Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice: The problem with gendered toys

December 04, 2014
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It’s that time of year again. By December 1, the shopping centre already has Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas album blaring on repeat, where it will worm inside your head until January. And forget about Ferrero Rochers being on special for at least another month. It ain’t going to happen.

It’s also the time of year when those god-awful Christmas pamphlets take over the mail box. Blue pages for boys and pink for girls, corresponding perfectly with the store aisles – a subtle reminder in case shoppers forget who they’re buying for, or what they’re buying into: our societal expectations of gender. Politics in the Target toy section, who knew?

But when is life ever this black and white – or pink and blue?

Earlier this week, Greens Senator and spokesperson for women, Larissa Waters, encouraged Christmas shoppers (i.e. parents) to rethink how toys are marketed and acknowledge outdated gender stereotypes dressed up in tinsel just in time to be wrapped underneath the tree.

“Buy the toys that you like for your child but don't be limited by those signs that say trains aren't for girls," she told Sky News.

Waters’ comments come in support of the “No Gender December” campaign run by grassroots organization, Play Unlimited. They are urging people to make a public pledge to not rely on gender-specific marketing to buy presents this Christmas. For their part, Play Unlimited have said there’s nothing wrong with little girls playing house in pink fairy gowns and conversely, there’s also nothing wrong with little boys playing with train sets and dart guns. It’s just important that gender doesn’t dictate how kids play – or how adults think they should play.

The sentiment left a bad taste in the mouth of some News Corp publications, which promptly painted Larissa Waters as a leftist Grinch out to steal Christmas. One Senator speaking out will hardly spell Armageddon under the tree – but local fruit loop and hardline conservative, Cory Berandi, certainly drew that conclusion.

Our own Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, criticised Waters and the “No Gender December” campaign, saying that he didn’t believe in the political correctness spouted by the Greens. He told Channel Nine that his personal philosophy had always been “let boys be boys, let girls be girls.”

Santa, give me strength. No one’s trying to violently rob Barbie of her glittering pink ball gown – if a little girl wanted a doll and her brother wanted a water pistol, I doubt anyone could cajole them into a trade. Who would want to? But it’s high time we ask why those specifications exist; they’re not genetically-inherited and they haven’t appeared out of nowhere.

Non-gender specific toys aren’t going to win any sort of social uprising, but it’s worth considering how babies are gendered from the moment they’re in wrapped in a blue or pink blanket and handed back to mum in the hospital delivery room. The blanket isn’t to blame for the gender pay gap, domestic violence or the high rate of male suicide. Our society’s gendered interpretation of the colour and the expectations of the little boy or girl cradled inside it, is.

Biology doesn’t tell all little girls to have an inexplicable fondness for miniature cookware sets, nor is biology responsible for convincing all little boys to like monster trucks – not all do. That’s the sheer power of generations of social conditioning, coupled with increasingly savvy personalised marketing and the dredges of societal gender expectations that should have dried up sometime after the Second World War.

Toys aren’t necessarily for boys or for girls – most people just think of them that way because it was how they were brought up. Remember old aunt Elsbeth piping up with “that’s just not what little girls do,” at a family gathering when you ran around playing Lego and constructing make-believe land mines on the beach? Or being teased by an older relative for your yellow fairy winged face paint when all the other boys are in army camo? Toys are, in theory, gender-neutral. They’re bits of plastic moulded into figurines and brightly-coloured blocks for youngins to project their view of the world.

Or to build submarines.

Emma Nobel

Emma Nobel is a journalism honours student at Monash University. She is a feminist, cheese connoisseur and tweets at @emmanobel.

Images: wiredforlego and Xccj