Holiday shopping season is usually the time we hear handwringing about “gendered” toy traditions—trucks, action figures, and building blocks for boys, and princesses, stuffed animals, and, worst of all, dreaded Barbies for little girls. The White House Council on Women and Girls appears to be coming late to this game and is hosting a daylong conference Wednesday to highlight their concerns about children’s toys. Tina Tchen, the executive director of the Council, explains:
Research shows that the toys kids play with and the media they consume has a real impact on the skills and interests they develop over their lifetimes. We think it’s important for children’s media and toys to expose kids to diverse role models and teach them a variety of skills.
Tchen’s stance is hardly a profile in courage: The entire Western world pretty much agrees that the toys and media kids use matter, and that kids should see a variety of role models so they feel free to chart their own life course. It makes one wonder who, exactly, Tchen thinks needs this lecture.
If you turn on any cartoon station aimed at little kids, you are guaranteed to see a rainbow of characters sharing, caring, and defying gender stereotypes. Yes, you can find plenty of pink princesses and Bob the Builder busy with construction work, but from Dora the Explorer to Mulan, there are plenty of active female heroines going on adventures, fighting, winning, and engaging in activities that those paranoid about gender roles would label as stereotypically “male.”
Girls’ toys also offer plenty of variety. Certainly there are shelves of overly made-up Bratz and Barbies; crying, crawling, pants-wetting baby dolls; and cloying unicorns in a nauseating variety of pastel colors. Yet parents of daughters also have the opportunity to buy construction sets (some of which are offered in colors meant to appeal to girls, but also gender-neutral sets) cars and trucks, science kits, and a multitude of other educational toys meant to build skills as well as entertain.
Given the range of options already available, it seems that those voicing concerns about “gendered toys” really aren’t interested in balance and offering alternatives, but want to rid the world of toys that are too traditionally girly. Women’s activists seem frustrated that girls stubbornly seem to like not just Barbie (whose long legs and generous bust seems designed to provoke feminists’ ire), but the entirely wholesome, high-end American Girl Doll series (which Mattel reported generated $106 million in gross sales in just one quarter in 2015), and other nurturing play-acting toys.
Women’s advocates argue that girls are effectively cajoled into practicing mothering by our patriarchal culture that’s committed to perpetuating the idea that females are meant to serve as helpmates while males construct the world around us. Feminists unconvinced by talking to actual parents—including parents committed to raising their children free of gender stereotypes—who attest to the clear differences in their sons and daughters’ preferences for toys and style of play, should consider research showing that even monkeys display the same sex-based preferences. As this National Institute for Health report explains:
Sex differences in juvenile activities, such as rough and tumble play, peer preferences, and infant interest, share similarities in humans and monkeys. Thus if activity preferences shape toy preferences, male and female monkeys may show toy preferences similar to those seen in boys and girls. We compared the interactions of 34 rhesus monkeys, living within a 135 monkey troop, with human wheeled toys and plush toys. Male monkeys, like boys, showed consistent and strong preferences for wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like girls, showed greater variability in preferences. . . . The similarities to human findings demonstrate that such preferences can develop without explicit gendered socialization.
If the real goal of the White House Council on Girls and Women conference is to get girls to stop playing with dolls and other traditionally feminine toys, then they are wasting their time. They would do better to refocus their efforts on harmful cultural messages that we can change, such as the marketing tactics employed by too many retailers that encourage young girls to sexualize themselves.
The Council could do a real public service by calling out those in the fashion industry and Hollywood who promote unrealistic expectations for bodies and encourage girls to believe being sexy is the end all be all. Sadly, such a needed message seems unlikely at a conference dedicated to demonizing girls’ healthy and natural instincts to nurture.