“I won’t eat my ice cream unless the spoon’s blue.” a boy scowls with the ferocity of a bear in a zoo, outraged at the injustice of being locked up.
“Of course, darling.” a tired mum sighs, looking up at me, the gelato scooper, with expectation and an awaiting hand.
The week after, and most likely the week before too, a parent apologetically approaches the counter and explains, “my daughter will throw a tantrum if she can’t have her ice cream in the pink cup, I know it’s the medium size, but maybe you could just put the small amount in the pink cup? That wouldn’t be a problem, would it?”
No, actually, that’s really not a problem, and something I would be happy to do if this whole scenario was based upon a child’s simple desire for their favourite colour. But it’s not; it’s so much bigger than that.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a boy wanting a blue spoon, or a girl wanting a pink cup, but when this is the norm, surely we should be questioning why things as simple as colour are so heavily gendered, and so strongly connected to a child’s emotions surrounding their desires and identity?
Having to disregard the small cup purely because it’s blue would be fine, a game I’m willing to entertain for a child’s short-term happiness. Having to disregard the small cup because it’s a ‘boy’s colour’ is where I see an issue.
It goes a lot further than colour too; it’s not that every toy comes in blue and pink for boys and girls respectively, although I think that would still be bad, but the fact the colours are a mere indication of what society at large feels is an acceptable toy for each gender.
The blue, boy’s section is filled with trucks, building blocks, action figures, superheroes, water guns, tool kits… On the other side of the shop, in the overwhelmingly pink, girl’s section, you’ll find dolls, kitchen sets, tea sets and princess dresses.
I believe this segregates children in unnecessary ways, limiting them to only half of what’s available. Many toys hold opportunities for learning: dolls and pretend kitchens can aid ‘cognitive sequencing of events and early language skills’ as well as dolls ‘[teaching] kids empathy and how to care for another person’, whilst building blocks and puzzles teach children ‘spatial skills, which help set the groundwork for learning math principles’ (The Guardian, 2016).
Or to put it very simply, limiting the range of toys a child has access to playing with will limit their learning experiences and chances to develop.
This, unsurprisingly, isn’t constrained to childhood though. As children are socially conditioned from such a young age, it can have far-reaching consequences. The Institute for Engineering and Technology found that toys with a technology focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys despite girls showing a significant interest in Information Technology and Maths at primary school. The Office for National Statistics shows that only 11% engineering jobs are occupied by women. Gendered toys are perhaps not the only factor in this equation, but it seems likely to have something to do with it.
Do we not want our boys to learn how to care for others? How to cook and clean and appreciate colourful things? Do we not want our girls to fix things and problem solve? Be strong and build houses? Have jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects?
If I have children, I don’t want their gender to limit their creativity or playfulness, or impact their decision-making around what they choose to study or what career path they follow. I would love for them to be caring, strong, able to solve issues, empathic, creative, logical, proud of their academic abilities, communicative and the myriad of other qualities developed through playing with all sorts of toys.
Perhaps we’re not directly telling children what they should and shouldn’t do in the future; perhaps our society even encourages equal opportunities for young adults in relation to their career prospects. But that’s not what we’re showing them through the toys marketed to them as young kids. By deciding what boys and girls should play with, we’re essentially telling children what’s for them, and what’s not. It’s not hard to make the jump between the kinds of toys we limit them to, and the kinds of jobs they feel drawn towards or excluded from.
Whilst doing my Christmas shopping this year, I’ve found the toys scene depressingly familiar: still largely segregated, still largely pink and blue halves. A quick scan of some online toy stores tells the same story: dolls for girls, trucks for boys. I hope that this becomes a thing of the past, and there are certainly moves towards this – for example Target removing their gender labels in 2015 – but I, amongst many, feel frustration over the agonisingly slow pace of these changes…
One day at my gelato scooping job, as I’m putting money into the till, I hear a little whine from the other side of the counter, “Mummy, I want a pink spoon.”
A little boy’s troubled stare at the blue plastic clutched in his fist fills me with a bit of hope: perhaps he doesn’t know it yet, but this kid is possibly going to be the next voice in the line questioning why we live in such a gendered society and what the impact of that is. To be another person saying: no, this is not acceptable; yes, it is damaging; yes, it has to change.
Want to read more Blogmas posts? Scroll to the bottom of Day One for the full list.
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