Being a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I was around when Meccano was going through a period of popularity and I vividly remember thinking how awesome it looked, and how I wished I was a boy so that I could play with it. The marketing was entirely masculine and I’m pretty sure that I was discouraged from asking Father Christmas to bring me some because it was ‘a boys toy’. Girls didn’t play with Meccano and I thought I must have been really weird for wanting to play with it, when all of my female friends wanted to play with Barbies.
Just recently, Husband and I toyed with the idea of getting a NERF Blaster for Sausage (I’m not going to get into a debate about kids playing with guns here, it’s personal choice, mmmkay?) and although we opted for something else (mostly because they’re pretty expensive and we’d already spent an arm and a leg on presents!), it never occurred to us to not buy her one because they’re marketed at boys.
Just recently, we noticed a new range of NERF products available, their ‘Rebelle’ range. Husband astutely commented that they’d probably been made off the back of The Hunger Games, as they’re kind of ‘bow and arrow’ style NERF guns, but I was actually pretty annoyed at the whole thing. NERF has obviously decided it wants to expand its appeal to girls, so this is what they’ve done:
I’m more than a little bit sick of the ‘shrink it and pink it’ attitude that toy companies and marketers apply to anything that’s aimed at girls – not only is it massively patronising, it’s perpetuating the myth that some toys are for girls and some toys are for boys. Surely a toy is a toy and if a child wants to play with it, gender is inconsequential? Also, by making the Rebelle range, are NERF saying that boys should reject anything pink? Just as there will be girly girls who love pink and overtly masculine boys who’d reject anything that isn’t boyish enough, there will be girls who don’t give a toss about pretty pink things and boys who gravitate towards them.
If Sausage happens to ask for something for Christmas, I certainly wouldn’t stop her from having it if it’s something that’s been deemed ‘boys only’ by the adverts, nor will I stop the new baby, should it be a boy, from playing of any of Sausage’s pink things. Male/female stereotypes are wildly outdated now – when my grandparents were little, it was fair to say that the majority of women stayed at home and did the cooking while the men worked, tinkered with cars, etc, so in those days toys for girls would have been dolls, ironing boards, toy food, so that little girls could emulate their Mums and boys would get cars and fire engines, to be like their Dads. These days, I know many men who consider themselves ‘foodies’ and the best mechanic I know is Husband’s Aunt.
It’s a real chicken and egg situation – Sausage loves pink thinks, but is that because she actually loves pink things, or that those are the things which are marketed directly at her? Surely, the only way we’re going to get around this gender stereotyping and division is if we start showing girls playing with Meccano (and NOT the pink sets of Meccano that they’ve made, either…) and boys pushing prams. Perhaps if kids were to see these things, there would be more acceptance of the interchangeable nature of gender and roles in the 21st century – perhaps then, girls who wanted to play with cars wouldn’t automatically be branded ‘tom boys’ and little boys who wanted to play with a dolly wouldn’t be automatically assumed to be girly, or gay, or any other ridiculous label.
The best way to make change in society is to normalise things to children – it wouldn’t occur to children to question which toys they should be playing with if they see play with all kinds of toys as normal or gender neutral. It could give children the freedom to be themselves and express themselves through play however they damn well want to, and I genuinely believe this could help them grow into well-rounded adults in the process. I’m not, for one second, saying that we should take Barbie away from girls and give them to boys, and vice versa, but I think there should be a choice, and not a choice that’s influenced or dictated by what kids are told that they’re supposed to like.
What do you think? Do your kids play with only gender-specific toys and if so, why? Do you think it’s a positive thing to market girls versions of things in pink, or should toys be accessible to all? Most of all, do you think that it’s important to define gender and set boundaries accordingly? Let me know.