I have been thinking a lot recently about the issue of toy segregation by gender. It is becoming increasingly blatant as you walk into shops that there is a major divide and the only thing missing is a big pink arrow pointing to one side of the shop, and a blue one to the other. The toy manufacturing powers-that-be have decided in their wisdom what our children should be playing with and have colour-coded the packaging accordingly. That’s why I was particularly interested to see one of my favourite bloggers tackling the same issue. He said in his blog that the best way to take a stand against the sexist marketing of toys is to rise above it. To, as parents, just choose whatever toys we feel our children would enjoy regardless of the section of the shop they are to be found in. I whole heartedly agree with this second point. We should choose what we feel is right for our kids but I completely disagree that this debate is a fuss over nothing and we should do nothing more but rise above it all. I think now more than ever we owe it to our children to do the exact opposite. To tackle this issue head on and stand up to be counted.
In his blog, my blogger friend suggests that “If you want your daughter to grow up thinking there’s more to life than combing her hair with a sparkling hairbrush for the benefit of Prince Charming, then you’ll need to buy more imaginative toys.” I totally agree and will, without a doubt, be teaching my daughter that there are plenty of other toys for her to play with other than ‘My first make-up bag’. She is only 6 months but already she is getting involved and interested in a wide range of toys. My older son also has a huge variety in his toy box including musical instruments, trucks, dinosaurs and his fair share of dolls and prams. But this is only the very first step. I believe myself to be a conscientious parent who is aware of these issues and keen to make sure both my children play with whatever they like. But having made sure the toys within my home are unisex I can’t help thinking that the danger of toy segregation is not really about whether parents are brave enough to let their boys play with dolls or their girls play with trucks. The danger is that children who ‘cross the divide’ may be made to feel uneasy or unhappy for not fitting into the ridiculous stereotypes laid down by toy manufacturers. Will my daughter be made to feel like she’s not a ‘true girl’ if she opts for normal lego and not that hideous pink stuff that has just been brought out? Or if she prefers fire engines to tea sets? Will my boy be teased because he enjoys looking after a baby doll (like Mummy looking after his baby sister) because he has chosen to play that today instead of with a truck? And where does that lead next? Will my little girl start to believe that she has to aspire to be a pretty princess when she’s older instead of a doctor because the doctor’s coats are in the boy’s section in the dressing up aisle (as is the case in a major supermarket). I can rise above what the toy manufacturers are telling me, but the suggestion so far is that our society as a whole cannot. Children are still being put into these ‘pink and blue’ boxes and it can be hugely damaging for them. I certainly have many friends who, as children, felt outcast simply because they did not want to play with the toys that had been assigned to their gender. That’s a lot for a child to deal with!
And let’s just dip for a moment into the issue of sexism and the way women are viewed in the world. Women are still being objectified and mistreated the world over. The battle for gender equality is an incredibly urgent and vital one and we all know there is a long way to go until men and women are truly equal. So how on earth can I, as a Mum, sit back and accept toys that make girls believe that their main aim in life is to look pretty above anything else? As a little girl this might just be a sparkly hairbrush and a plastic lipstick but where does that lead as she gets older? What do these damaging toys teach her about her self-worth, appearance and aspirations? Will these toys help our girls to grow up to be the strong, individual, intelligent, brave women we need them to be? And will they help our boys to view them in that way? Or will the boys go into adulthood believing that the adventures and professional careers are reserved only for them, whilst the girls are off doing their make-up somewhere?
My best friend recently saw two lunchboxes for sale in a supermarket. The one marketed at the boys was all about adventures and heroes and saving the world. The girls’ one simply said “Do I look pretty?” Of course I won’t be buying that for my daughter. That’s my prerogative as her Mum. But actually, I don’t even want that on the shop shelves. I don’t want her to see that and think that saving the world is a job for her brother while she stares at herself in the mirror. And that’s my prerogative as a woman.
So there you have it. I will continue to do what I can to make sure that I watch my children carefully and allow them to play with things that interest them and spark their imagination, creativity, skills and talents. Whatever they enjoy will be welcome. But my argument is that I believe the issue goes beyond our front doors. It is our duty to try and turn around the potentially negative messages that toy segregation might give them - that they are somehow inadequate if they don’t conform or that they are accepting some potentially dangerously stereotypes if they do. I don’t want that kind of thing hanging over their childhood. Our shops need to help parents reinforce that they can be whoever they want to be and play with whatever they want to play with. That their childhood is free and open to them and can then lead into happy, healthy, fulfilled adult lives where all are equal. It’s about time we stopped accepting this and started to make a fuss.