In the adult world we’re accustomed to seeing male chefs, hairdressers and fashion designers. So why does the toy industry consistently market toys related to cooking, beauty or fashion to girls only?
It seems impossible to turn on the TV these days without seeing a cookery program headed by the likes of Michel Roux or Paul Hollywood, yet the dearth of kitchen toys for boys is so great that it took a worldwide petition launched by teenager McKenna Pope to convince American toy manufacturer Hasbro to produce a version of their iconic Easy-Bake oven that isn’t designed and marketed to appeal exclusively to girls.
This glaring blindness to reality on the part of the toy industry is puzzling. Even more puzzling is, despite the evident success of celebrated fashion designers such as Vidal Sassoon, Jeff Banks and Ralph Lauren, society’s deeply held belief that healthy well-adjusted boys do not engage in activities centred on fashion or beauty, while girls are expected to place these pursuits at the centre of their interests.
Patriarchy hurts boys too
Back in the olden days of mullets and legwarmers a brave boy at my school made the request to switch from woodworking to home economics. As well as sending the teachers into a quite a spin, it invoked the inevitable taunts of “gay” and “girl” from his classmates. They eventually relented on the grounds that he was aiming to be a professional chef. Take from that what you will.
Now that was twenty-five years ago and I’d like to say that things have changed but they haven’t. Any time spent in a school playground will tell you that homophobia and misogyny are still BFFs and that a quick and easy way to degrade a boy is to liken him to a girl. Sure, the Berlin Wall may have come down and apartheid in South Africa ended, but as far as archaic divisions among human beings go, the social acceptability of sexism remains pretty durable.
It could be argued that for girls there has at least been some progress in terms of breaking through gender-driven barriers. The extent to which they’re been welcomed in male-dominated industries varies but it is generally accepted that girls liking science and maths is a good thing.
For boys however things have remained remarkably static. The patriarchal straitjacket that sent them off to die in war and kept them emotionally buttoned up is as oppressive as it ever was. Toys targeted squarely at boys both glorify and normalize violence whilst empathy and artistic expression are seen as the domain of girls. Woe be-tide the boy who doesn’t like football or who might actually enjoy looking at a fashion book. He soon learns that he must conform to rigid expectations of “boyish” behaviour, or face the consequences of bullying, marginalization, and ridicule.
What are people afraid of?
But why does this attitude persist? Why has the label “tomboy” lost its ability to insult (and is even seen as something aspirational) but “sissy” hasn’t? Why does the sight of a boy playing with a baby doll bring forth a range of indignant complaints of the “It’s political correctness gone mad!” variety? And why, as a single mother of a boy, do I feel the need to impress upon well-meaning strangers that he does in fact have a positive male role model in the shape of my father. Or that it’s ok that he got a dolls house for Christmas because he also got a Lego Star Wars Starfighter?
So, what exactly are we afraid of? Judging by the comments that flood the Internet every time a well-meaning parent dresses their son in a tutu, it would appear that what we fear most is that any boy allowed to indulge in a traditionally girly pursuit will become, yes you’ve guessed it, gay! Aside from the obvious retorts of “So what? ” and “Kindly take your homophobia elsewhere!”, it does beg the observation that if heterosexual masculinity can be so easily steered astray by a bit of lippie and dress-up, then it wouldn’t appear to be quite so innate after all. In other words, if being a boy is so natural then stop telling my son how to be one.
But homophobia aside, the idea that a boy pushing a pram is destined to become homosexual is blatantly absurd. If your son likes rocking a baby doll to sleep, does it mean that he is going to be gay? Or could it simply mean that he’s going to make a lovely father one day, regardless of sexual orientation? If your son follows you around with his toy vacuum cleaner and enjoys serving you imaginary tea does does it mean anything other than that he will grow up to be a caring husband who is statistically less likely to get divorced.
Instead of dissuading our sons from touching anything “girly” we should be encouraging them to develop those skills of empathy and nurturing that society has decided are for “girls only”. Not only is it good for the world at large, but it will prepare our boys for the reality they’ll face when they leave home. We live in a half-changed world, where men are expected to take on more domestic responsibility and childcare than ever before, yet the world’s marketing departments continue to peddle to both boys and men the idea that domesticity is the preserve of the female sex. Hardly the recipe for harmonious relations between the sexes, is it?
Challenging the bullies
As a mother who doesn’t give a toss whether her son is gay, wears makeup or wants to spend the rest of his life making sparkly pink cupcakes with butterflies on top, I am well aware of the disconnect between what more liberal parents happily allow in the privacy of their own homes and the fear they feel when sending their son out into a cruel playground world where any deviation from the norm will make him a target for bullies.
This was brought home to me last Christmas when my dad got himself into a right old state over my son’s request for a dolls house. He became worried sick that his grandson would be teased, despite the fact that as a child he’d actually wanted a dolls house himself. Similarly I know several men who used to enjoy knitting as a child, but who would never actually admit it to other men for fear of ridicule.
It’s a severe case of the Emperor’s New Clothes and we need to teach our boys to stand up, point and say“ What’s the big deal?!” Because a boy who plays with dolls is still a boy – much in the same way as a girl who climbs trees is still a girl. Not a tomboy, but just a girl who, well, likes to climbs trees! They’re just kids, playing with the toys they want, and western civilization isn’t going to crumble if a boy pushes a toy buggy down the street.
What’s more, we need to challenge the mass advertising campaign that tells our boys that to be a man is to be aggressive, emotionally stunted and crap at clearing up the house. Because until we do the marketing departments and retailers of the industries that target our children will continue to exploit our fears and offer our sons ever narrowing definitions of what it means to be a boy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that for my son. I want him to experience the full range of interests and possibilities that life has to offer, not just the ones that the toy industry has decided are gender-appropriate.
Thanks to our lovely boys and their parents for their photos, and to Chris Hallbeck for the use of the Maximumble cartoon.
If you have great photos of your boys enjoying cooking, craft, or playing ‘Daddy’ we’d love if if you could share them with us. Tweet us @LetToysBeToys or email us pics for our online gallery.