A Girl toy or Boy toy?!?
I want to discuss the problem of gender stereotype defined toys. It’s a real deal. A big real deal. But I need to warn you, if you are going to be horrified that I (rarely but occasionally) let my kids eat at McDonalds, you should probably stop reading right now.
Hi! If you are reading on, I assume you are tolerating my occasional nutritional slip or, at least, you are able to see past it for the big picture here, which is what our toy marketing teaches children about themselves and others.
Here’s my recent trigger:
Not too long ago, I ordered a happy meal for each of my boys. The teller asked, “Boy toy or Girl toy?” Now this fine person was just doing her job, but her question sent a little jolt through me. It decidedly hit a nerve with my kindergarten teacher self, my mom self, and my author self who all feel strongly that we need to revamp the way we “market” being boys and girls in America. I tempered my temper and, hoping that my response would totally change her (and the entire McDonald’s empire’s) outlook on gender, I said, “The car toy, please.”
“What?” She blinked back.
“The car toy.” I repeated. She kept blinking. I don’t know if she didn’t know what the toy options were beside ‘Boy’ or ‘Girl’ but even with subsequent exchanges, I couldn’t make any headway. Finally, I sighed, resigned myself to not changing the world before lunch, and, mumbled “the boy toy.”
How did we get here? It would be easy to blame marketing companies with their big bad budgets and amazingly influencing add campaigns. But they just do what works. How did we let it get to a point where this works? Where we are so OK with overarching gender stereotypes that too many of us don’t even blink when we buy a Happy Meal? Where we answer a gender instead of a toy?
If you’ve ever walked into any toy store in America, or shopped on line where you are prompted to filter by gender, then you know that American toys are marketed heavily to one gender or another. There is a pink section and a not pink section. I am not the first to write about this and I hope I’m not the last (unless this lil blog post stops all gender stereotyping in toys, which would be AWESOME!). You can read (and should) great articles from the Let Toys Be Toys Campaign, from scholarly journals like Educational Psychology, from children’s advocacy agencies like the National Association for Education of Young Children, from brilliant, dedicated minds like those of Soraya Chemaly, and many other places all over the web. Heck, in April the Huffington Post even reported that this may not happen at McDonald’s any more – except it still does.
The research is clear:
“Strongly gender-typed toys might encourage attributes that aren’t ones you actually want to foster. For girls, this would include a focus on attractiveness and appearance, perhaps leading to a message that this is the most important thing—to look pretty. For boys, the emphasis on violence and aggression (weapons, fighting, and aggression) might be less than desirable in the long run.” (from Professor Blakemore)
It’s also clear that we are sending really strange messages to kids about who and what they should be.
What’s not so clear is that is not just a girl issue or boy issue. This is something that does damage to BOTH our sons and our daughters. When we teach children that boys are only valued when they fit an old fashioned male stereotype, we simultaneously tell all children that boys who are sensitive, like pink, or feel disinclined to fight are somehow lesser. The same is true in the reverse for girls. We need to teach children there are lots of valuable traits (like kindness, caring, empathy, bravery, toughness, strategic thinking, etc) that are good for anyone to have.
This is part of the reason I’m so thrilled to have Willa and the WhyNots being published by In This Together Media. Both boys AND girls need to read stories with strong, realistic, diverse characters (female and male).
How do we solve this? I don’t know… Lots of dialog, discussion, and a firm message sent to big business. For now, I propose a coup. A little one perhaps, but from now on, when you find yourself asked if your kid wants a “Boy Toy” or a “Girl Toy” opt out. Don’t click that filter on Amazon.com.
Don’t Google anything like that. Just opt out. Choose children over gender stereotypes. (And hope they know what you are trying to say).
The Huffington Post solves the problem this way:
great post! I find this topic so interesting, especially because we have one of each (boy/girl). My approach has basically been to let them play with what they choose. Maybe not surprising is the boy self selected trucks very early on and the girl really loves to snuggle the plush friends. However, the boy also enjoys a good princess story because “princess have cool magical powers” and the girl loves to use the “self revving” cars…well, because they move on their own and she’s 1. 🙂 Reading things like this helps me to check myself as I find that I fall prey to the PINK VS. BLUE choices presented to me. Thanks for writing this and thanks for being someone that I can look to for rich dialogue (and sometime I will find a way to tell you this in person!).
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Amy. It sounds to me like you are taking a smart approach to toys in your house. Because the gender stereotypes are SO pervasive, we all have to check and double check ourselves on this and it seems like you are well ahead of the curve on this. Let’s just promise each other to keep the discussion going, deal?