It’s a message that’s hard to avoid: girls’ clothes, toys and bikes are often pink, while boys’ encompass blue, brown and green. Divisively named ‘Girls’ aisles’ are filled with dolls, make-up and kitchen accessories; while ‘Boys’ aisles’ are filled with construction kits, trains and action figures. But should our kids be steered towards certain types of toys, according to their gender? Could such stereotypes actually be harming their play experiences?
If you’ve children of both genders, you’ll know that today’s kids are primed almost from birth to know that “pink is for girls, and blue is for boys”. We’ve come to accept these colour signifiers as just the way things are. But believe it or not, until the 1940s, it was the other way round: infants were dressed in either colour but if anything, pink was considered the more masculine, and blue the daintier, more feminine shade. And despite what the marketers would have us believe, studies have shown that until around age 3, when peer pressure and socialisation cues have started to take effect, children show no innate preference for either colour.
Now that we’ve been ‘pink-washed’ for several generations, we’re well trained in purchasing toys of the ‘right’ colour for a child of a particular gender. Few would feel comfortable asking a little boy to inherit his sister’s pink bike and, when shopping for a girl, we obediently steer ourselves in the direction of the pink, glittery boxes that are so clearly laid out together as appropriate ‘girls’ toys’.
Girls do often like pink, so does it matter? Well, for one thing, it might be a bit of a have. We spend vast amounts of money buying separate toys for our children. The toy industry turns over a colossal $US20 billion annually so, from the toy tycoon’s point of view, it’d be a shame to see that figure halved by a return to un-gendered toys.
Then there’s the idea that when toys are obviously packaged to appeal to one gender, they become subliminally ‘off limits’ to children of the other gender. This diminishes the rich play experiences that children move between naturally when they are in a gender-neutral environment. (The next time you’re at Playcentre, or on parent help at Kindy, spend 10 minutes watching the way boys and girls alike will move from the sandpit to clopping around in high heels in the family corner.)
If a boy feels excluded from joining in a family play game with dolls, he loses the chance to explore what it is like to be gentle and nurturing – qualities we surely want for the fathers of the future. If a girl is only presented with baking sets and make-up cases with mirrors, she might miss out on the fun of roaring around the house being a scary monster, and experiencing herself as a strong, capable human being – or sitting down to develop her spatial awareness and mechanical dexterity with a set of Lego blocks.
A spokesperson for the UK action group Let Toys Be Toys puts it this way: “Boys and girls are still growing up being told that certain toys are ‘for’ them, while others are not. This is not only confusing but extremely limiting, as it strongly shapes their ideas about who they are and who they can go on to become.”
A walk around the toy aisles makes it clear that for boys, what toy marketers are suggesting they become is powerful, accomplished and physical: toys are packaged with words like ‘attack,’ ‘hero,’ ‘skills,’ and ‘combat.’ For girls, there’s an emphasis on appearance and domesticity – toys are packaged with words like ‘love’ ‘beautiful’ and ‘make.’ Female role models are pretty and passive; wasp-waist princesses rather than masked and daring super-heroes. It’s not that any of these toys are inherently wrong – we all know boys who love Spiderman and girls who love Disney Princesses – it’s just that all children should ideally be free to explore, through their play, any one of these dimensions of the full and complex human experience. Male or female, we all need to be strong, and gentle, and accomplished, and creative.
Stanford University engineering graduate Debbie Stirling argues that play opportunities, or lack of them, can deny children their full potential. In a recent Ted talk, she explains: “Research shows that kids score better on spatial tests if they grew up playing with construction toys. Those toys have been marketed to boys for over 100 years, and they get them interested in math and science. Meanwhile, all we get are the dolls and makeup kits.”
Facebook groups that promote gender-inclusive messages are gaining massive followings; Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies and Princess Free Zone are two that celebrate girls as multi-dimensional beings. The groups equip parents with phrases such as “Colours are for everyone” – useful for those moments when a pre-schooler says something like “but only boys can wear blue shoes.” Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies celebrates the many ways girls are “full of awesome”, rather than primarily passive or decorative. Among followers, there’s a feeling that little girls should be given a sense of their identity as whole people, able to experience their bodies as capable and strong, when as early as the tweens there will be a myriad of influences suggesting the primary importance of sexiness and beauty. While they can be fun, the dark side of princess costumes here, then, is that they place very young girls in a place where prettiness is emphasised as an end in itself; with heels, long dresses and tiaras suggesting passivity, rather than a confident little girl who can take on a playground and a set of monkey bars.
It’s a complex issue, but through social media, the way we interact with our children and through our purchasing decisions, parents can make a difference. Last year, the UK action group Let Toys Be Toys used facebook and twitter to petition the UK branches of corporate giant Toys ’R’ Us, requesting that the ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ aisles become a thing of the past so that parents and children could once again view toys as just that – toys. Toys ‘R’ Us have since agreed to display toys by theme rather than gender, and use pictures of both genders playing with toys.
In the end, perhaps it’s worth remembering that some of the best ‘toys’ transcend the gender debate, and not to feed the over-inflated toy industry a cent – playdough, sand, water, swings and sing-a-longs are the stuff of real memories, and lasting happiness.
ages & stages
Here are some ways to help counteract stereotypes from a young age:
- Read a variety of books with both boys and girls as main characters.
- Select a variety of different coloured clothes for your child.
- Buy gender-neutral toys such as multi-coloured blocks, wooden toys, puzzles.
- Actively encourage your children to play with all kinds of toys, from construction sets to sports equipment.
5- to 8-years
- Encourage your child to wear colours and outfits they feel happy in; don’t limit their wardrobe to certain colours.
- Encourage your child to have friends of both sexes.
- Reinforce the importance of accepting others and not teasing or commenting on others’ choice of toys
9- to 12-years
- Refrain from commenting on your child’s appearance. It’s not what they look like that’s important, it’s who they are and what they can do that is.
- Teach your child media literacy, for example, to recognise when they are being sold toys that are limiting their choices and stereotyping them.
- Encourage diversity and variety in their play, toys, games and books.
- Look out for good strong role-models for both sexes in the media. Stay away from programmes/films in which females are merely decorative and only males are the heroes.
Stephanie Chamberlin taught English in NZ and the UK for 12 years before becoming a mum. Now, having published several educational resource books with Pearson and her own start-up, Thematic Resources, she combines motherhood with freelance writing. She also blogs about children and nature at www.outdoorplay.co.nz.