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 happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage