I wasn’t surprised when my son, Zachary, was teased for bringing My Little Pony in for first-grade show-and-tell. After all, I had been following the story of Katie, a first-grader in Evanston, Illinois, who had been mocked for choosing a Star Wars water bottle. Katie’s mother, Carrie Goldman, blogged about the incident, and her post quickly went viral, with over a thousand women Star Wars fans leaving Katie supportive comments. Having read Katie’s story, I had a sense of what might be coming when my son showed up in the kitchen holding Twilight Sparkle and announcing, “This is my show-and-tell.”
Frankly, anyone who has been inside a toy store lately has seen the extraordinary gender division. There are girls’ toys and there are boys’ toys, and there isn’t a whole lot in between. You’ll know when you are in the girls’ section by the bright pink glow and the predominance of kitchen-related items. That’s also where you’ll find My Little Pony, in all her sparkly, pastel magnificence. If, however, you’re looking for the boys’ section, just head for the dark toys featuring building supplies and weapons. That’s where the Star Wars merchandise is shelved.
Toy marketing has become increasingly gendered over the last decade and a half, according to Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author with Sharon Lamb of the books Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood. Although initially related to the anti-consumerist Riot Grrrl movement, girl power resonated with girls and so became fodder for the marketers. “Suddenly, we saw in the mid-nineties everything being called ‘girl power’,” says Brown. “Crafts, makeup, shopping–everything traditional ‘girl’ was given this new edge, but the message was the same.” That message? Girls need lots of pink, fluffy toys.
But kids can still play with whatever they like, right? It’s not that easy, unfortunately. “We rarely see girls and boys in the same commercials,” explains Brown, or in the same section of the toy store. “Toys are heavily marketed through stereotypes. It’s all about making it simple to sell products to little kids.”
The fault doesn’t just lie with toy manufacturers. Although Hasbro, maker of the My Little Pony and Star Wars toys, did not respond to my interview requests, marketers with other toy companies explain that the retail stores have tied their hands. Top retail stores define the sections and are reluctant to stock gender-neutral toys because they don’t have a section for them. But when I went to my local Learning Express, an educational-toy-store chain, they told me that they don’t carry male dolls because no one will buy them.
So marketers and toy stores are throwing up their hands, saying they are responding to consumers’ tastes. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, and the children lose out. By the time they are in elementary school, children are well aware of which colors and products are intended for them. Their choices have been severely limited by the adults around them, to the detriment of the children. “Diversity is always better in terms of cognitive development, in terms of relationships and social environments,” says Brown. “When you offer few options and give kids a very narrow slice of life, there are things they don’t learn, experiences they don’t have.”
What the children do learn is strict gender norms, and the children who don’t adhere to those norms frighten their peers. “They’re made anxious by difference because we’ve given them sameness,” Brown says. To alleviate that fear, they tease the child who doesn’t conform.
When the teasing starts, adult response is crucial. While Katie and Zachary had similar experiences at school, Goldman and I had remarkably different ones when we tried to address the problem. My child’s teacher put a stop to the individual instance of teasing and that was the end of it, but Goldman’s community took the teasing as a call to action. “There could have been defensiveness, from the school, from the parents of the first-grade boys,” Goldman says. Instead, the community and the school have come together to talk over the issues and break through gender norms. The school is considering bringing in a group to teach an anti-bullying assembly. A Star Wars fan organized a Geek Pride for Katie day, with over 19,000 people pledging to wear Star Wars clothing this Friday in support of Katie, although Katie’s school is making it a Proud to Be Me Day, in which every child in encouraged to wear whatever interests her or him. That kind of proactive response can help to combat the strict gender lines that toy companies establish.
Campaigns like Pink Stinks in the United Kingdom bring publicity to the way gender has been scripted for our children. Every now and then the media runs an article on the tyranny of pink or the elusive tomboy. However, the best way to combat gender stereotyping and gender bullying is to refuse to lock children into gender norms. Children are bombarded with marketing, but every time we teach a girl to build or a boy to nurture, every time we give a girl a Star Wars water bottle or pick up a My Little Pony for a boy at a yard sale, we are opening up options that the toy stores and companies have shut down.