Saturday February 1st 2014

On the genderisation of toys


First published on here for Bea Magazine in January 2014.

I know that various writers have posted on Bea about the ‘genderisation’ of toys, but the reason I want to bring this up again is because 1) I was talking about this yesterday to a concerned mum-to-be who would like to avoid raising her unborn child, whether it’s male or female, according to all the stereotypes and 2) I’ve seen lots of people lately saying things like “what’s wrong with pink”? and “why can’t little girls just be allowed to be little girls?”. I wanted to address them, while also examining this topic in a little more detail and discussing exactly why the ‘pinkification’ of the toy aisle is undesirable. Many, many, people I know feel that too much genderising in the toy departments is problematic, but I also know lots of people who wonder what the fuss is all about, when pink is “just a colour”, people who don’t see why it’s wrong to encourage girls to play with dolls. The short answer to that last one is that it isn’t wrong to encourage girls to play with dolls, and that’s why misunderstandings about what the anti-gendered toys people want need to be cleared up.

I’m worried that what will follow may seem somewhat patronising. But I think it needs spelling out.

Let’s start with a confession: I like pink, and I always have. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite colour (and frankly, in recent years, I’ve been more likely to avoid it because of my distaste for the pinking up of girls’ childhoods) but I enjoy it in most of its variants, though I’ll concede that I find salmony shades a bit sickly. So, I am happy to say, here and now, proudly, that pink in itself is not the problem. So, people who ask “what’s wrong with pink?”, here’s your answer: It’s not pink that is the problem; the problem is in the way that it’s being used. And there’s a problem in the way ‘boy colours’ are being used too.

When you have a child, they are immediately bombarded by one of two colours. If you didn’t know what you were having, you might have gender neutral first size clothes, but as you progress up through the less newborn sizes, the availability of gender neutral clothes decreases. You have to choose blue or pink. So, most parents probably go with the flow and choose blue for a boy and pink for a girl. When we do this, we pigeonhole them. Girls’ clothes are unremittingly pink, frilly, busy. We send them two messages. That they are pink, that their favourite colour must be pink, and that they are frilly things meant for sitting quietly inside while the boys play outside. We’ve taken away their choices, because they don’t get to choose a favourite colour, they accept that they are a certain sex, and have to fall in line with the status quo. There’s a touch of leeway. A girl can get away with having purple as their favourite colour, boys are okay to like green (camo), sludge colour and perhaps red or orange.

So, your children grow up, dressed in pink and purple if they are female, blue and sludge if they are a boy, and they learn to define themselves as either pink, or blue/sludge.

So, when you walk into the toyshop, and there are a couple of aisles giving off a pink sparkly glow, and a couple of aisles giving off an un-glowing air of sludge with the odd dash of colour, your child, male or female, knows which one is meant for them, because they’ve been forced to identify with it. And what do you find in the pink aisle? You find baby dolls, fashion dolls, doll paraphernalia, you find kitchens, pretend cleaning sets, plus the sort of items that ought to be unisex, coloured pink. For older girls, it’s cerise craft kits, make up kits, make your own lip balm, make your own jewellery, make your own hair clips. In the boys’ aisle it’s trains, cars, building stuff, the sort of items that ought to be unisex, coloured the right colour, and then, for the older boys, science kits, engineering stuff, gory stuff.

So, what’s the problem with that? Well, some people don’t think it is a problem. Some people think that it’s absolutely fine to encourage boys and girls to play with different kinds of toys and some people even think you are being cruel if you try to broaden their horizons. Like James Delingpole, writing in The Express this week, clearly trying to be controversial so I probably shouldn’t bite, who implied that people who have a problem with genderised toys are basically being cruel to their children in denying their natural instincts. People like this see their offspring behaving in gendered ways and because they are tiny when they start doing it, therefore assume that this must be ‘natural’. Little children absorb messages about what constitutes male and female, and about the social rules they are supposed to observe, from being very tiny. It’s no surprise if they are already conforming to gender roles by the time they are two.

I think it’s fine for a little girl to play with a doll, but it’s also fine for a little boy to play with a doll. There is no earthly reason why a boy should not play with a doll. When girls play with dolls, they are imitating their mothers and (hopefully) fathers. Why shouldn’t a little boy play at being a father? I have no evidence or statistic to back this up, but I can’t help feeling that if boys played at being fathers more then they’d grow up to do a better job of it. Boys are allowed to grow up to think that looking after children is a demeaning task that they’ll never have to do, meaning that women are almost inevitably forced to shoulder the bulk of the care. It’s only anecdotal, but I see the evidence of that all the time.

Ultimately, though, I think the thing that irks everyone the most (well, it’s what irks me the most) is the fact that they are pushed so much stuff that focuses on their appearance, whilst boys are being encouraged to get interested in Science And Stuff. And that, to many people, seems deeply unfair. And not, as some would assert, because we are placing the emphasis on traditionally male skill sets, and diminishing the role of, say, a stay at home mum. We don’t care if there are mums who genuinely want to stay at home. We just want our daughters and our sons to have a genuine choice about who and what they become, and not be persuaded, by their toys, by the media, that there are certain things that they can’t be. We don’t want to discourage our daughters from taking up what we’ve come to regard as traditionally female pursuits, if that’s what they really want, and vice versa, for our boys. It saddens me when I see adults in shops persuading their daughters not to pick castles and pirate ships, and refusing to buy their son a doll. We are making our sons think it is shameful to do things that girls do. And we are making our daughters think that they are never going to be astronaut material.

And now… to that question I mentioned at the top: “Why can’t little girls just be allowed to be little girls?” I find it vaguely enraging (just vaguely) that people seem to have some sort of idea that there’s some historical precedent of what constitutes girlhood – that it’s always been this entirely pink thing that involved princesses, fashion and make up to the max, and that by trying to keep those elements to a minimum you’re being No Fun, and what’s more, going against some kind of time honoured tradition. No. It wasn’t always like this. When I grew up in the seventies and eighties, there wasn’t anything like the gender fascism that exists now. In fact, I do think little girls should be allowed to just be little girls, and not get hung up on looking pretty, doing their hair and wanting to wear make up by the time they are six. We are raising them to think that their value is in what they wear, how their hair looks, how well their make up is applied. We’re raising them to think they have to be beautiful to matter. And it’s sinking in.

Boys are raised to be doers, and girls are not. Last night, my daughter was watching the telly, and suddenly, angrily, turned to me and said “why are all the important people on TV boys?”. It’s a mostly accurate observation. When our girls look at the world, through the TV screen, through the media, through the way they are regarded by others, they see themselves reflected as window dressing, as add ons, support systems for men, toys for men, because that’s what the world reduces them to. The reasons for this are far more complex than just a proliferation of genderised toys, but those genderised toys are, in my opinion, playing a part.

It’s not just girls that suffer. It’s a pain for boys (especially those who enjoy more traditionally female pursuits) and it’s a pain for all those people who don’t consider themselves to be either male or female. Gender isn’t the same as sex, and it shouldn’t be just about male or female any more; the way we raise our children, the things we give them, should reflect that.

Image courtesy of Tina Phillips /