal bit of wood and making sure the tower didn’t fall over? Is that now considered too unfeminine? I realise that toy manufacturers are always on the lookout for new angles and USPs, but can’t they do better than this? Hell, I could sit around all day coming up with things that haven’t yet been dyed pink. How about a pink Star Wars Death Star that asks you whether you’d rather snog Han Solo or cuddle an Ewok? Am I the first one to think of that, or is George Lucas just wavering on the copyright?

There’s the odd occasion when all this is useful. Like the time when we bought some Children in Need cupcakes and my five-year-old noticed that the cake cases were pink so “only Mummy is allowed to eat them”. Obviously I told him this was wrong, but only after I’d eaten the cakes. That was good. But the rest of the time it’s rubbish. Perhaps we focus on children because when it comes to adult gender stereotyping there’s nowhere left to go. Women are doing a million and one things which were meant to turn us into hysterical, sexless husks yet the fact is we’re still fully functioning human beings. I bet that’s annoying for sexists. At least with children you’re still in with a chance of telling them what they’re meant to like and having them believe you.

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to the grand opening of the pink doll’s house come Christmas Day, at least once I get the present for my five-year-old sorted. Following a trip to the Gloucester Waterways Museum he’s requested a life-size, fully operational canal lock. He wants it so much he’s even written to Santa for the first time ever. I have to say, whether it’s available in pink or blue will be the least of my worries.

One of the apparently controversial images from the Swedish toy catalogue.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot