Christina Hoff Sommers got in touch with us on Twitter to let us know that she ‘respectfully disagreed’ with our campaign and outlined her reasons why in a piece in The Federalist: ‘Those Who Push For Toy Neutrality Don’t Get Little Girls At All’. Here’s our response:
Thanks for taking the time to get in touch. We’re happy to respond to the points you raised in your article.
Firstly, we’re glad you agree with us that parents and teachers should expose children to a wide range of toys and play, and that ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels on toys and books are unnecessary and stigmatise children’s choices. There’s evidence to show that marketing toys by gender is more than just superfluous however, it also limits children’s choices and facilitates bullying.
Marketing affects children’s choices
It’s not controversial to suggest that marketing influences children. Boys and girls are given very different images of what they are meant to like, and be like. Observing that boys and girls may choose differently cannot tell us why. Correlation does not equal causation. And of course confirmation bias means we are all more likely to see what we are conditioned to expect to see.
Children are individuals, not stereotypes
Children are individuals, they may conform to stereotypes in some ways, and not at all in others. Our campaign is about allowing children to discover for themselves the things they like, rather than having their interests proscribed by big business. Some may choose stereotypical choices, some won’t, most will probably follow a mix of the two, because children don’t fit neatly into stereotypes.
Boys and girls are targeted in very different ways, but they really have more in common.
It’s true that girls have many opportunities and encouragements available to them today, but it’s also true that toy marketing has become more gender targeted since the seventies. According to research commissioned by The Young Women’s Trust, young women today have more traditional and stereotypical views about what jobs are suitable for men and women than older women do.
It’s interesting that you point to Lego to support the idea that children need different types of toys. The research that Lego carried out was with girls only, asking them ‘what do girls want’ – already an assumption of difference and a question girls will assume has a right answer. It has been very profitable for Lego to capitalise on established conventions about girls in this way, but it actually tells us little about ‘natural’ tendencies, or what else girls might enjoy. The purpose of their research was to find out what they could sell, not what girls authentically want. Marketing by gender may be profitable, but if girls (and boys) are learning that yes, girls can build, but that girls and boys are supposed to build different things, then it’s anything but harmless. (The female scientist set you mention sold out very quickly by the way).
Not all boys are the same, not all girls are the same
Our campaign celebrates individuality: not all girls are the same and not all boys are the same. Our campaign began with a group of parents who simply wanted to challenge the views we saw being pushed onto our children by multi nationals, parents fed up of hearing children say things like girls can’t be astronauts and boys shouldn’t play with dolls houses. Much of our support comes from new parents who have only just realised the extent of the problem, rather than being childless as your article says.
As for research around gender and toys, toy choice research is contested, and there are contradictory examples out there, but more importantly, none of it suggests that boys and girls form two separate groups, or gives any justification for marketing different things to boys and girls.
The fourteen retailers and ten publishers who’ve made changes to their UK labelling policies are accepting the common sense that says there are many caring boys and adventurous girls out there, who just aren’t being represented in marketing. We’re surprised that anyone would see a simple request that boys and girls be allowed to choose freely as an extreme view.
Some boys like cars, some girls like dolls, most will enjoy playing with both, given the chance. Boys aren’t from Mars, girls aren’t from Venus. We’re all from Earth, and are more alike than we are different.
This is why we ask the toy and publishing industries to allow children to freely choose their interests for themselves. So, absolutely, let’s #LetKidsBeKids without telling them what a boy or a girl is meant to be like. Over to them.