PHoto of doll's face. (c) chantel Beam photography

Gendered toys – a transgender perspective

Christabel Edwards explains her perspective on gender, toys, and marketing.

Many transgender people will say that they realised they were different at a very early age and so for us the rigid gender policing of the toys we play with can result in lasting damage and hurt. I am no exception to this.

I am a transgender woman; I was classified as male at birth and I transitioned to female in my thirties.

The ‘wrong’ toys

One of my earliest memories is as a child at playgroup at the local village hall. How old was I? Two or three maybe? I was playing with toys along with some other children in a side room off the main hall when one of the staff came in. She picked me up and took me from the toys I was playing with and put me down next to different toys on the other side of the room, so I went back to where I’d been enjoying myself. Then the same thing happened again; a pair of arms picked me up and placed me with the other toys. I wasn’t interested, so I went back again.

The third time I was holding a Hamble type doll which was grabbed away from me and I was smacked or scolded. I can’t remember which, but I was upset as I was the only child who’d been treated that way.

I learned my lesson, and from then on would only play with a very limited range of toys. At that age I couldn’t easily differentiate between “boy” and “girl” toys for myself, so I became unadventurous and my social exclusion followed.

Would it be different now?

This was the mid-seventies. If anything I think the problem of gendered toys is now far worse, even though parental attitudes towards gender diversity are probably more liberal. In those days it wasn’t unusual to see children playing with what would now be considered “opposite gender” toys in catalogue illustrations; nor was there quite so much sickly pink on offer.

Now as I shop for presents for nieces and nephews I see that the gender roles are increasingly demarcated, with girls forced towards domesticity and beauty, whereas adventure and science toys are definitely for boys only.

Why? Why are manufacturers and retailers excluding 50% of their potential market for every item? Where’s the business sense in that?

Punishment leads only to fear

Being punished before I was three for wanting to play in the ”wrong” role was almost certainly behind my lack of confidence in coming out as transgender. This left me in a horrible limbo well into my thirties.

I had learned in my formative years that any expression of my femininity was ‘naughty’, which prevented me from alerting my own liberal-minded parents, who I now know would have been accepting and supportive. It set me up for a lifetime of loneliness, lack of social bonding and being an outcast.

I’m still shocked that as a child I was prevented from expressing myself in a safe and supervised environment where I was doing no harm either to myself or others.

To this day socialising still doesn’t come naturally even now that I’m confident in my own body. Our childhood years, especially younger than five, are the time at which we take on the bulk of the social conditioning which will carry us through our lives. The things that harm us then are the things which frighten us forever and the lessons we learn aren’t easily put aside. And so it was for me and thousands of other transgender people, as well as anyone else whose interests and identities diverge from the perceived (or imposed) norm.

The weight of peer pressure

My fear now is that any kind of variance from such strictly enforced gender marketing will be social suicide for any child who is ever exposed to peer-pressure.
Which young girl with the aptitude to make great scientific discoveries may be turned away from realising that potential because it’s not what society expects of her?

How many more boys will grow up believing it’s unmanly to iron their own shirts and cook their own dinner?
And how many more transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming kids will be forced into loneliness, despair and self-harm because they are too afraid to express their own personalities through the toys they play with?

Gender is a spectrum

I’m conscious that my argument might suggest that transgender people are reinforcing gender stereotypes by wanting to play only with “opposite-gender” toys but this is not the case; most of us gain our enjoyment from a variety of different pursuits.

Gender is a spectrum, not an either/or absolute. Many young boys have no desire to play with ultra-macho things like guns. There are plenty of women who are car enthusiasts, and some of the best chefs are men.

We should all have the opportunity to play with the toys which best express our personalities and shape the people we are to become. Everyone should be allowed to find their own space on the gender spectrum and maximise their future potential without having their whole life defined by a cursory glance from a midwife at birth.

Christabel works with Trans Media Watch, a charity which works to improve media representation of trans and intersex people.

Doll photo copyright (c) 2013 Chantel Beam photography and made available under a Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license


  1. Eleanor Rylance

    I so agree with you that those early experiences are vital and formative. I also agree that it hasn’t got any any better- where pressures were social in the 70s, they are now exerted through advertising.
    I used to take my now 4 year old daughter to a playgroup where the same thing happened to her- she loves playing with vehicles and garages etc. One day (when she was about 20 months old) she was waiting for a little boy to finish playing with the toy garage, helpfully handing him cars to push down the ramp, when suddenly another mother thrust a doll into her arms! She wasn’t punished as such but it’s still a subtle social cue (or not so subtle). After the second time of that happening, I stopped going to the playgroup.

    My daughter has a wide range of toys to play with at home and plays with whatever takes her fancy on any given day. And that’s how it should be imo for all children.

  2. marian blevin

    I am apalled by this story and as someone who has been working in childcare since the 70’s, I am surprised it happened even then….I can only apologise on behalf of all playgroup workers. I am however fairly sure (in so much as one can be) that it is unlikely to happen now with Ofsted regulating/inspecting all areas of childcare.There is still too much discrimination in this area but it is mostly with regard to retail outlets looking to increase their profits.

  3. Sarah Jean

    I hope you’re right and we can get past this sort of thing. I recently read of the gender bias in the industry I want to work in – the film industry – and only 9% of American directors are women (from a study conducted by a group of film students in New York). I suppose that’s another construct – it’s a man’s job to create entertainment and make money.

    Just a thought, considering this is a very dramatic bias.

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