By Alison Tedford
"Mommy, how long does it take you to forget things?"
I am used to getting weird questions from my kid, but I didn't know where he was going with this exactly. I looked at him quizzically and prompted him to explain.
"I want to watch Barbie on Netflix but I don't want you to tell my dad about it tonight when he calls," he elaborated, boyish face full of shame. I was more than a little perplexed. I explained to him the position his father and I share, that toys are for kids, not boys or girls specifically. I reassured him there would be no judgement associated with his television viewing choices.
But where did he get this idea? I filed it away in my head until the next time we went to a local fast food establishment. He was looking in awe at the display of toys that would come with his meal.
"Do you want a boy toy or a girl toy?" the cashier asked in a manner that reflected the hundreds of times she had asked this same question, apparently unaware of the judgement that came with those words. This seemingly benign inquiry forms a piece of the underlying social messaging that gender stereotypes toys.
This raised some issues for me:
Why does this even have to be the question that we ask a child?
Why do we need to label his or her selection of toys to be gender appropriate?
Would there not be some value to the franchise owners associated with these toys to offer them by name instead of by gender, reinforcing their brand and generating excitement about it?
How do toy manufacturers feel about the audience of their toys being limited by an arbitrary territory delineation? When you identify something to be appropriate for a boy or a girl only, you limit your customers by 50%.
On a subsequent occasion, I was shopping for my son's Christmas presents when I was overwhelmed by a woman rushing through the aisles, frantically in search of a specific item.
"Do you know where the girl Lego is?" she asked, frazzled and harried like everyone else at the mall that day. I looked around and couldn't locate it either. I pointed to another product on the shelf.
"How old is she? Unless she had her heart set on 'girl Lego' specifically, she can probably still operate these ones, even if they aren't in a pink box." I am a data analyst as my day job and I can usually manage to work my calculator, even if it's not pink either. This is why I shop online primarily, I'm just not a people person. And what was I there for that day? Monster High dolls, for my son.
I couldn't have been more delighted when he asked for these toys specifically, because I have been guilty of gender stereotyping toys myself. I thought in having a boy, I would never have the opportunity to play dolls with my child. I liked the dolls he selected because they are quirky, weird non-conformists like he and I. I wouldn't have balked at a Barbie though.
Barbie gets a bad reputation, and I understand it to a certain extent. From a body image perspective, I think the lack of body diversity is not the most positive message and those specific dimensions are really unrealistic. What I do like about Barbie is that there is a positive message. The message that I appreciate is that a woman can be beautiful and smart at the same time. A lot of social messaging reinforces one or the other, but not both simultaneously. I like that my kid is exposed to the message that a woman can have great hair and cute shoes and still be an astronaut or a veterinarian. She can be beautiful and brainy. I think Barbie helps my son be a better feminist because he is getting the message not to assume that just because a woman is beautiful, that she can't also be successful in other ways.
But how do we change the message? Where do we go from here?
I have a lot of respect for trail blazers in addressing this issue, like Toys 'R' Us who stopped labeling their aisles by gender and feature girls and boys using toys previously gender stereotyped in their catalogues. After a widely circulated petition, Lego launched with much fanfare their Research Station playset that featured female scientists (a limited edition, now discontinued). McDonald's published an updated policy on this matter, however I can say I am still asked this any time I go into their franchises. A Freakonomics article encourages those concerned to pass along a copy of the updated policy to staff at their local restaurant should they be asked this question. Let Toys Be Toys has classroom resources for teachers who want to address the issue with their students.
Talking to kids is really key. I talked to my son about how I wanted to write this article to see how he felt about it, given some would be drawn from his experiences. He was really supportive, because he wants other little boys to play with dolls if they choose, or wear pink and purple if they like. I promised I would write it, and he was pleased.
Alison Tedford is a single mom of one rambunctious boy, from Abbotsford, BC, Canada. She is a data analyst, a pole dance instructor, an eating disorder support group facilitator and fitness enthusiast. She likes naps and long walks on the patio with a skinny vanilla latte.
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