To stroll the aisles of your local Toys "R" Us is to venture into the heart of gender darkness. Whether you believe that boys emerge from the womb with dump trucks clutched in their tiny fists or see toys as an early means by which kids are trained to hew to culturally determined gender differences, you'll find plenty of evidence to back you up. (It basically comes down to how you interpret all that pink.)
As sex stereotyping waxes in some places (near-ubiquitous girls' guides to everything you could possibly think of, ensuring properly feminine comportment in all activities; arguments that Title IX should be repealed because trying to get equal numbers of girls and boys onto sports teams just holds back those ever-active boys; increasing numbers of chick flicks) and wanes in others (the cross-gender popularity of professional women's soccer), we thought it was time to see if toys, long an arena that has profited from the exploitation of gender difference, have gotten worse or—we hoped—better. What we found was that toys are indeed getting scarier, in ways that have both nothing and everything to do with gender. Herewith, the rules toymakers are playing by.
Rule # 1 Train 'em young.
Toys have always provided instruction in the ways of the adult world—think kitchen sets and post-office windows—but things seem to be getting a little out of hand these days. Play-money sets now come with checkbooks and credit cards; piggy banks have been replaced with plastic atms. Fun Years Preschool Car Alarm is a keychain with three plastic keys and "realistic sounds," so that kids 2 and up can disarm the alarm, start up the car, and honk at people. There's also the Fun Years My First Driving Center, which, as the packaging prominently advertises, comes complete with phone—because, obviously, pretending to drive with both hands on the wheel wouldn't really be pretending to drive at all, would it?
Then there's the Undercover Girl Secret Note Kit. This gadget is charmingly neo– Harriet the Spy. But, what with the cartoon spokesgirl on the package chirping "Shredder destroys evidence fast!," one can't help but wonder what kind of accounting shenanigans are going on during social studies. In the same vein, Small World Kids' Caught in the Act Security Camera allows children 7 and up to "keep out those pesky intruders" with a motion sensor, red flashing lights, and a touch pad that communicates verbal warnings and alarm sounds; Lights, Camera, Interactive's Magnetic Clock and Daily Planner comes with a plethora of magnetic reminders for things like brushing teeth and playing outdoors, impressing upon youngsters the importance of micromanaging their every second.
Clearly, technology plays a crucial role in why children's playthings seem to be growing more and more adult; emulation is the name of the game, and savvy manufacturers now make increasingly realistic mini-me versions of grown-up toys like cell phones and pdas. Is the drive to provide kids with all the accoutrements of adulthood destined to turn them into paranoid, document-shredding, unsafe drivers who have to check their calendars before hitting the swing set? Probably not. After all, they'll find out eventually what a drag adult chores actually are.
Rule # 2 Brand 'em younger.
Product placement has taken over the toy store. No longer confined to movie and television tie-in merch (though make no mistake, there's no shortage of Harry Potter Lego sets and SpongeBob SquarePants water wings), the practice results in toys based not on beloved fictional characters but on brands. Toy food sets, which used to feature cute plastic "cans" of generic peas and the like, are now full of Big Macs and Dairy Queen Dilly Bars. Housekeeping toys (which, of course, invite a whole host of other ranty comments, especially when manufacturers like Creative Design boast that their toy vacuum cleaner "is being hailed as one of the best toys for girls on the market") are replicas of Dirt Devils or come emblazoned with the Mr. Clean logo. Play cookware is Calphalon. Tool sets are courtesy of the Home Depot. Instead of encouraging you to make up your own weirdo treats, the Play-Doh Cookie Makin' Station tells you to make Oreos, Chips Ahoy, and Teddy Grahams. Easy Bake oven mixes come cobranded with Life Savers, Rice Krispies, and Pop-Tarts. Licensing agreements have turned playtime into a vehicle for the same advertisements that saturate mass media and public space, and that should terrify us all.
Rule # 3 Toys that have no reason to be gender-coded must be gender-coded.
Cultural ideas about gender are never more obviously on display as when an otherwise gender-neutral toy is coded as either masculine or feminine by its styling. The age-old dolls-vs.-action-figures divide is still going strong, but it's in the transportation-toy aisle that the differences among products become as telling as they are tiny. Take the Little Tikes pastel-pink and pale-blue Push & Ride Doll Walker and its corresponding primary-colored Push & Ride Racer. Never mind that they are exactly the same toy, down to the extra seat designed for an inanimate companion. The two vehicles are different. How do we know? Well, the little girl pictured on the Doll Walker box has a doll in her extra seat, while the boy on the Racer box totes his teddy bear along for the ride (presumably a speedy one—boys have so much energy, you know). The Little Tikes website says of the Doll Walker, "The doll seat on this cute toddler-mobile holds a favorite doll or stuffed toy"; it calls the Racer a "sporty toddler-mobile" with a "high spoiler."
Similarly, Tek Nek's Glitter Girl Tot About and Rescue Tot About are identical in design, but in this case the twist goes beyond color and supposed function to include an audio component. Each plays a series of songs when a button is pushed, but the songs on the boy's ride are manly little ditties about being a fireman, while the girl's declares, "I'm a very pretty pony; clippety-clop, clippety-clop." This might be less of a problem if the Glitter Girl Tot About were, say, shaped like a horse or had any other discernible equine attributes. But it's as though the manufacturers decided that every clichéd feature of girlhood—the love of pink, the need for glitter and frippery, the horse fixation—needed to be incorporated into the toy. Compared with the straightforward message of the Rescue Tot About—boys rescue, firemen rescue, boys are firemen—the girls are offered nothing more than a confusing collection of prescriptions. (I'm a…pony? Who likes…glitter?)
An interesting twist on this phenomenon: Educational company LeapFrog makes its LeapPad reading toy in both pink and blue. The products and packaging are identical except for the color of the thing and the word "pink" to helpfully clue the buyer in. It's clearly a nod to the desire some (presumably female) children harbor for pink stuff, but, refreshingly, without any of the "just for girls" adornment or the assumptions that go along with it. Is this progress? We're not sure.
Rule # 4 Girls are pretty princesses. In hip-huggers.
Though Barbie, perennial target of ire that she is, remains a viable scapegoat in the role-model wars, there are some new girls on the block to threaten her status. "Urban" dolls like Bratz and Diva Starz are, like Barbie, fashion dolls. Their raison d'être is simply to look cool and show off a succession of Britney-fied outfits—filmy peasant blouses, low-rise jeans, leather chokers, etc. Girls who once had to wrestle teensy pumps onto Barbie's weensy feet can now meet their dolls' footwear demands by simply popping off an entire sandal-clad tootsie and replacing it with one sporting platform boots.
Perhaps more appealing is the fact that the Bratz and Diva Starz, with their oversized, Keane-eyed faces and modestly proportioned figures, are considerably less adult-looking than Barbie (at least in the facial area), and more racially diverse; nonwhite girls looking for a doll "like them" no longer have to make do with Barbie's tinted supporting players. But the message of these urban urchins is still very much the same—clothing, hair, and makeup are of paramount importance; materialism is encouraged. We never thought we'd find ourselves defending Babs, but let's face it—the girl worked. She was a doctor, a waitress, a lounge singer, an athlete. And yes, most of these professions were just an excuse to get her all decked out in the appropriate outfit. But when you've got a Diva Starz doll whose fashion options all seem to be directed toward going to the mall, Barbie's ambition suddenly looks kinda good.
Most disturbing—and baffling—are the Hook-Ups, dolls whose selling point is that they can be hung up by an attached hook. However, the names of some of the dolls (Raven, Muffin, Serenity) and their attire—each comes garbed in some combination of fishnet stockings, bra tops, microminis, boas, thigh-high boots, and the thickest eye makeup this side of Wigstock—suggest a hook-up of an entirely different kind. There's no nice way to say it: These dolls are skanky. What's next, the Mustang Ranch play set?
Rule # 4B The object of the game is to be a paragon of femininity.
The Bratz Passion for Fashion board game has a goal that is not unlike the classic Pretty Pretty Princess or Mystery Date, in which players go around the board collecting everything they need to be a princess or to prepare for a particular kind of date. In this case, the Bratz (each player chooses to be Yasmin, Cloe, Sasha, or Jade) must assemble a "stylin'" outfit for a night out by navigating the board and collecting clothes from the wardrobes of fellow Bratz. The snags come in the form of other players borrowing an outfit you need or messing up your hair. (The box copy warns, "Only an emergency visit to the local beauty salon could help you then!") Certainly, competitiveness is central to board games, but the stated goals here—"Will you be the first to mix 'n' match the hottest fashion looks and make it home to win the fashion game and be Bratz beautiful?"—highlight only the most stereotypical concerns of female life, and capitalize on tween girls' supposed cattiness, to boot. Yes, we know that's the point, but we can still be annoyed, can't we?
Rule # 5 It's not called the Erector Set for nothing.
While venerable (and relatively ungendered) building sets like Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys are still hanging out on the shelves, the more complex and flashier sets that allow kids to build everything from a monster-truck arena to an electronic game arcade to a roller coaster are clearly where it's at. Which is too bad for girls, apparently, since K'Nex, one of the most popular brands, seems to think that only boys are interested: Each and every K'Nex box we saw pictured at least one boy; there were no girls to be seen.
But lest we worry that girls will be left out of the building fun entirely, Toys "R" Us features a just-for-girls line called the Ello Creation System—stocked far closer to the craft sets than to the building sets, we might add—that comprises an assortment of beads, stickers, and shapes that can be used to create jewelry, people, and environments. But don't take our word for it—here's what the package copy has to say: "Girls can build, design and create anything they can imagine with the Ello Creation System. Girls will love building a funky Ello person, beading jewelry or even creating a simple piece of furniture. The pieces are easy to connect and versatile. Bead, build and be brilliant! Ello pieces come in great girl-friendly shades like purple, aqua, pink and green!"
There's a lot to parse here. Though the Ello system is supposed to be the distaff answer to the likes of K'Nex, it's not so much a building toy as it is an arts and crafts set—which is supposedly one of the elements that makes it more appealing to girls. Ello is touted as an imaginative toy—but "anything [girls] can imagine" is pretty much limited to people, animals, jewelry, and furniture. The assumption that girls don't want to make a roller coaster or game arcade like those offered by K'Nex sets becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, if you work hard enough, you can break rules 1 through 5.
With a moderate amount of effort, you can keep the kids in your life supplied with gender-neutral goodies, but it does take work.
The first thing to do is avoid the chain retailers. It's not that independent toy stores don't sell Barbies or tutus or plastic cell phones; they do. But their layouts are devised by individuals coping with small and often oddly configured spaces, not by a central planner determined to double profits by keeping brothers and sisters from sharing toys. The bigger a company is, the more risk-averse it's going to be, which means you're unlikely to find any toy that's not tried-and-true. Indie stores are more likely to carry products from small suppliers or companies whose interests are geared toward making playtime more progressive, like those of the Swedish company Brio, which manufactures a line of primary-colored building toys that are emphatically not gender-coded. (The independents are also a lot more likely to sell a shopping basket of plastic fruit instead of a Happy Meal play set.)
The next thing to do is ignore packaging. There are plenty of great toys that would surely delight kids of any gender—as long as you can get past their just-for-girls or boys-only trappings. (The Animal Planet Giant Ant Farm sounds fun, but why is it under "Gifts for Boys" in the Toys "R" Us online store?) It's hard not to be guided by the imagery on the box (those marketers know what they're doing), especially if you're buying for someone else's kids and you aren't sure how parents will react to their son being given a crafts kit that's adorned with hearts and flowers and the exhortation to "Create a Mosaic Jewelry Box!" But a fun art project is a fun art project, even if you have to crack open the box and re-wrap it yourself.
The third thing to do is have confidence in kids not to swallow all the messages. After all, kids don't necessarily see the same things adults do in their toys—much less in the packaging—and anyone who's ever given her Barbie a buzz cut knows that kids easily devise ways to subvert the intentions of their toys. In its increasing gender segregation, Toys "R" Us is more likely aiming to fleece cash-holding adults than they are the kids who end up doing the actual playing—but that's no excuse for putting up with it, right?