Toys & Types – What do their toys teach them?

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We recently took a trip to a giant toy retailer hoping to get ideas and possibly make some purchases for a 5-year old girl’s upcoming birthday. The goal was to leisurely peruse and find some great gifts but instead we were sent into a state of sensory overload and mild nausea within about ten minutes of arriving. It was this experience that sparked the desire to discuss toys and the gender bias emerging among the very things we hope help to broaden and stimulate our children’s imaginations.

As we know, stereotyping can be harmful to our kid’s notions of gender roles and it seems that the things they play with are continuing to reinforce negative stereotypes and infringe limit their imaginations. Or is this nonsense? Do kids just play and not glean so much meaning from their toys as much as we do as adults? During a discussion with one of our Minefield girls we were happy to learn that she thought the idea of wanting to look like one of her dolls was preposterous! What do you think?

No matter what, it’s safe to say that themes of glamour and attractiveness in toys aimed at girls often emphasize appearance over substance. Pressure on boys to be rough and tough super heroes has equally damaging potential. The conflicting messages that gender based toys are sending to our children, encourage them to be something they are not and to feel marginalised for being themselves (i.e. different from what mainstream pop culture or a toy company’s idea of what they should be.) What about calmer, sensitive or creative boys who don’t necessarily want to be emulate violent protagonists? Or girls who like scientific experiments or want to get muddy digging up dinosaur bones in the garden? Kids understand gendered marketing and by primary school age have a pretty established sense of what attributes are expected of each gender. What they ‘should’ like doesn’t always equal what they do like and the over-whelming pressure to conform is stifling. With reports of some children going to extremes to prevent their peers from finding out about their ‘unorthodox’ choices. Take, for example, the shocking tales from the U.S. of boys as young as 11 self-harming due to bullying over the fact they like My Little Pony.

The Divide.

Whilst many toy shops and online retailers have taken the positive step forward to end their categorizations of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ toys (in large part thanks to the great campaign waged by the people at Let Toys Be Toys  the gender divide still rings loud and clear when you actually see the way the toys are marketed. Our visit to the toy store showed us that doll and Disney Princess aisles are still very pink and sparkly and there wasn’t one female action figure available in an aisle filled with superheroes. Campaigning against this divide is to campaign against limits. Kids don’t need to be told what to like and dislike but manufacturers make twice as much money when a ‘girls version’ and a ‘boys version’ have to be bought within one family instead of shared or passed down.

This discussion was particularly prevalent recently in the media during the advent of the new instalment of Star Wars movies and its noticeable lack of female action figures. Despite Princess Leia being promoted to General Leia and its main protagonist being the female character Rey; (don’t even get us started on the ridiculous complaint that Captain Phasma needed boobs on her armour so we could tell she was a woman!); there has still been a lot of outrage over the invisibility of female characters in the merchandise, sparking the twitter handle #wheresrey?. So too, have Marvel fans (and its actors alike!) been campaigning for more Black Widow action figures after she was noticeably missing from most of the Avengers toys and merchandising, including from action figures, duvet sets and even the cover of the movie DVD itself!

So what do they play with?

‘Girl Aisles’ have been traditionally, and frankly still are, filled with pink packaging and are limited to toys that focus on either care of appearance or care of others. Boys grow up to become dad’s and yet finding a baby doll with a blue high chair and bottles of milk aimed at boys (or babies of colour for that matter – but that’s a whole other topic in itself) is nearly impossible and good luck finding a sew-your-own Lightning McQueen kit. Where ‘boy’s toys’ have claimed ownership of dinosaurs, transport and superheroes, what have the girls been left with? Dolls. Teenage, highly sexualised, anatomically impossible dolls. Oh and cupcakes (don’t get us wrong, we like eating cake but seriously when did liking a cupcake suddenly become a primary interest?), with the occasional pet thrown in for good measure. Even sections of toys you would hope to remain gender free have been pinkified and divided for your purchasing pleasure. Science kits aimed at boys focus on explosions, slime, insects and robots whilst girls are encouraged to make lip balm, nail varnish and perfume. There are even only 5 female characters to 21 male in the Guess Who? Board game.

Even Lego, the ultimate toy for everyone, has suffered much criticism for its Lego Friends brand and it’s character’s primary interests being focused on shopping, beautifying (salons etc.), making cakes, party planning and being a touring pop star, retiring many of the Friend’s news casting and jungle exploration sets. However, perhaps in an effort to counteract the backlash against Lego Friends, they are now starting to introduce skateboarding, archery and adventure camping sets as well as listening to consumers concerns about a lack of diversity in the Lego figures themselves. STEM themed female Lego characters have been released as part of the Lego Ideas collection that creates sets that have been suggested and voted for by Lego fans. These Lego ladies feature a palaeontologist, an astronomer and a chemist; and whilst a small step it’s at least one in the right direction and is a great example of manufacturers listening and responding to their customer’s demands.

What’s wrong with pink anyway?

Well, nothing really, it’s a great happy colour, but pink has been appropriated from under our noses and turned into a cultural signifier that pressures children to conform. When everything aimed at girls is pink it’s no longer a choice. Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge observes that when girls play with a lot of pink toys at an early age, the age at which they come to prefer pink coincides with the age around when kids are beginning to understand that they are girls and some kids are boys.

“At about this age they are searching for information about what people of their own gender do and like. Girls learn that girls have pink and like to play with dolls. So they adopt gendered toy preferences as well as colour preferences.” (Melissa Hines)

The pinkification of girls toys creates patterns of reinforcement that not only teach girls what is expected of them; caring for dolls and pets, domestic toys for cleaning or cooking and of course always looking good, but also excludes boys, perhaps widening the gender gap we see in society in later life. By steering boys away from ‘girls’ things we are not only telling them they are wrong to like them, feeding the idea that boys must be hyper-masculine, but by proxy that girls are somehow inferior. Boys who like pink or ‘girl’s toys’ can be met with ridicule, disappointment and even homophobia. Girls who are labelled as ‘tomboys’ however are typically lauded as being strong and fearless mould-breakers, because being masculine is positive and being feminine is not. With this colour divide, our children are learning a social divide, limiting their experiences as well as their development as what they play with informs their skills too. ‘Girls toys’ fostering a bias for nurturing and verbal skills, whilst ‘boy’s toys’ typically encourage more cognitive problem solving abilities. Counteractive completely to the truth that there should be no such thing as a gendered toy and to the formula for working out if a toy is for boys or girls: Do you operate the toy with your genitalia? No, then it’s for both girls and boys! (If yes, then it’s not a kids toy!)

Mattel have recently been met with mixed reviews about the soon to be released collection of DC SuperHero Girls featuring revamped dolls, videos and merchandise of characters such as Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and SuperGirl. In an effort to counteract the continuing decrease of Barbie sales and the loss of its Frozen merchandise contract to rivals Hasbro, Mattel has addressed the demand of mass marketed female action figures, previously only being met by smaller companies such as the makers of Lottie dolls and I am Elemental superheroes, and tried to create something they hope will satisfy. Whilst some complain that the characters are still doe-eyed, thin around the waist and younger (they have a high school setting, much like My Little Pony’s Equestria Girls) the characters still show a move in the right direction. This new lease of life for the female superhero coupled with new innovative STEM focused toys begins to create a far more exciting and inventive world of play and possibility for our girls and boys together. Goldieblox, has exploded onto the global market like no other product recently. It combines storytelling, fun relatable characters and engineering based principles to get girls building and creating all kinds of machines and toys, from parade floats and rockets to clubhouses and cable cars. Goldieblox’s marketing started at a very grass roots level and has gone viral through a shared love of the toy itself and what it stands for, their site is full of great girl empowered videos and their recent advert during the U.S. Superbowl half time (the most coveted TV ad sweet spot in America) has catapulted them to the mainstream.

There are some however, who argue quite fairly, that creating girl superheroes or STEM based toys specifically for girls, whether to bolster positive attributes or not, only highlights the divide further. University of California lecturer Elizabeth Sweet, an expert on gender and children’s toys proposes that

“highlighting or simplifying the differences between boys and girls may have the unintended effect of further reinforcing the stereotype that girls are inherently less capable and need extra stimulation.”

This backs up the idea put forward by author Peggy Orenstein in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter (Harper, 2012) in which a whole chapter is dedicated to the argument that all toys should be marketed in a non-gendered unisex way. Toy manufacturers and retailers further arguing that stores are arranged according to the customers buying habits and for ease of purchase, perhaps trying to steer away from the stronger economic argument for keeping the gender divide alive. But the point “she can’t be what she can’t see” still remains.

Dollars vs. Dreams.

Can capitalism alone be blamed for this bias in toys and the way they are marketed? Is it just an easy way to reach a bottom line of profit? It’s certainly easier to simply make pink and blue versions of things and stick princesses and fairies of them than to really think about what girls, or for that matter kids in general, might be interested in. Is this manufacturing laziness winning over trying to genuinely entertain, inform or stimulate kids’ development through play? Or is the gendered toy preference simply innate in children – boys loving anything with wheels over a tea set naturally? Many parents would probably argue that they allow their kids whatever they prefer to play with and their choices just seem to naturally fit within expectations, but what about those who don’t? and what perhaps has influenced their choices without us even really noticing?

What are we perhaps missing when it comes to the messages our kids’ toys tell them? Manufacturers and advertisers limiting our children through gender profiling and stereotyping is an economic issue. Segregating childhood is not only putting the strain on our wallets but divides future societies as the gender gap follows them up into adulthood, informing the career paths and economic choices they take as adults. We tell girls and boys all the time  that they can be whatever they want, but do we really show them?

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