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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.