Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Searching for Genderless Toys

Yesterday, a facebook friend linked to Feminist Frequency's video discussing lego and gender (Part One and Part Two.  Transcripts included in the links).  In summary, the complaint is that Lego's new 'Friends' set, aimed at girls, is set firmly apart from what might otherwise seem to be a gender-neutral set: 'City'.  Through their marketing, Lego are actually working to segregate the genders, by having clearly distinguished boys toys and girls toys.  It's not their intent, they're simply following a successful model and did the research to back that up, but the presenter felt that they should be more accountable for the message they're sending out.

I am mostly in sympathy with the presenter here (can't say I agreed on every point), because this is an issue I ran into recently.  Only not with Lego.

My son (who turned three in December) has recently got into Fisher Price's Imaginext.  We have a few planes and some emergency responders and accessories.  He loves them, and I was very taken by them as well, to the point that I wanted to invest in some more and build up a really good set for him to play with.  Since all his figures were male, I thought a good starting point would be to introduce some diversity and look for some female figures.  This proved somewhat harder than I anticipated.

Although Imaginext looked to me like a fun and gender-neutral toy, it turned out that all these sets were marketed to boys and all the figures were male, with the exception of sets themed on an existing franchise.  So I can get a Catwoman figure, but not a female firefighter.

Bemused, I decided to look up Imaginext for girls, reasoning that such a successful line must have a girls' set of products, even if I've never seen them.  That led me to Precious Places, a cheerful little fantasy line, with princesses, princes, leisure activities, cute animals and, yes, it's fair share of pink and purple.

There is an awful lot I could say here, but I am just going to save my tirade on what constitutes a girl's toy for another post, when my daughter's older.  My current issue is that I have a son and a daughter.  I would like to buy toys that both children can play with together.  To, y'know, encourage a close relationship and to give them plenty of practice in cooperation.  When I decided to try for a second child, my motivation was that a sibling was the greatest gift I could give my son.  I am not going to create an arbitrary barrier between them just because that sibling was a sister!

Now clearly girls can play with boys' toys if they want to and vice versa.  My brother used to play My Little Pony with me; I used to play Transformers, G I Joe and MASK with him (actually, I'm a fan of Transformers to this day, despite the best efforts of the recent movies).  Similarly my son and my daughter are bound to have different interests.  And there are studies showing that boys and girls do play differently, even at a young age.

Nevertheless, while my daughter might ultimately decide she wants to play with dolls rather than her brother's train-set, I don't want her to feel excluded from the train-set.  And I certainly don't want to teach my son that girls have no place in action, adventure, motorised vehicles and emergency response.

Of course, there's always that marketing creed that boys don't want female action figures etc.  They don't sell.  I don't doubt that this has some truth (even if it is a sweeping generalisation) for older children, say, five and up.  But my son hasn't quite figured gender out yet.  He knows that there are boys and girls, but he doesn't really understand or care about the distinction (I have talked about the anatomy side of it on occasion, but I've not gone into any depth).

One of his favourite films is Lilo and Stitch, and he likes to pretend that Lilo is himself, repeating her lines and actions (Stitch is his sister--an apt piece of casting!).  I was surprised that he gravitated towards Lilo and not the more exciting Stitch, but it makes sense.  He doesn't watch many shows with an actual child character, and Lilo says and does things that he can identify with (particularly shouting "No!").  Her gender comes secondary to her age.

And of course, there's something rather wonderful about him being too young to be sexist or racist or any other form of bigot simply because he is genuinely blind to such differences.  I know that won't last, but I would love to be able to take advantage of it by populating his toys with diversity.  And, since he is not going to complain if one of his pilots has pigtails and breasts, why can't the pre-school marketed toys reflect that equality?

I should note that it's entirely possible that my son might turn out to be transsexual, but I'm assuming he isn't, due to statistical probability and the fact that he seems to act like all the other little boys of my acquaintance.  Of course, if he is transsexual, that would be even more reason to avoid any gender barriers!

Let's take another example: Transformers.  I'm not ready to introduce my son to combat storylines yet; I want to avoid the black and white morality of good vs evil, until he's old enough for me to discuss shades of grey with him.  Hasbro recently brought out a Transformers toyline and cartoon for a younger demographic, featuring Autobots and human allies as emergency response units.  This was right up my son's street, and he loves the cartoon.

All the robots in this line are male, but the cartoon features a woman as a helicopter pilot.  Much to my disappointment, the toyline uses different human characters, all of which are male.  To Hasbro's credit, you can buy female Transformers in the line for older children.  Of course this sets up the irony that they're now trying to reverse an attitude that they are instilling in the children to start with!

At first glance, I thought the solution to my problem would be to buy products for both boys and girls and blend them together, but as I found with Imaginext, that isn't entirely straightforward.  I could probably use the princesses and carriages from Precious Places with some of the other Imaginext fantasy sets, but my son isn't into fantasy, and the long dresses would preclude the princesses from fitting into his planes, even if I was willing to stretch reality.

Lego would seem to have an advantage here, since you can pop a female head onto a firefighting body, and ta-da!  One female firefighter!  Their Friends line doesn't help this by having completely different figures, but a few female figures from the basic line could at least be recycled.

The real problem however is the colour coding.  I don't have any problems with my son playing with pink and purple toys--he's quite fond of the colour pink, and always chooses the little girl in a pink outfit as his playing piece when we play Snakes and Ladders.  What I object to is that this colour scheme (along with sea green and white as needed for contrast) has been set aside specifically for little girls and doesn't reflect the real world.

So Montessori influence creeps in for me here.  We have a metal pan and a wooden spoon for the play kitchen instead of plastic ones, because that's what Mummy uses in the real kitchen.  I certainly don't use pink utensils, or wear a pink apron, and when I use a hammer or screwdriver, I use the same ones Daddy does, and they're not pink or purple or anything but very utilitarian in appearance.

One of the toys we already have is a ramp for the Fisher Prices Wheelies... a range of chunky plastic cars with rolling wheels and a (non-removable) driver.  The two cars that came with it both had male drivers which I named Jensen Button and Lewis Hamilton after the F1 drivers.  I decided to buy a couple of girl cars to complement the set, and immediately ran into the problem that while the male-driven cars were all in colours approximating what you would find in the real world (if somewhat brighter), the handful of female cars were in the market-approved colour scheme.  I ended up getting a plum race car and a sea green 4x4, consoling myself that at least the vehicles weren't dainty (their drivers were dubbed Thelma and Louise).

Thinking back to my own childhood, before we got into My Little Pony and Transformers, my brother and I both played with Playmobil.  Casual research on that shows a similar issue with certain sets marketed to boys and certain marketed to girls, although encouragingly, only the magical castle line is bombarded with the pink and purple.  All the modern sets use colours appropriate to the real world.  Even the boys' sets seem to have female characters, although they're still very much a token character in a male dominated line.

This kind of segregation is what sets the gender bias apart from the racial bias.  It's also tough to find action figures of different colours (in many cases, much harder than finding female action figures), but at least the black characters are fully interchangeable with the white ones.  Girls' lines are quite literally set in a world of their own.

Imagine if this did apply to race as well.  Imagine if stores not only had sections for boys' toys and girls' toys, but separate aisles and colour schemes for toys for black children too.  Doesn't sit comfortably does it?

The London toy-store, Hamleys, recently responded to pressure from parenting groups by neutralising their layout, and grouping toys by interest rather than which gender they're aimed at. (I've not been round Hamleys in years, but I'm dying to go now and check it out).  I'd love to see this trend take off with other stores.  You can still have a fashion doll section, but wouldn't it be great to have a fantasy section (where princesses and unicorns were allowed to rub shoulders with knights and dragons), or a city life section where dollhouses and leisure activities were next to emergency vehicles and construction?

However, when it comes down to it, toy companies aren't just marketing to boys and girls... they're marketing to us parents, and we're also responding well to the colour coding and gender segregation.  The companies aren't selling female characters to three year old boys because they won't buy them; they aren't selling them because their parents won't buy them. 

I don't consider myself to be on a big gender neutral crusade nor to be doing anything particularly unusual with my children.  But I will acknowledge that I'm in the minority for waiting to distinguish the genders (in play anyway; I can't say I'm putting my son in a dress nor have I opted for unisex names!), and that I too am susceptible to the advertising status quo.

Ultimately, I believe it's something worth stopping and thinking about.  When I decided to try for a second child, my motivation was that a sibling was the greatest gift I could give my son.  Am I to create an arbitrary barrier between them just because that sibling was a sister?

For more on this subject, here's an excellent article by Peggy Orenstein: Should the World of Toys be Gender Free? 

PS I've realised that when making comparisons to racial diversity in toys, I only referred to black characters, omitting the other races.  Obviously, this is a post about gender in toys, not race in toys, but I regret the implication that black characters are all we need for diversity.  This is perhaps its own comment on the presentation of racial diversity in toys...


  1. Absolutely.

    To be honest, it's one of the things that make me happy about having two boys, because otherwise my blood would boil and I'd be wrecking and remodelling the aisles of Toys'r'us every other week. Fortunately, the German Schleich knights range is parked right next to their mixed-gender fantasy critters, princesses and show-jumping ponies, so if Matt ever wants to add a unicorn-riding fairy, it's right there in front of him when he sees the more boyish stuff. But mostly, yeah, the segregation is pretty hideous. And I'd love a few girl construction workers for his Early Learning Centre vehicles - at least the lego sets seem to provide a range of people to populate the toys. Sure, the lego woman was waiting for the male pilot to deliver her post by plane in one set we have, but at home she gets to fly the plane too.

    1. I think it's probably made worse by the fact that I have both genders. I think if I had two daughters, I'd be less aware of how the boys' stuff and the girls' stuff is so radically different. On the whole, the boys' toys are definitely better though.

      We get the Schleich figures here too, although Toby's never shown a great deal of interest in them. I'm secretly gutted that he's not into fantasy.

  2. Yes indeedy. (Although I'm sad you don't wear a pink apron while cooking with your pink pans and using your pink screwdriver.) I had a similar horrifying experience when I discovered that since I've grown up, Tinkertoys have become gendered. Whyyyyyyyyyy? It makes me sad. I hugely applaud Hamleys, and also hope it's a growing trend. Thus far I have yet to set foot in a toys'r'us (which should really be toys'r'we) because I'm pretty sure my head would explode. Anyway, good on you for being so thoughtful about it given how hard it is to resist the pressure!