Boy Toys and Girl Toys
During my last semester of school, I took a class titled Girl Culture. It fulfilled my one remaining academic credit, but even more importantly, it was a feminist studies class. I had taken a real interest in feminism the week I moved into my dorm freshman year and started reading Jezebel (which, in 2007, was a very different place than it is now). It felt right, to have this interest of mine culminate and end in outright academic study.
One thing that always interested me, and that I focused on in this class, was the distinction between “girl” and “boy” things given to children. Even if you haven’t read any of the many books on the topic, it’s obvious to anyone walking into a toy store how obvious the differences in objects and presentation are.
Even the options given at a small, independent toy store I visited were paltry. While a few categories offered only ungendered choices (board and card games for instance, focused primarily on building language and mathematical skills, and had a distinct lack of fairies and princesses and monster trucks), more often then not, many toys were clearly made for girls’ use only.
In one part of the store, two shelves stood next to each other; on the left, supplies for playing house. On the right, erector sets and model cars. The toys on the right all encouraged play that involved making an object that could be used; they would provide opportunities to learn how to build things, and then the satisfaction that would come with making one’s own toys. The boxes were all blue and yellow, with bold, dynamic print; the only children shown on the packaging were boys. Not only that, but boys wearing glasses. These were toys that only smart, engineers-in-training were to play with.
Populated with fairy-covered tea sets and “tiered special occasion cakes” (which came with decorations, including a wedding cake topper), the house supplies on the left were clearly meant for girls. About half of the items were pink, even when they didn’t need to be. There was an emphasis on cooking and cleaning supplies, including a refrigerator that came with food to be organized. A kitchen sink play set that included a bottle of soap, a sponge, and dishes and utensils to be “cleaned.”
It’s always easier to blame whatever company is manufacturing gendered toys than to seek out a deeper, underlying cause. Even when I was studying the topic, I didn’t really think about it. Then school ended, and my academic pursuit slowed. My interest, however, has been recently piqued again by working in retail, of all things.
To be more specific, I work at a children’s clothing store.
While it doesn’t happen too too often, it’s always disheartening to hear comments from customers about what they will and won’t buy for their children. There are moms who won’t buy little moccasins for their baby girls just because they came from the “boy side” of the room. Well-meaning aunts and uncles wonder if our non-gender specific clothes aren’t pink enough. I’ve had to smile apologetically many times this summer and explain that we don’t carry rash guards for girls, only for boys.
I still haven’t figured out how I can help make things better, but others are taking steps in the right direction. A Swedish toy catalog recently included pictures of a boy dressed as Spider Man pushing a pink stroller, and a girl in denim driving a race car. When asked about the catalog, the company’s CEO simply responded, “Gender roles are an outdated thing.”