So, the presents are unwrapped, the turkey (or nut roast) consumed and the levels of alcohol in the blood perhaps beginning to recede. It’s time to regroup, to start drawing up that list of good resolutions for 2012 and to reflect on the festive season. Or perhaps, dear reader, you just think it’s time to sleep in front of the box and try to run away from the horrors of the months just past and the run-in’s you’ve had with everyone from your mad aunt to the head of HR. However, I want to prick your consciences once again and consider what may have been so tastefully wrapped up in presents for children this Christmas, and what this tells us about our attitudes to the young and – even more – the attitudes of the toy manufacturers.
My children are long past the point of toys, and I don’t often stray into a toy shop these days, but this year there have been several stories circulating about the toy market which I find depressing. Much earlier in the year there was the illuminating wordle in a blog about toy advertisements which highlighted how advertisements for boys’ toys highlighted words like ‘battle’ and ‘power’ whereas for girls the most used words were ‘love’ and ‘magic’. This has direct parallels with the way in which analysis has shown letters of reference are written for men and women at a much later stage of their lives. This analysis shows that women are more likely to be described as nurturing, affectionate and kind, whereas men tend to be described using words such as ambitious, dominant and self-confident. Of course that may say as much about the letter writers as those being described, but it also implies an unconscious sense of what might be seen as ‘positives’ about the two genders. These things appear to be pervasive – but also pernicious – and we should be doing all we can genuinely to level the playing field, in the sense that the individual’s traits should be the only thing that matters, not gender stereotypes. So, reinforcing gender stereotypes by encouraging buyers of toys – as well as the children themselves – to focus on such very different aspects of character at an early age is unlikely to liberate individuals to be fully themselves.
Yet society, or at least the toy manufacturers and suppliers, are doing nothing to facilitate this. Rather, it appears that differentiation between the sexes is instead being pushed at every opportunity. How much of this is cynical marketing ploys, how much reflecting what parents think they should be feeling about their offspring’s preferences, and how much genuine inherent differences in what small children want in their toys seems impossible to tease out. Every study that aims to demonstrate either that such in-built differences really are or are not present seems challenged as to methodology by the opposing side (see e.g Cornelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender). Hamley’s toy shop has been the subject of dissent because of the way it segregated boys’ and girls’ toys, and not just by colour scheme. Laura Nelson ran a very effective campaign which appears (though Hamley’s deny it) to have caused a rethink in their strategy. The shop has moved from distinguishing toys by presumed gender-association to the much more innocuous organisation by type. Laura – who blogs as Delilah which is where I first heard about the issues – has written up what happened in full here and here. This would appear to be victory for, well I would call it common-sense, but at least a neutral presentation of products. It also got a lot of media coverage which, one would hope, may have raised a few more people’s consciousness to the underlying issues.
People remain divided both on whether this matters and whether it is shocking not to highlight gender differences. To my mind, Laura describes what is wrong with what lurks underneath so much of this extremely well in her most recent account, so I take the liberty of quoting a paragraph of that description here:
The conditioning by children’s toys – and the segregation of toys in shops – is insidious. Gender stereotypes are highly influential and pervasive, and influence children’s and parents’ choices, aspirations and expectations. Instead of encouraging children to pursue activities according to their individual talents and interests, they encourage children to pursue a narrow range of activities, consistent with stereotypes we see in our society generally (women in passive, caring and homemaking roles; men in active, leading and aggressive roles). But it seems to me the fundamental point is that all options should be offered to all children in as neutral a way as possible.
If we are to tackle why there is a shortage of female engineers, or understand at least part of the reason why girls are so significantly in a minority in Physics A level entrants, we need to be sure that those girls with an interest in such topics are not deterred in their early years from ever contemplating these subjects by the stereotypes of the toys they are allowed to handle. If we accept that children (I won’t say girls) want to play with Barbie dolls, I would at least like to see a broad range of career aspirations associated with her stylised figure, as I wrote about before. It is not sufficient that an astronaut Barbie may exist, if the local shops only stock princess-look-alike versions (or hairdresser or footballer’s wife: I’m afraid I’m not up in the latest models) with a cute pink wardrobe of cute pink clothes.
Alice Bell has written before about the downside of selling sparkly – and pink – chemistry sets badged as appropriate for girls. Chemistry knows no gender when it comes to bangs and smells, and I can see no logic and certainly nothing desirable in trying to pretend ‘girls’ chemistry’ is different from boys’; there can only be damage for the next generation of scientists setting out to solve the problems we face. But, since Alice has already done such a good job on that particular product range, I will now turn to the latest toy story I ran into just before Christmas: Lego is about to launch a range called Lego Friends aimed, you guessed it, at the female market, the story being written up here. These include new figurines (appropriately reshaped to appeal to what girls think they should look like) and the backdrop of a city (Heartlake City), with a salon, a horse academy (I quote, but I presume this is a riding school for UK readers), a veterinary clinic, and a café.
Now, I applaud Lego for consciously reaching out to the other 50% of the population (even if driven by the profit-motive), encouraging manual dexterity and construction skills, but I deplore the fact that they choose to produce toy ranges so clearly reinforcing stereotypes. Their marketing teams may have spotted that girls don’t want to be associated with the kits they currently sell, but since these were explicitly targeted at boys that should be no surprise. Why cannot they revert to the more generic kits my children were brought up with? It used to be that the pirates were unisex (at least I always thought of them as such) and pink was not in evidence. Do we really need a new pastel palette for these toys, and the figurines depicted as living in a city with ‘Heart’ in the title and hearts on their shirts, working as vets. Why can’t boys be vets? As I’ve said before, the gender distinction imposed on career aspirations can be as damaging for the animal-mad boy as for the would-be physicist girl.
So, as you look around at the toys the children you know have received for Christmas, can you feel comfortable that each and everyone has received something which will not implicitly cut off aspirations but will merely reinforce the stereotypes that the media ram down our throats every day? Pink in itself is not inherently bad, but its association with stereotypically ‘feminine’ aspects can become self-fulfilling. I would like to see toys (and clothes) come in a range of shades, so that each child can choose what fits with their tastes freed from the imposition of cultural values. Maybe boys would like a little pink in their world if it wasn’t negatively associated for them by grown-ups and that distaste conveyed to them. Conversely, by all means encourage girls who want to be vets to pursue their dreams, but don’t imply that that is the only sort of choice they can make and that driving a helicopter is beyond their sweet pink little brains. We need a much less polarised society, and much less segregation in the way we aim to educate and enthuse the next generation. I wish.