I hadn’t cared much about kids’ toys, socialization or parenting until this one day in May of 2010. My first nephew was born. A year and a half later, my second nephew. Now I find myself reading parenting&feminism articles left, right and centre. I want to know stuff about what affects them and how, even if I am not always physically there and even if I am not the one doing the parenting.
Being both fascinated and terrified by how gender roles work and how they are taught and how crazy people get when someone crosses the strict lines of the sex/gender binaries, I have become particularly interested in kids’ toys, how they’re marketed, why they are a big deal, and just how much gender-neutral toys are da bomb.
Cash registers most often targeted to girls (I won’t get into how a toy in which buying stuff is what fun is all about makes my soul cry), squirt guns marketed for boys (in ‘boys colors’ too), science-y toys most often featuring a boy playing with them in the box (DANGER, Will Robinson, danger!), play-mommy type of dolls in which you feed and change diapers are clearly targeted to girls (because being nurturing is beneath a man’s power, DUH). The list goes on and on. Don’t believe me? Check out this awesome website.
And sure, I buy them music instruments and music-y stuff because I have an evil plan in which they become rockstars and talk about their awesome feminist aunt for an interview with Rolling Stone. But I also buy them those because they’re the closest to gender-neutral you get – at least in the 1-3 y.o. section. To play music is badass but to play music is to be in touch with your emotions too, so I think it to be a nice compromise. Not that it will make a huge difference when everyone else gives them cars and construction-type toys and action figures and the toy guns are just around the corner for their age range – because what best moment to start teaching them that violence and manliness go together than when they’re 4 or 5?!
I like to think, though, that I am doing my part the best I can.
I see plenty of problems with kids toys nowadays. Teaching girls to be nurturing is not wrong, but teaching both girls and boys that being nurturing, caring and staying put is a girl’s thing (and it is wrong for boys to want that) is. Toy guns and all other violence-related toys are not my thing, but whatever. Marketing them for boys, and therefore saying it is a guy thing to want to shoot things and fight, but that girls shouldn’t do that ever (it is so unladylike! sheesh), is kinda problematic. Not that girls should be violent too and then everyone wants to fight, YAY, but at least that would not be teaching that guys being violent is just “boys being boys” and it is oh-so-natural. Sure, violent urges are part of human nature, but so is being nurturing, for both sexes. Why are we then promoting one but not the other? Would we rather have boys be violent – therefore in control – than them being nurturing? Why are we teaching, still, that the natural and normal thing is for girls to want to stay home and cook and for men to go to work, be active, be tough?}
And I haven’t even gotten to the scary but true story of how most boys’ toys teach men things that can eventually become a career (construction worker, doctor, scientist), while girls’ toys teach them how to be mothers, how to put on make up and have hairdos, and how to cook.
Sounds like patriarchy being patriarchal to me.
Last time I went to a toys store, which was about a month ago, I saw what I had read about but had never really seen so it hadn’t hit me how cruel and how key to the kid’s life it is: a mother telling her son that he should not have that one doll he keeps pointing at. The kid was probably no older than 5 years of age, and he saw a doll, he said “it was pretty”. Why, yes, dolls are pretty. Then the mom suggested this firetruck or something of the sort, I didn’t really see. I saw it had wheels. In any case. The kid insisted on this one doll. The mom told him he was a boy and that firetrucks are more fun for boys. She also looked kind of uneasy, as if anyone at the store cared. Although maybe they did, because society is always policing any gender non-conforming behaviors from the pink carriage they buy for you when you’re not even out of the oven yet, to the clothes they pick to bury you on.
And, I have to wonder, why so much hype around boys’ toys and girls’ toys? I know my brother would freak out if I gave my nephews a hair-saloon kit. I just don’t fully understand why.
[I am focusing on boys toys not only because my nephews happen to be both guys but because policing sexuality is much tougher on guys than girls – the underlying message always being that a girl wanting to be like a boy is kind of unacceptable but understandable (penis envy! penis envy!), but a boy wanting to be a girl is just bollocks: who would want to be inferior when you can be superior?! So yeah, there’s that.]
But, in all seriousness, what is particularly womanly of a hair-saloon kit. Specially nowadays, guys take more and more care of themselves, so, what is so womanly? Why is womanly a bad thing? Why are we teaching boys that wanting to play a nurturing mother is a bad thing, but crashing firetrucks is a good thing? Sure thing, crashing toy firetrucks is not EVIL (nor am I saying it will turn them into serial killers), but you get my drill.
Or, to put it in terms of sexual orientation: What about playing with a brush and fake hair-saloon scissors is going to make a child gay? Are we really that scientifically illiterate that we think that the key to sexual desire for one or another sex lies on playing teacher or playing construction worker? Does playing with a doll make you attracted to boys? No. Does playing with cars make you attracted to girls? No.
And, in any case, what would be so wrong about your son being gay? We are teaching kids that being called girly or gay is the worst thing they can be called, it is something terrible to put your parents through – a larger-scale version of the scene in the toy store. And I would rather have my son or daughter love someone – whoever that may be – than be repressed in a box that does not fit them, than having them with half their potential absolutely unexplored.
The worst part is, toys are only the beginning. It is only a tiny part of socialization into gender roles, into little boxes much too limiting for our infinite potential as human beings. And I hate that our patriarchal society tells kids – tells all of us, really – how “boyish” is too boyish for a girl, how “girly” is too girly for a boy. Honestly, I want my nephews to be good human beings, and there’s nothing a doll or a make-up kit or a kitchenette can do to affect that.
Society tells us to police eachother’s bodies and behaviors and choices, to police parents who are buying their kids gender-neutral or opposite-gender toys or clothes, to police teachers into marking the differences, to police ourselves and be insecure about what we like because it is not defining enough of our sex, whatever that means. And that policing is not serving our interests or our sexuality or sense of self in any way. It is serving a paranoid system which depends too much on binaries and on everyone being obedient, efficient, in their place. It makes us think that if we cross certain lines our entire reality will collapse. But it hasn’t, and it won’t.
We are only crossing lines if we believe those exist in the first place. And for kids, even the idea of lines is just plain ridiculous.
For some more on toys and gender:
No, really, check the Gendered Advertising Video Remixer. Good stuff.