The Politics of Toys

This week, my beloved Marks & Spencer came under serious scrutiny from campaigners that have been working hard to 'Let Clothes Be Clothes'. This group, and other similar campaign group. 'Let Toys be Toys' work to pursue retailers and encourage them to do away with very stereotypical gender-centric toys/clothes/books that fill their shelves.  Pink, dolls & princesses for girls and blue, trains and batman for boys - the campaigns are saying enough of the separating, enough of the pigeonholing. In the words of Let Toys Be Toys:

"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.

Isn’t it time that shops stopped limiting our children’s imagination by telling them what they ought to play with?

The answer is simple – we’re asking retailers and manufacturers to sort and label toys by theme or function, rather than by gender, and let the children decide which toys they enjoy best."

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These campaigns have caught my eye and my support over the last number of years that they have been gaining profile.  There has been some really impressive success, including brands like Boots, Next and Sainsbury's becoming more inclusive in their advertising for toys.  Isn't it great when people power wins?!  I don't know if there is anything that makes my heart sing more than grass-roots empowerment.

So back to Marksies.  It seems they have joined up with the Natural History Museum to create a range of clothing with dinosaurs on them that are only available in the boys section of the shop.  It's a bit of a dud move, seeing as just last Spring, M&S committed to making all of their toys gender neutral.  I am totally with the campaign in this instance.  It's important we challenge the things that add to the bigger picture of gender inequality.  Here, when we speak up, we champion the idea that girls find history & dinosaurs interesting too, that big retailers shouldn't be making up the minds of children or be worried that dinosaurs just aren't pretty enough for girls to wear.  We are saying "don't wrap us up in cotton wool - we can be wild and raucous too".  If I was the mother of a girl, I would just buy her that dino tee anyway.  Lord knows Levi wears all kinds of clothes that come from the 'Girls' section.  Why should girls get all the cute & comfy leggings!

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I have to say, all of this comes with the disclaimer that I don't have anything against girls playing with kitchens and boys with tools - often they naturally gravitate to these things, even with the most gender-pigeonhole-conscious parents.  Just the other week Dave had to break the news to me that when he was telling Levi a story about his boss at work called Beth, Levi looked puzzled and after he had finished talking simply replied "Bosses can't be girls, daddy!" and ran off.  *SMACKS MYSELF IN THE HEAD* Even the most progressive, intentional-about-these-issues kind of families can't stop some of the outside projection our kids sense in the culture around them.  In the end, Dave had a follow up chat with him about it - I think it was the first time he had heard of a female being one of our bosses at work - which says a lot in itself.  On another note - there was not one boy angel in Levi's school nativity - those were girl roles (even if the bible talks quite specifically about male angels in the Christmas story).  In our culture, angels are sweet, serene and gentle - not qualities that naturally encouraged in boys.

These are the little/big things that I notice, and although no boy angels might not be the battle I chose to sing and dance about, these instances build a picture very early on in our children's environmental/socio-cultural development about how things go in the gender world.

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So, I really do agree that toys are just toys.  They are for every child, not just a particular gender.  It seems like a no-brainer for me, but I get that a lot of people still feel uncomfortable with aspects of that kind of thinking when it happens in practice.  Maybe because I'm the mother of a boy, but I feel like it can be a little harder for boys.  There's always a second glance if boys veer slightly out of their typical play-domain into baby dolls, play hoovers or any other (misguided) role-play assumed for girls.  There are the concerns that certain types of play are too feminine, as though nurturing sensitivity is a narrative that doesn't belong to males.  I've seen the dark side of lad-culture and I don't want that for my guy, so I'm glad we get to try and tell a different side of the story from the beginning.

So I'd love to hear YOUR thoughts:  Is this something you are conscious of with your kiddos?  Is it political correctness gone mad?  Do you think it matters?  Let's hear it!

Mel