Have you ever experienced the pink-blue effect while entering a toys’ shop during Christmas time? Probably you did, perhaps without noticing it, or most likely without paying too much importance to it and to the reasons behind.
Christmas, likewise other traditions, is an excellent period to reinforce and enact patriarchal rules and gender roles. And toys are just one of the dimensions of it. But are toys so important? Why, in which way? How does they connected with gender and, most importantly, with discrimination? Although these are probably too many questions to be discussed in a single post, it is worthwhile to have a closer look to the toys available on the market.
The pink-blue effect is just an ironic way to refer to the obvious colour division in toys’ sections in supermarkets and in other toys’ shops. Indeed this colour division astonishes the more undisturbed gaze, and it represents the very beginning of the discrimination between girls and boys. I underline that this type of discrimination is detrimental to both boys and girls, as it hinders specific dimensions of human growth in both genders.
This colour dichotomy is just the most superficial feature of a deeper phenomenon. Looking closely to toys addressed to girls and boys we may notice many other differences, such as the themes they cover, the skills they boost, the language used, and so on. This is even more evident in toys advertisements, which are the mean used to invite children and teach them the toys they must want and like. And if not the adds then parents, family and teachers will make sure no boy will like to take care of baby dolls and no girl will like to play with airplanes (although to a certain extent girls benefit from a greater freedom than boys on this regard).
Girls’ toys are often associated with care and nurturing, invite to clean, cook and organise, reinforce beauty standards and boost obsession with beauty and social acceptability. Even toys that are about creating and inventing have topics related to beauty and housekeeping. What does it teach our girls? Well, evidently girls learn to take care of other people, namely babies, they discover at an early age that their role is about cleaning, cooking and being beautiful. Being all these things will make them the girls men are looking for and will hopefully help them to find a husband who will protect and decide on their behalf. While there are exceptions and fortunately there are already parents and people who are aware of these patterns, it is not easy to find alternative toys, which may enable children to build their identity in a freer way without the oppressive gender roles and expectations.
What about boys’ toys? Well, those are often associated with competition and fight, building and creating new things, and frequently there is an adventure dimension. Boys learn that problems are solved through violence, and that they must compete and win. On the other hand the toys allowed to boys boost their creative and inventive skills, encourage their interest in sciences and mechanical subjects.
Video games are a subject on its own as they represent a separated and very critical part of toys. Video games, similarly to movies and books, reinforce gender roles in a very subtle (and sometimes non subtle) manner. Normally video games heroes are men who have to fight and survive many hardships in order to reach a goal. This goal is often to save a (beautiful, sexy and helpless) girl who is also the reward for the hero’s bravery. Hence we assist here to the objectification of women and to their devaluation, both in terms of their active engagement in the game and in terms of their ‘rewarding’ role. Moreover women in video games are extremely sexualised and stereotyped by the use of visual properties such as high hills, bows or lipstick. Other games are very violent and foster a ‘war attitude’ and in some cases even racism.
To conclude I would like to share some ideas of what can be done to avoid and deal with these issues and what are the possible alternatives. The first step is to raise a question: ‘Why toys need to be gendered?’. This only makes sense in a patriarchal system like the one we live in where gender and gender inequalities are used to reinforce and maintain power structures and to hinder change towards a more peaceful world. Therefore, ideally, there should be toys creators who care about these matters and instead of having as priority to make money by selling stereotypes and reinforcing inequalities their priority should be to bring innovation to the toys especially in what concerns this gender dimension.
Considering that toys’ function is primarily to teach children about the world and to boost in them competences that are needed to survive and to live in society, these toys should be free from gender stereotypes. That is, toys must boost a variety of competences independent of the sex of the children and children must be allowed to play with the toys they prefer, without pressure from the outside. Despite gender being one of the most important features of society it doesn’t mean it cannot or mustn’t change. Parents and people who have contact with children must realise that children’s education is a powerful way to bring about change in society. And working towards gender equality in socialisation is essential to avoid discrimination and inequality later in life. This is the way towards an identity development that is freer and human. And above all this is a way towards a human development that is whole.
To know more on the subject…
I strongly invite you to see the following videos of Anita Sarkeesian who analysis these issues is more depth and with concrete examples:
http://www.feministfrequency.com/ (first video in the page)
An article from ‘The Guardian’: