I’m really perplexed at the way toys have gone over the twenty odd years I’ve been bringing up children. When my boys were little I remember seeing extreme gendered toys only in those really cheap tacky little catalogues that came through your door urging you to buy fully functioning big black heavy-duty automatic rifles for your sons, and big garish pink plastic make-up sets for your girls. All the ‘girl’ pages were pink and all the ‘boy’ pages were black. What an un-nuanced view of the genders I used to think (with horror), who lives in this kind of world?
Well it seems like we all live in this kind of world now as extreme gendered toys have gradually become mainstream. I don’t understand how it’s happened, it seems that as women have increasingly entered previously ‘male’ professions, the trajectory of toy design has gone the opposite way. It makes me want to draw a graph.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but does anyone else think there is a huge global plan to Hold Women Back? Because toys are one very powerful way of doing that without anyone noticing. Invisibly, we entrench the idea in impressionable young minds that girls are passive and boys are active, that girls are for decoration and boys are for…fighting wars? If this was a religious belief that was being pushed, we’d call it ‘brain-washing.’
Any neuroscientist worth his, or increasingly her, salt will tell you that there is no significant difference between the brains of boys and girls, but exactly the opposite is reported in the newspapers, on t.v. (Dr. Christian of Embarrassing Bodies fame I’m looking at you, you should know better) and even in a book for teenagers I found called ‘Blame my Brain’ (don’t buy it).
Girls are not innately ‘more empathetic’ (parents of girls I don’t need to tell you that) and boys are not innately better at maths, science, all the serious stuff and running the country. (In fact everything else, except empathy.)
But if every message children are getting from every quarter is saying the same thing, to expect them to critically examine those messages is a bit like asking a fish to get out of the water and step back so they can see it clearly. Cultural messages come in many forms and when it gets to the point where you’re saying ‘Most books, films, media images, adverts, kids’ clothes and shoes and even your toys are wrong about what girls are and can be’ it makes you wonder how parents can be expected to take on the world.
It’s about time that culture was recognised as a major factor in the nature v nurture debate. Culture is such a powerful factor as it influences all the rest: it influences parents, the peer group, teachers, the environment and, directly, children themselves.
And although it’s not good for boys either to be restricted in their view of themselves, it’s far more damaging for girls because the passivity of the role designated for them doesn’t equip them well to challenge it as they grow up, in fact it does the opposite.
So I have compiled a list of books featuring strong heroines and here’s a list of science toys that actually feature girls. And here is a petition asking Lego to be fair to girls so that we parents can play a part in dismantling that gendered cultural edifice brick by brightly-coloured plastic brick.