The Gendering of Everything: Toys

We recently moved to Texas, and my family went to Cracker Barrel for the first time. I was wandering around their “country store” and was taken aback at the toys in the “girls” section. Among the dolls, girls were also offered toy brooms, mops, irons, and kitchen gadgets. My problem isn’t with these items as toys. My problem is that they are marketed to only girls. As a mother to a daughter, I’m particularly sensitive to the message this sends to her.

But they’re just toys, you might say. I must disagree. Many children’s toys are (and have historically been) designed to mimic adult activities. Kids can practice food preparation in a play kitchen or drive around in play cars. They can design and construct with Tinker Toys or K’Nex. They can put on a painter’s smock and create art on an easel. With costumes, they can dress up as police officers, firefighters, and doctors. We do kids a disservice when we assign genders to toys. When we market dolls only to girls, we tell boys they can’t be caregivers. When we market Legos to boys (or make them pink and purple for girls), we tell girls they’re unfit to be engineers. The message is even more damaging to children who don’t fit within that gender binary. By limiting which toys kids can play with (and we are doing this when we tell them certain toys are for specific genders), we limit their potential.

This is certainly a problem of plenty. Pioneer children played with pig bladders blown up like a balloon! The kids at the orphanage where I volunteered played with anything they could get their hands on. Children living in the third world can amuse themselves for hours with a hoop and stick. But here we are, and we need to do something about it. I applaud companies that are stripping labels off their toys. Last year, Target got rid of its girls’ and boys’ toy sections and started organizing by category. In a similar move, Disney took the girl and boy labels off its Halloween costumes.

This post probably seems most relevant to parents and early educators. After all, it is in preschool and kindergarten where classrooms are most likely to have toys (although I think it’s a shame we don’t play more in the upper grades). However, I think the toy issue has implications for teachers of older children. We need to make sure we aren’t limiting students’ activities and future aspirations (of which toys are a reflection) based on gender. When astronaut Mae Jemison told her teacher she wanted to become a doctor, the teacher responded, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” We need to fill our libraries with books and cover our walls with posters featuring diverse people in nontraditional gender roles. Meeting successful people in person is even more impactful. For Career Day, I always invited my female friends to share about their professions as police officers, veterinarians, engineers, and non-profit managers.

I’m a stay at home mom right now. I take pride in caring for my family and my household, and I think it’s good for my child to see that. But I want her to view it as just one of a myriad of options available to her. To quote a friend of mine, “My daughter’s probably going to rule the world, but she’s not going to do it with a f---ing mop.”