Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Toy story

Just as I'm wondering what gift to get my nephew for Christmas, a major debate erupts on social media about the gendered marketing of children's toys. If you didn't catch it, basically Greens Senator Larissa Waters backed the No Gender December campaign, which encourages people to think critically and carefully about the types of toys they buy children. Then the Daily Telegraph published a rather alarmist article about how that means the Greens hate Barbie or Christmas or something (interestingly enough, I can no longer find that article online). Then lots of people got annoyed, having read the Daily Telegraph article, saying "I played with trucks, and I turned out okay", thinking that the campaign was a critique of dolls and trucks. The next thing we know, politicians are jumping on the bandwagon, saying boys will be boys etc. And, I have to admit, lots of the progressive journalists went crazy too, writing immature articles about the Murdoch press.

I have felt for a while that the gendered marketing of children's toys is problematic, and always try to think carefully about what to buy the children in my life. They seem to respond best to toys that are educational and that allow imagination. So I was surprised that there was such a ferocious reaction, and wondered how to respond. Then, I came across what is actually the best article I have found on the subject. I agree with the author's opinion that people have misunderstood the campaign. You see, I know girls who have Barbies and boys who have train sets. They're all great and "well adjusted" little people and their parents are lovely too. This campaign isn't about banning Barbie or trucks or trains as far as I can tell. Nor is it about blaming parents and relatives for their children's preferences. I am an avid supporter of my nephew's train collection and bought him the first set of tracks when he was a one-year-old. But I also bought him a vacuum cleaner, which, incidentally, he also loves. So there.

For me, this is more about being aware of how biased and problematic the marketing of the toy industry currently is, and what that says about society more generally. Regarding the marketing of toys, I reckon this little girl sums it up when she chucks a very controlled hissy fit in the toy shop because all the girls stuff is pink and all the boys stuff is to do with superheroes. As she articulates so beautifully, the marketing of toys is manipulative. Why have they branded all the toys along such traditional gender lines? Why shouldn't boys be allowed to buy pink princessy stuff if that's what they want? And why shouldn't girls be allowed to play with superheroes? More importantly, why arent there more female role models in the superhero range and more everyday male role models in the domestic doll range? There should be toys available to suit all children, not just those who fit into the stereotypical gender roles, and nobody should be made to feel that their choice of toy is somehow wrong. Life is pretty tough for children who are different. We shouldn't make it harder still by ONLY giving them toys that adhere to those narrow gender norms. We should buy toys that relate to the individual interests of the child, and ideally that are educational too.

Regarding society more generally, I think there is a problem in the way we "buy into" (excuse the pun) certain stereotypes and expectations to do with gender that are actually harmful. And the toys we buy are part of that culture. If boys are always given guns and other violent toys while girls are continually given submissive, domestic toys, what does that say about how we expect them to behave and the career aspirations they are allowed to have? Domestic violence is a major problem in Australia, the leading cause of death for Australian women under 45, says the article I mentioned above. And it doesn't just happen in "other" families. It is rife across the 'pretend it's not happening' families on the north shore, in upper middle bogan communities in the Shire and amongst the greenies of the inner west. And, whether we like it or not, research does indicate a link between traditional gender roles and domestic violence.

So, I bought No-no (my nephew) an elephant family puzzle this year. It's not pink or princessy and it's not to do with guns or superheroes either. You might call it gender-neutral. And it is meaningful because he loves to play with the elephant family at mum and dad's. Now he'll have a puzzle elephant family of his own. But more importantly, I will make it clear to him that he is a valuable human being regardless of the interests he chooses to pursue. And as we play together this Christmas, I will try to model for him the type of behaviour that is acceptable and respectful and establish firm boundaries around behaviour that isn't. He will know that real men can wheel prams, teach, nurse, be train drivers, work in early childhood, advocate for vulnerable people, build stuff, whatever! But that domestic violence is never okay.

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