Visit the average toy shop and you’ll realise that everything you’ve been led to believe about changing gender roles is wrong. We pay lip service to equal opportunities but we’re still raising our children in Fifties ad land. Boys get guns, dinosaurs and cars. Girls get miniature ironing boards, make-up kits and plastic dolls that wet themselves.
Whether they’re signposted or not, sections are strictly segregated along what everyone knows to be gender lines. The idea that girls and boys are fundamentally different in their desires, outlook and preferences starts in Aisle 1. We give our children gendered toys before they can speak or even reach for them. We teach them that this is the way things are and it’s only later, long after they’ve accepted their fate, that we happen to mention there’s a choice.
For this reason I feel I should be celebrating the arrival of Goldie Blox, a new toy range that seeks to “disrupt the pink aisle” by encouraging more girls to become engineers. Developed by engineering graduate Debbie Sterling, it’s a construction toy that uses a female character (reassuringly blonde and thin) to ease girls into the scary world of building things. The toys themselves look engaging and the website is dotted with cheering images of proud young girls showing off their creations. It looks fun and if I had a daughter or niece, I’d be tempted to buy one of their kits. Nevertheless, there’s something about the whole project which doesn’t seem quite right.
There’s a whole heap of sexism in toy marketing, of that there’s no doubt. But do we combat it by merely papering over the cracks? It starts to feel ever so slightly cynical, treating sexism as a marketing opportunity in the same way that the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty does. Look, girls! Self-esteem can be bought! It’s never enough to say “sod this foolishness, you should just buy some ordinary soap / construction toys”. You need special, anti-sexism soap and construction toys. Special, anti-sexism products just for girls.
Then there’s the gender essentialism. The Goldie Blox website boasts of how “by tapping into girls’ strong verbal skills, our story + construction set bolsters confidence in spatial skills”. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from Steve Biddulph or John Gray, stereotype presented as scientific fact. These kits will boost your confidence but not without reinforcing the very messages that damaged it in the first place.
You could of course argue that, just as Dumbo needed his magic feather to gain the confidence to fly, girls need a little bit of fairy dust to convince them they can do science. Once they’re up and running, we can take it all away. I’m not so sure. Gender stereotyping is so widespread and so deeply ingrained, I can’t see the point at which a girl who starts by seeing herself as a “girl engineer” would ever switch to just plain “engineer”. Dumbo drops his feather; no one ever accidentally loses contact with gender stereotypes. We have to be active in our distancing before it gets too late.
My youngest child is a huge fan of Lego Friends, a range that was controversial at the time of its launch due to accusations that a gender-neutral toy was being “pinkified”. My son is oblivious to this. He just likes the cute animals and the camper van. What concerns me is not so much the toys themselves but the context in which pink and blue are presented. There will be girls who feel pink Lego is the only Lego they are “allowed”. I worry that one day my son will feel ashamed of liking his “girly” toys. Yet what I find most odd is that while Lego are condemned for pinking and shrinking a gender neutral toy, Goldie Box are praised because there’s no gender neutral version with which to make a comparison. This doesn’t seem fair when ultimately the message is the same: there is real life and then there’s the girls’ version.
Goldie Blox aren’t even trying to hide the fact that their toys are strictly girls-only. In this sense they’re not so much disrupting the pink aisle as coughing politely and asking Barbie if she wouldn’t mind budging up a little. Real disruption would mean mixing the whole thing up. We wouldn’t be able to tell where pink ended and blue started. We would let our children find their own way.