Gendering toys, and how little Riley will change the world one day

I just haven’t been able to stop watching this video. It’s completely brilliant and beautiful – a young girl called Riley paces angrily around a sickly pinkified toy aisle and rants to her father about the toy industry’s narrow view of gender roles. She seems so exasperated: “Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses! Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses! So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?”

She also shows a pretty astute awareness of marketing. She knows that the stores are “trying to trick girls into buying the pink stuff instead of stuff that boys want to buy,” but she seems so baffled as to why. My favourite part is probably her dad’s resigned sigh at the end: “That’s a good question, Riley.” Sometimes the way children see the world is the most logical, and this is a great example of how sometimes we need to take a step back to see how absurd something really is.

The pink Lego saga

Earlier this week, there was a lot of outrage about Lego’s new “Friends” range – a pastel, girly version of everyone’s favourite building blocks. Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp said the cute, very domestically-oriented new range aims to “reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children,” and to be fair, I guess you can kind of see where they’re coming from. It’s natural that they want to expand their market, and if it’s true that they get more sales from parents of boys than girls, then commercially it makes sense.

The American writer Peggy Orenstein talks about the “princess industrial complex”, where in the late 1980s marketers realised that there were bigger sales opportunities if the toy market was divided into two distinct groups. Lego has spent a long time analysing how boys play and increased their profits dramatically as a result, so now it’s used the same methods to develop a line meant to appeal to little girls – and their market research manager Hanne Groth said that interviews with young girls showed that their greatest preoccupation was with beauty, so making Lego all sweet and pretty seems like a logical way to make it more “girl friendly.”

But seriously? I might be missing something, but was Lego ever particularly not “girl friendly”? My sister and I were always pretty girly sorts of girls, but we still played with Lego. Things didn’t have to be all sugar and spice and all things nice. We did love our Barbies, but like most little girls our favourite thing to do was to “customise” them in various sorts of ways (our style was more just to cut off their hair and colour in the remaining tufts with textas, but I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for girls to enjoy pulling off limbs or decapitating the poor things).

We never played video games or had toy race cars, but our games were never really about nurturing babies or making ourselves look pretty either – we always either playing make believe games or wanting to put on a play or doing some kind of arts and crafts project. And on the occasions when we did go to visit the houses of our parents’ friends who had boys our age, playing Cops and Robbers always did have a sort of delicious thrill about it.

Pink brains and blue brains

I’m pretty fascinated by neuroscience and for a while I got really into reading about the differences between male and female brains. And the thing is, once you start reading about some of the studies people have done, it all starts to make a lot of sense. You can find explanations for all sorts of socially engrained ideas about gender differences, and at the time I found it all really helpful. I was thinking about it mostly in terms of relationships and trying to understand men. I had just had my heart broken and was trying to understand how it was possible that a boy who said he was in love with me could one day suddenly switch it off, when I had this idea that everyone’s brain worked the same as mine did. The things I learned (for example from The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine) were incredibly interesting, and whether or not they turn out to be true I think it’s valuable to think about.  

Back to toys though. There have been studies that suggested boys are biologically “pre-programmed” for rough-and-tumble games and that girls are drawn to dolls and domestic role-play. But then Cordelia Fine published Delusions of Gender, a study of the neuroscientific literature on “hard-wired” differences between and boys and girls, and suggested that most of what has been presented as evidence is based on studies that were really not controlled or accurate enough to pass as such. The theories sound good and seem to match the social differences we all notice every day, so they’ve been constructed into a sort of scientific myth. But it’s all likely to be so much more complicated than that.

So a wealth of evidence suggests that things like colour preferences are much more likely to be learned instead of biological. It’s interesting to note that there’s always been this “colour coding” for genders, but it used to be the exact opposite. In the early 1900s, pink was considered a strong, assertive colour, and was used to dress baby boys. Blue was for girls, seen as more dainty and delicate. It wasn’t until after World War II that the rule was reversed – for what reason I’m not sure, but it’s far more likely to be a social change rather than a change in the wiring of the brains of the new generation of babies.

Saying that girls are attracted to “beauty” is almost definitely more a cultural difference than a biological one. Which is not to say it’s not real – but why reinforce the stereotype? If the toy industry increasingly makes products for girls that centre on being pretty, passive and obsessed with being a princess or a bride or a fashion model, of course those ideas of innate difference are going to be instilled more and more strongly into the minds of us all. Of course girls will say they prefer pink if since they were born that’s what they’ve been showered with, if they’ve been told since day one that they’re different to their brothers. It reminds me of this truly awful Huggies ad, which was on TV about a year ago and still makes me angry. I actually sort of can’t believe it actually made it to TV, because I just find it outrageously irresponsible. (*EDIT: Okay, it looks like this ad has been removed from the YouTubesphere and I’ve been going crazy trying to find it. In the meantime, here’s a blog post that summarises it.) Yes, boys and girls do often conform to the stereotypes we expect – but why drive in those stereotypes further and declare them as fact, and close off the possibility that children might enjoy other things?

But girls can still be creative with girly stuff

Nina Funnell and Dannielle Miller make an excellent argument in the National Times that girls can play creatively and critically with dolls and princess games, and I think that’s crucial to note – even if girls are given only girly toys, it doesn’t mean they’re doomed for life, or that they can’t be imaginative. Naomi Woolf made a similar point about princesses in The New York Times, and I’d agree. On the rare occasions that my sister and I ever played princess games, there was nothing about looking beautiful or waiting around for a prince. No, it was always that my sister was the princess and I was the slave (she’s two years older – can you tell?) and her role was mostly about giving orders and bossing me around.

Yes, we had pink rooms and wore a lot of pink or purple matching outfits, but we both grew up to have pretty strong feminist opinions, and to be really good at bossing around our boyfriends. Sure, we are both still very “feminine” and love clothes and makeup and all of that, but I like to think we’re pretty strong-and-independent-and-smart-type women, who just happen to like fashion. The biggest influencer was probably that we have parents who always encouraged us to be creative and imaginative, and who taught us to value learning and thinking critically. I remember my mum reading us The Magic Faraway Tree series, and explaining to us that it’s completely sexist the way the brother was always saving the day and the little girls were just totally helpless. It’s the small things like that that probably made the difference.

My sister and I are lucky that we were brought up a certain way, and had the opportunity to get a good education, and were encouraged to develop our own views of the world. But those are privileges that not everyone has, so we need to do more as a society to convince young girls that they have more options than just a life that’s pink and sparkly. And if they want to be a superhero instead of a princess, they should go for it.  

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