I loved the letter written by a seven-year-old girl to Lego that went viral. She wrote it after a trip to a store that day and noticed ‘there are more Lego boy people and barely any Lego girls.’ This little girl pointed out that ‘all the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach and shop and they had no jobs’ but the boys ‘went on adventures, worked, saved people, had jobs and even swam with sharks.’
So as my second eldest niece is about to turn 6 and I want to buy her a dollhouse, I paused to think. Will buying this toy limit her perceptions of what she can do in a world that already has its limitations deeply rooted in the social construct that is gender?
My niece is well-rounded; energetic, sporty, loves animals, is nurturing, loves to dress up as a princess and as her younger brother once told me when a kids commercial came on (I think they shouldn’t market to kids) with shiny pink things he said ‘oh I think she will like those pretty things.’ She is what we call a ‘girly girl’ and I know the debate continues on nature vs nurture in forming who we are so I accept some of her interest could just be her nature.
But I worry about my small impact (as an aunt) on the nurture aspect. Most ‘boys toys’ encourage constructing something and some active engagement of the world (like the DIY toolkit set for example) or created world. I notice my nephew navigates with confidence, saving this and that and often when we all play together he insists we be the princesses he has to save from danger. Through a lot of these action toys, I think he is learning the skill of going for what he wants with confidence.
Of course the down side of that for boys is that they get taught to be ‘strong’ which is synonymous with not showing feelings. The learned on the subject also say it teaches boys to resolve conflict using violence.
Girls get dolls to care for and stoves and vacuum cleaners which engender the role of the woman as belonging in the home, better at taking care of domestics and more nurturing.
Much has been written on how the aisles for ‘girls toys’ are coloured in pinks and boys in blues. Who decided anyway that blue is for boys and pink for girls?! But it is virtually impossible to avoid this colour coding because it’s taught so early on especially once they get to preschool as I noticed in my niece and nephew. You’d be hard pressed to find girls clothes that don’t involve some pink or glitter and sparkles.
I remember when my nephew with a few shirts that had some shark emblem on them flat-out refused to wear the one that was fuchsia coloured because girls wore pink he said but my sister cleverly convinced him to wear it because it had a shark on it and he has ever since with no complaints.
Though they won’t articulate it now, I like to think they get it is not clear-cut this boy, girl roles thing after all they have seen their mum mow the lawn, drill holes into the wall to put up shelves and put together their DIY beds so I hope somewhere inside them it’s being stored.
From my own childhood I don’t remember feeling like I couldn’t do something because I was a girl, I did observe, though, that there were those who would want to prevent me from doing anything because I was a girl. As a grown up, I can thank mum for that, my sisters and I played with Lego, one of my favourite toys was a train set and the A-team black van, one of my sisters had a police bike, we read comics and yes we also had dolls and tea sets but what has been just as important looking back is watching mum fix things around the house, mow the lawn and gosh wear trousers at a time it was considered unacceptable for a woman to do so in a patriarchal African country, she also challenged the church’s decision to deny divorced women the right to receive communion.
So even if I am not placing the blame solely on the toy companies’ marketing plan, we can petition them to stop the gender stereotypes. You can sign this petition by Change.org: Toys “R” Us: Stop Marketing Gender Stereotypes to Children campaigning for the USA Toys “R” Us join their UK counterpart who have committed to ending gender-based marketing and the Swedish Toys “R” Us franchise, Top Toy, which published its first gender neutral toy catalog last holiday season.
As for our individual part in it, what we say to children and more importantly what they see us do and what we allow them to explore plays a huge role too.
It irks me so when I hear parents say ‘be gentle’ to a little girl when she plays ‘rough’ or girls don’t do this or that or when parents worry when their son wants to pretend play in a dress, paint nails or play with dolls. Because for me the point is letting kids explore their interests even if it doesn’t fit the gender construct.
Which is why it disturbed me so when I saw on someone’s Facebook page who followed the group ‘the dorks side’ that posted a photo of the Ninja mutant turtles which read ‘I was kind of a tomboy growing up. Like, I had Barbies but only because my Ninja Turtles needed bitches.’ After thinking why we incessantly have to be called that – ‘bitches and hoes’ I thought that even if the post was intended to applaud the tomboy, what it was really saying was that boys did things that mattered more. After all being a tomboy is about matching up, you’re not a girly girl, you have balls, personality, display admirable traits.
So it was a proud day when we took a flight and my then three-year-old nephew was utterly stunned that we had a pilot who was a woman. He said ‘a girl can’t be a pilot’ and we said to him ‘yes she can’ to which he said ‘oh ok.’ I loved that my little niece silently smiled and my nephew accepted what we said as fact.
On another flight, the plane was delayed on the runway and all the kids on board were invited to come have a look at the cockpit. My nephew looked at all the buttons and you could see in his eyes he was tempted to press something and asked ‘what’s that for’ pointing to what looked like a gear shift. My niece asked both pilots what they ate. She was worried that they were cared for. She’s a little nurturer that one the other day she told me: ‘I’m counting the money in my piggy bank and when I have enough I will give it to my family to buy something.’ To which I replied that she need not do that because she is a child and grownups take care of children that’s our job. And she said: ‘children care about the grownups too.’
Nature vs nurture? Ultimately I guess we have to allow a child’s own way to just be.
I like to think I have been a conscientious aunt (tooting my own horn), through the books she receives that represent children of colour (something I am obsessively passionate about) values of peace and integration, airplanes, a doctor’s kit, puzzles and yes dolls and pushchairs.
And at the end of it, this is just about a very adored little girl whose birthday I won’t be able to celebrate in person but I know she will get an extra smile for she is going to get something I know she will adore and will keep her busy for hours. And just like her siblings, she holds my heart in the very palm of her tiny hands.