Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Little girls: sugar and spice

Illustration by Paul Windle. From here.

Girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice.Right?

From so young, the worlds of boys and girls begin to become very different places and around Christmas time, it becomes especially noticeable. I find myself cringing as I walk along a supermarket toy aisle where the division between girl and boy toys is so stark that it feels like you're crossing a border from the one world into the other: from the action-packed landscapes of boys to the fluffy pink fantasies of girls. I find myself staring hopelessly at the overwhelming pinkness of girl-things, wondering of all the colours available, do girls really only like pink? Where does that even come from?

However, more worrying than the limitations of the colour palette offered to girls, is the type of toys on display. There are dolls and babies to be looked after, tea sets and kitchen sets and sets of pretend make-up, pink cell phones, pink fairy outfits and of course plenty of Barbies (you can read about my issues with her here). When examined in summary, the girl world is very pink, very glittery, centred largely around dress-up and make-believe play and takes place mostly indoors. There's a lot missing from that world: physical toys for gross motor skills and building toys that develop spacial skills.

What is of further concern is that this border between the two worlds is closely policed; what boy dares transgress into the pink zone? My 3 year-old is already quite aware of "what's for boys" and "what's for girls" despite all the discussions we've had about anyone being able to like whatever colour they want or that boys can also do dancing if they want to. I find it scary that these rules are already being observed and monitored at such a young age. This means that marketing toys at any particular gender isn't as innocent as it seems and makes it difficult for toys to just be toys. This is recognised by the British Let Toys Be Toys campaign. The campaign website states that it is, "asking retailers to stop limiting children's interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them."

Whether or not toys will ever be completely free of a gender label, I don't know, but I guess there are many steps in between and what becomes very apparent from the toy aisles is that not many have been taken. In the rush to buy presents to place under the Christmas tree, why stop and worry about the "pink and pretty" world of the girl aisle? I know that little girls do want to be princesses, but I also know they are so much more whether they realise it or not. Social psychologist and academic, Sarah Murnen puts the dangers of not engaging with the underlying messages of that pink world best,"girls are taught to view their bodies as 'projects' that need work before they can attract others, whereas boys are likely to learn to view their bodies as tools to use to master the environment." 

Recently I came across the GoldieBlox ad on YouTube and was quite taken with it. It's just so fun and refreshing.

It's for a construction toy range for girls with the aim to "disrupt the pink aisle" with a product that will develop spacial skills and, hopefully, an interest in invention and engineering. I like that it looks at girls as more than just princesses and was interested to find out that the company was a Kickstarter funded project. You can view more about the project here.

The idea behind the ad has been met with some criticism, for example Glosswitch on The Newstatesman points out, "Goldie Blox aren’t even trying to hide the fact that their toys are strictly girls-only. In this sense they’re not so much disrupting the pink aisle as coughing politely and asking Barbie if she wouldn’t mind budging up a little. Real disruption would mean mixing the whole thing up. We wouldn’t be able to tell where pink ended and blue started. We would let our children find their own way." 

I can't dispute the fact that what GoldieBlox is doing is still gendering toys, but I definitely think that at least it's offering a realistic alternative to what is usually found in the fluffy pink world of girl toys and, for that reason alone, is a step in the right direction.

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