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10 September 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

To bridge the gendered toy gap, we need to spend less time celebrating femininity and more time attacking masculinity

Our children’s toy choices tell us something not just about how they see themselves, but how they see the world we’re creating for them.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Despite the best efforts of campaigns such as Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys, it seems the nation’s girls and boys still expect their toys to come in pink or blue packaging. According to a recent survey commissioned by LIMA UK, the most popular items for children under 14 still fall along strictly gendered lines. The top ten for boys includes Thomas the Tank Engine, Star Wars and NERF, while girls go for My Little Pony, Hello Kitty and Barbie. Whatever else has changed in terms of gendered expectations, playtime remains stuck in the land that time forgot (otherwise known as the early 1980s).

Does it matter?  While it’s true that introducing little girls to the priggish, classist world of Thomas the Tank Engine ranks pretty low on my list of feminist priorities, news like this does make me concerned. In a world in which differences between men and women are grossly exaggerated and inequality remains rife, I can’t help thinking the great toy divide is not as innocuous as it first appears.

It’s not as though it has to be this way. Writing in the New Scientist, Cordelia Fine highlights the weakness of any evidence supporting the hypothesis that “innate sex differences” lead children to prefer certain toys over others:

For instance, if the preference of female rhesus monkeys for stuffed animals shows that love of dolls is “innate” in girls, what do we make of the fact that the favourite toy of male vervet monkeys was a stuffed dog, which they played with more than a third longer than a toy car?

While the precise reasons behind a vervet monkey’s toy preferences may of course remain one of life’s mysteries, the fact that such debunking evidence needs to be presented at all is worrying. As Fine points out, toy marketing might be just one of many things which promote gender stereotyping, but the cumulative effect of “naturalising” differences in play is both polarising and deeply conservative:

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It’s not just that vehicles, weapons and construction sets are presented as “for boys”, while toys of domesticity and beautification are “for girls”. Toys for boys facilitate competition, control, agency and dominance; those for girls promote cooperation and nurturance. These gender stereotypes, acquired in childhood, underlie a host of well-documented biases against women in traditionally masculine domains and roles, and hinder men from sharing more in the responsibilities and rewards of domestic life.

Of course, in response to this it can and will be argued that boys will be boys, and that you can lead a girl to Hot Wheels but you can’t make her play. However, is it is almost impossible to raise one’s own children free from the lure of stereotype and conformity. Submission becomes a survival strategy. As Fine notes, “children are very aware of the importance placed on the social category of gender […] Once a child realises on which side of the great gender divide they belong, the well-known dynamics of norms, in-group preference and out-group prejudice kick-in”. I’ve noticed this when my elder son and his friends discuss how much they “hate” pink. They spit out their hatred, not in response to a colour (a colour which is fine if you tell them it’s actually orange, or pale red, or coral), but to show that they are “not one of them” – not that other class of people, the girls. That’s how they need to position themselves and as adults, we need to take responsibility for failing to set better examples. 

It does not strike me as accidental that thus far, our assault on toy stereotyping has been curiously one-sided. We might fuss over Lego female scientists and GoldieBlox, yet there is not the same drive to get boys interested in fairy wings and baby dolls. We are happy to allow girls to indulge in equality make-believe every now and then (check out these pink NERF guns!), just as long as boys are not being unmanned by insufficiently boisterous play (indeed, it has reached a stage where some parents might even question whether a boy who likes Disney princesses, Hello Kitty and My Little Pony can be a boy at all). It is as though girls, preparing for a life of flexible multi-tasking, must bend to different roles, whereas boys must remain static and fixed. Gender liberation itself is run along strictly gendered lines.

Writing on Marvel comics’ recent decision to make the God of Thunder a woman, Paris Lees notes that “sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers”:

It’s wonderful that the fairer sex were able to undo their corsets and take on things that were traditionally seen as masculine – whether that be sports, political careers or plain old dungarees – but it has done little to challenge the scapegoating of femininity. We live in a society that still systematically celebrates masculinity while ridiculing all things feminine. Women who adopt masculine clothing are seen as serious and businesslike. Men who adopt feminine styles are sneered at.

Lees is only half right. When a woman puts on a pair of trousers, it offers no real challenge to male supremacy. The majority of things which have been “traditionally seen as masculine” – wealth, dominance, sexual agency – remain closed off from her. She can zip up the flies on her “serious and businesslike” clothing and no one will forget that it she remains a “not man”. There’s no need even to ridicule her. When it comes to men in feminine clothing, on the other hand, Lees is absolutely correct that they would be openly sneered at. How better to emphasise that such people have become “not men”, too, regardless of what they share with other males?  What we are dealing with is not “the scapegoating of femininity”; it’s the preservation of some pristine, shimmering, utterly illusory version of masculinity. Neither I nor Lees is allowed in on it. It wouldn’t do to open the door even a tiny crack, since it would expose male dominance for the total sham that it is.

When it comes to bridging the great toy divide, and confronting inequality between men and women overall, I suspect we need to spend less time celebrating femininity (as if any man truly objects to a whole class of people being raised to serve!) and more time attacking masculinity. Its boundaries are safeguarded with a passion which those of femininity are not, yet it causes far more death and destruction than femininity ever has. God forbid that masculinity should be infected with anything pink, soft or fluid. Let’s not let Barbie anywhere near Thomas the Tank Engine (the mere existence of Rosie the pink engine is compromise enough). Such thinking doesn’t just limit choices for men and boys. It harms women and girls. It presents the one thing that does us most damage as natural and inevitable. Don’t question the guns, sticks and stones. Don’t point out that all this bluster and posturing has no moral value. If the difference between a manly man – a potential ruler of the world – and a “not man” comes down to whether one is wearing chinos or a silk skirt, or playing with Hello Kitty or a Han Solo, how fragile masculinity must be. How fragile, and yet how destructive nonetheless.

All gender transgressions come at a high cost, whether you’re the man wearing the dress, the woman speaking for herself or the boy picking out My Little Pony from the toy box. It is easier to reposition oneself in relation to the dominant order than it is to challenge it. Nonetheless, when we see our children being dragged down these same paths – preparing themselves for a world in which everything is categorised in order to justify one group’s exploitation of another – we should want more.

Our children’s toy choices tell us something not just about how they see themselves, but how they see the world we’re creating for them. Boys will be boys? Really? Can’t we allow them to aim a little higher than that?