“Tis the season for anxious parenting,” writer Elissa Strauss announced last Friday in The Week. The cause of this parental stress may not be obvious at first glance. Rather, it is quiet, insidious, and, apparently, it lurks worldwide.
It is—get ready, innocent holiday shoppers—an army of sexist, “gendered” toys, ready to oppress children around the globe. Sadly, these toys, much like, say, Victoria’s Secret models, face a rather odd conundrum: They are both victimizers and victims at the same time. These inherently sexist toys, you see, are also forced to live in a virtual apartheid of equally sexist, restricting, and gender-segregated toy store shelf arrangements. It is, as modern feminists like to say, a bit of a double bind.
Remember the children’s book “Corduroy,” where the underprivileged bear with the broken overalls lives on the same shelf as the fancy doll and the gigantic lion and the unintentionally spooky clown that looks like it’s about to murder them all? Well, friends, in our age of inequality, this diversity is apparently no more. Strauss explains further:
Thanks to the feminist revival of the past half-decade more and more parents now hesitate to buy their daughters a doll or sons an action figure. In Australia, activists are calling for a ‘No Gender December;’ in the UK a campaign called ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ is pushing for gender-neutral toys; in Sweden some toy stores are now gender neutral; and here in the States resistance to the pink aisle is growing louder and louder.
Interesting! Since I do almost all of my shopping online, thereby avoiding—and this is quite purposeful, friends—any type of toy aisle altogether, I did what any good writer investigating a potential international scourge would: I took my three boys to the local Target toy section. This, in case you don’t have kids, is a very brave thing to do.
Time to Take an Investigatory Field Trip
My goal was to investigate “the gendered tyranny” of the toy aisles, as Australian academic Michelle Smith recently called it. I’ll start by saying this: There was a certain tyranny in the Target toy section, but I’m not sure if it was gendered. Here are the toys my kids descended upon within approximately 15 seconds:
- A giant plastic castle, concocted by the Fisher Price “Imaginext” brand, which has a lion’s mouth as a gate. Every time you open the gate (“Click!”) the lion lets out a roar (“RARGHGH!”).
- A “Let’s Rock” Elmo, which says the following, over and over: “ELMO’S GONNA ROCK! YEAH!” (Maybe this one was broken, but seriously, that’s all it said.)
- A four-foot long Star Wars light saber, which makes a rather realistic light-saber “Woooooosh!” sound. This toy is also useful for knocking all the other toys off the shelves.
- “Click! RARGHGH! Click! Wooooooosh! Click! ELMO’S GONNA ROCK! YEAH! RARGHGH!”
I’m sorry, what was I saying again? My ears are bleeding. Oh, yes. Among the colorful rows of the Target toy section—I’m sorry, I mean “the highly gendered amusement prison bounded by proverbial pink and blue bars”— two aisles stood out. Both, unsurprisingly, were an explosion of purple, sparkles, and several alarming and unearthly shades of pink. Ever intrepid, the boys and I headed that way, but not before everyone, much to my regret, saw this:
In case you can’t read the fine print, this is a pair of Incredible Hulk “Huge Slam Hands” accompanied by five “Smash Bricks.” The “smash brick” accessories are especially hilarious, because if I gave my kids Incredible Hulk Huge Slam Hands, do you know what they would probably punch?
- The air;
- The air, but with some art behind it, preferably expensive or rare;
- The air, but with a towering chocolate soufflé behind it, if I made towering chocolate soufflés;
- The air, but with their brother behind it;
- Their brother, and I’m not going to lie, it looks like it was on purpose.
Talk about tyranny. Refreshingly, there were no Smash Hands in the two “girly” aisles, which could be loosely categorized as the “Crazed Princess” and the “Barbie and Her Slightly Trampy Off-Brand Competitors” sections. In a touching nod to gender equality, however, there was this sight to behold:
Fantastic, right? In case you were worried about the parents of girls being denied the right to be pegged by plastic bullets from behind, Nerf has you covered. Target also had an impressive selection of purple and pink bows, arrows, and crossbows, inspired, no doubt, by “The Hunger Games.” These were placed, somewhat mysteriously, next to an equally wide selection of “Moxie Girlz Poopsy Pets.”
So, in total, how oppressive were the toy aisles? Each gender was offered an equal selection of weaponry, so there’s that. And while gender toy activists often complain that “empowering” toys like science kits are placed in the “boy” section, my local Target apparently missed that memo: Science kits were right next to the Cabbage Patch Dolls, in an aisle that also contained trucks, toy cell phones, and a shockingly genderless kitchen set.
However, I’ll be honest: The concentrated double-aisle purple/pink/Elsa from “Frozen” explosion was kind of intense. And while my local Target did not label certain toy aisles for “boys” or for “girls”—which is actually a legitimate complaint, in my book—the Lego section, which took up an entire aisle, might as well have just sauntered off the golf course at the pre-Condi Augusta National, with a tiny, sad, separate, flowery, and girl-marketed “Lego Friends” line relegated to the two-aisle ghetto of purple and pink.
There’s a bigger problem at work here, however: While they may make a few good points, many of the activists fighting for “non-gendered” toys and “gender-free” toy marketing take the reasonable parts of their argument, run with them like Forrest Gump, and jump on a bullet train straight into the Grand Central Station of Crazy Town.
Have These People Ever Met a Little Boy or Girl?
“Letting children ‘be’ boys or girls implies that there is a natural set of likes and dislikes for each gender that are unaffected by the culture in which we live,” writes researcher Michelle Smith, arguing that boys would be up to their ears in baby dolls if it weren’t for societal restrictions. Meanwhile, “outdated stereotypes” in toys, says Larissa Waters, the Australian founder of the “No Gender December” movement, “perpetuate gender inequality, which feeds into very serious problems such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap.” Both of these statements, if you’ve paid attention to reality for long enough, contain more than a bit of a leap.
In the end, is it reasonable to think stores should organize toys by category and interest, rather than “boy” or “girl” sections? Sure. Is it okay to be a little pink and purpled out, while also acknowledging this might simply be what sells? Certainly. Is it also reasonable to think that an anxiety-driven movement for “non-gendered toys” will ultimately lead to a gauzy world of “gender equality,” where boys and girls share indistinguishable interests and domestic violence will end?
Well, no. It is not, and with this truth in mind, it might be time for everyone in the toy wars to chill out a little bit. Strauss, in her own way, agrees: “Daughter wants that doll? Fine,” she writes. “But then maybe dad is the one to sit down and figure out what dress she should wear for her big date.”
Well, okay, maybe. Just don’t blame him when he offers terrible fashion advice. Call me sexist, call me “gendered,” but he’s a guy. I’m betting he will.