I remember the exact moment I realized my son was aware of gender differences in toys. He was three years old at the time, and my husband and I were talking to him about the kids in his preschool class. We asked him if he ever played with one of the little girls in his class.
He said, “No, because she only plays with girl toys.”
Naturally, I asked, “What are girl toys?”
“Ponies living in houses,” he said.
“I thought you like horses,” my husband countered.
“I do. But not ponies.”
And that was that. It made me laugh out loud, but also a little sad at the same time. The days of innocent play, oblivious to social expectations were over.
As an adult walking through the toy aisles at stores, it’s amazing to me how clear the signals are to girls and boys which aisles are meant for them. Wall to wall pink in the “girl” aisle is just as a effective as a sign reading “Keep Out, Boys!” Similarly, most girls probably aren’t going to venture into the “boy” aisle full of dark packaging and action-oriented imagery. They’re taught early that these are boy themes.
Is it just me, or has the gender divide in toys been pushed further to the extreme in recent years? I don’t remember my childhood being quite so… pink.
My sister and I had amassed a decent collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars before our brother was born. We played Legos long before there were “girl” Legos, and built castles, spaceships, trains, helicopters, police stations, fire engines, and more. One of our favorite backyard games was “Cops and Robbers,” complete with squirt guns and a makeshift jail. We weren’t considered tomboys by any means and never would have described ourselves that way. We had our fair share of Barbie dolls and play-kitchen gear, too, but our toys spanned the rainbow. Pink was just a small part.
Now that I have my own kids, I can see how my son is told which things are meant for him simply by the packaging. Girls are told the same thing through the color pink. What bothers me about the explosion of pink and the color divide is that it shortcuts the decision-making process, reinforcing stereotypes. Instead of letting kids discover and develop their own identities, we’ve created a quick and easy way to communicate instantaneously what they’re supposed to and not supposed to like.
Of course the underlying larger question here is one of nature versus nurture: in what ways are boys and girls inherently different from each other? How much are these differences today biologically driven? Probably no one has a complete answer to that question. When you boil down many of these toys to their basics, however, they aren’t as different as they appear. An action figure is pretty much a doll.
I think the gender divide has probably always existed in toys to a certain degree. Even when my sister and I were little playing with Legos, there were always more boy wigs than girl wigs. So I have to credit our openness to playtime variety more to the way we were brought up than the packaging of our toys.
We were lucky enough to have parents who weren’t afraid to give my sister an airplane book for her birthday, a Super Soaker squirt gun to me, or a train set for all of us to share. And when there weren’t enough female Lego wigs, they encouraged my sister to write a letter to the company asking why. (In response, she received a packet of 30 female Lego wigs in the mail from the company, which is pretty classy if you ask me.) Instead of learning the lessons of gender stereotypes, we learned all kinds of ways to play and developed broad interests.
Tip: When shopping for little girls this holiday season, think outside the pink!
I think it’s time for girls to take back the rainbow. Take a peek around the other side of the aisle and try something new. Think about it when you’re shopping this holiday season. If the little girls in your life loves pink, that’s perfectly fine. Prancine the unicorn and Whisper the cat are both wonderful Stuffies® and great gifts for them. But don’t forget to consider that a little girl you know just might love to have Blaze the dragon instead. Empower her to beg in all the toy aisles, not just the pink ones.