Why does the toy industry think boys don’t cook?

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

PatrickanddollBack 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.

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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.

M_cooker300Instead 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.

33 Comments

  1. Sam

    My 5 year old son is an excellent cook, and it is great bonding time for him and me (his dad) to cook together. He even took some biscuits he made to school which made him very popular, and left him feeling proud of his effort. Every effort is now going into encouraging that washing up is also a great thing to do.

  2. That’s lovely Sam. Good luck with the washing up project!

    Cooking is such fun with children – hardly surprising that they enjoy playing at cooking too. So peculiar that so many people (including some toyshops) think boys shouldn’t do it!

  3. My son loved to cook (and still does!). He actually received a chief’s outfit from his uncle one Christmas and cooking classes from his older cousin–in which, I’m glad to say he was not the only boy. He also made more use of the Easy Bake Oven than my daughter.

  4. jo

    As normal, I find it frustrating that kitchens, ovens etc are marketed mainly in blue and pinks. There are kitchen toys marketed for boys and like the photo they come in blue.

  5. Couldn’t agree more Jo! That’s my son in the pic. We would have preferred a neutral colour for this toy (er, perhaps white, like real washing machines? Or red, to match the kitchen), but the choice was pink or blue.

    Early Learning Centre (where that washing machine came from) say they do it to offer kids a choice, but it’s not much of one. ‘Child, would you like to FIT IN or not?

    Here’s how they defend it: http://help.elc.co.uk/help/products/toys_gifts/pink_blue? (There’s an option at the bottom to let them know what you think of their answer!)

    They also make an interesting claim that research has shown that gender colour preference is set from infancy. I can’t find any research that has shown this. I have asked them for a reference, but haven’t had a response!

    • Jeanne

      The whole color related to gender thing is set by society, very blatantly. In fact it used to be the reverse, pink for boys and blue for girls. It was in the Victorian era that it was changed in order to confuse demons come to take the child, at least that was their belief. “Oh my god, I thought I was going to get a boy, this child is wearing pink, but it’s a girl?! What’s this madness?! I must rethink my life in hell!”
      What is set in infancy is the colors a child recognizes first, which are the primary colors, red, blue and yellow, red being the very first a child will latch onto. If anything toy companies would be better suited to using those colors for their color schemes. Heck, how many real kitchens are done in yellow?

    • Kate Naughton

      Apologies, I only just stumbled on this article. There is a (very dodgy, questionable) evo psych paper showing some preference in adults, but it’s worth pointing out that this is so culturally dependent it’s ludicrous. Also, back in the earlier 20th century it was held that pink was a more manly colour, appropriate for boys, while soft blue was better for girls. At some point (I don’t recall when or why) it switched around, and is now considered “innate”. It’s just social programming.

      When I was a kid I went through a “pink phase” because other girls liked pink so I decided I did too. Before that I liked yellow. After that I liked green. *shrug*

      Claims that colour preference has anything to do with actual biological sex are not based on any sensible research. When I was a kid I preferred that toys have “natural” colours – I wanted ducks to look like ducks, for example – and I was always a bit disappointed that everything was blue and pink! Hope you can find some more satisfying toys and best of luck.

      • Jeanne

        I remember as a kid my favorite color was blue even, until Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory traumatized me. XD After that it was purple and has been ever since. I’ve always loathed pink and have a strong distaste for pastel colors and I hate the idea that colors like that are linked to gender by society. What the heck is wrong with liking an array of bold and less common colors? It also drives me bonkers that everything for women, even as a grown adult, is often made in pinks and certain shades and you don’t find earthy tones like army green or olive and warm or dulled browns. I love natural colors and look best in more subdued tones.

  6. Von

    when my son was wee he had a baby doll and pram, loved it, took it to nursery or playgroup with him, liked playing with the dolls there too…and the cars…and ALL the toys! he also had a brief fling with sticking on a girls dress. he was simply dressing up, playing, exploring. I never thought it was funny or weird. as a kid I loved playing with my toy cars every bit as much as my dolls house. in fact the dolls house and cars worked well together. I climbed trees, did wheelies, scrumped apples…I don’t remember anyone telling me it was “not fitting for a girl” and if they did I obviously didn’t notice. my Mum encouraged play. as open and simple as that.

    my son had a friend at nursery school who wore his sisters clothes, he was great fun, my son and him played nicely together. I did see other parents direct their kids away though…always thought that was really odd.

    my son is 15 now…still swans about in a floaty sheet (he won’t thank me for sharing that) and is very cuddly and sweet natured. he’s also really into xbox killing games. it doesn’t matter what you do…they turn out just the way they want to! :o)

    great blog, really nicely written…we should lobby the toy makers and ad makers.

  7. Sus

    “They also make an interesting claim that research has shown that gender colour preference is set from infancy.”
    This is crazy! The following article shows it comes from society’s choices, and then from aggressive marketing in more recent years.
    It used to be pink for boys, blue for girls. If there is any hint of a preference in infancy then I assume it could only be from early exposure to the ‘correct’ colour for their sex, rather than anything remotely genetic…
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Did-Girls-Start-Wearing-Pink.html

    • Thanks Sus for your comments and for the link. We’ll be doing a blog soon on the “science” behind the idea that pink = girl and blue = boy, so this will definitely come in handy..

      • Paul

        If you’re doing a blog on “pink = girl and blue = boy, then you may want to mention the fact that at one point, I don’t know how many years or decades back, the colour coding was actually the other way round, pink for boys and blue for girls. So from a historical perspective the argument about the colour scheme that advertisers are using is based on a much more recent trend, relatively speaking.

  8. Nicky

    I absolutely agree. As a child I was generally referred to as a tomboy (not that I cared) and I have a bit of an aversion to the colour pink. It has been really difficult as a mother of a 2 year old daughter to find clothes and toys that are not either pink or blue. I’d be quite happy with red or purple or any of the other colours of the rainbow! I think it is pure and simple narrow mindedness!

  9. Great article thanks. I always let my boys play with soft toys/baby buggy etc – both very ‘masculine’ & in love with all the typically male pasttimes including nerf guns, sci fi, engineering etc. I saw a mother tell her 3 yr old son off for wanting a toy pram in a toy shop ‘you dont want that! ‘She scolded, ‘that’s for a girl, you’re not a girl!’ the boy gave up & turned away. I felt so sad at the message she gave him: boys dont parent/nurture. Ironically she’ll probably moan in a few years when he’s firing nerf bullets at her or bashing a piece of wood on the dining table, ‘stop being so aggressive!’

  10. Great article – thank you! A Mighty Girl, one of my favourite sites for kids, focuses on giving girls strong and exciting role models and toys, and has included a lovely section on bright, colourful and gender-neutral clothes for boys, which is so important.

    The sissy v tomboy imbalance was something I definitely would have agreed with, and certainly so in Britain, but this video in the States shows that works it both ways. I cried a little when I watched this.
    http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo/video/princess–17523242

    All the best to you and y your awesome, creative, imaginative son!

  11. Thanks to everyone who has made comments here. It’s heart-warming to see that there are parents out there who encourage their sons to look beyond these ridiculous stereotypes…

  12. Angela

    All of my sons had ‘babies’ when they were little. Two had dolls (‘Sissy’ and ‘Baby’) and my youngest son had a stuffed monkey that he named Mona. We made clothes and ‘diapers’ for Mona to wear.

    When he took her to preschool to show his fiends he came home in tears because another child told him that he had to change her to a boy and give her a boy name. Apparently boys can’t have stuffed animals that are girls, and boy monkeys weren’t allowed to wear clothes. It’s so hard to explain to a 4 year old that his friend is mistaken, but Mona is still Mona.

  13. Fern

    I have 4 sons, 3 of whom are grown. I taught them to cook, clean, and do their own laundry. Why? Because as a wife, I wanted a husband who knew how to do these things so we could work as a team in raising our children. I also allowed one of my sons to get a baby doll for Christmas one year and even argued with my husband about whether or not it was okay for him to play with it. I told my husband that I want my boys to be nurturing and loving with their own children one day, not just disciplinarians. He got that and since he is a very nurturing soul himself, he allowed our son to get the baby doll and play with it. Ironically, he’s the most manly of our 3 grown sons!!! He will make an incredible husband and father one day, of that I am sure!

  14. Kristofor Wilson

    I was raised (for the most part) by a single mom and two older sisters. I learned to sew and knit (apparently better than my sisters) when I was young. I lost the desire, though I don’t think it had anything to do with outside influences, my interests just went in a different direction.

    I have three daughters now, and I’m around a lot of kids. I also happen to think painting my nails is fun ;). Surprisingly I don’t get many comments about it (I generally wear sandals so its not like its hidden under socks and shoes) but regardless I feel its important that I demonstrate to both my girls and the rest of the kids I interact with that your gender has no bearing on what you can and can’t do.

  15. Spot on I say! I have a boy (5 1/2) and a girl (3 1/2) and they spend a fair bit of time playing together, which inevitably means their games sigue between ‘boy’ stuff and ‘girl’ stuff. Sometimes she’ll be the princess and he the prince. They also love pretending to cook together, and the sight of a doll’s house is an equal attraction. But they are not at mainstream school, which is where most of this conditioning comes into it I think. As soon as one boy says “urgh, that’s girly”, it sticks (and gets me simultaneously very riled). But even then, by the end of the day, all they both want is cuddles…and I couldn’t be happier to encourage my son in that. The irony is that any woman would love a man who would be cuddly and tender. It’s helpful if he can chop wood too, of course…

  16. I love your article. I have 2 & 8 year old boys and 4 & 6 year old girls. The boys have quite long hair and are often treated as girls and this has been really interesting for me as their nurturing side has been more encouraged by strangers. My 8 year old has just set up Slingkids, a website for kids interested in slings & carriers and you can see him posing with a number of dolls and slings, think he’ll make a great dad!

  17. Kristy

    Love this article!!!! My son is 13, hates sports but loves to sew and cook. He is the only boy in his 4-H Quilt Club but he loves going and is very excited about the quilt he is making and the one he made to donate for Toys For Tots. We have always allowed our kids to play with whatever, “boy” or “girl” toys and we just call them toys!

  18. Amanda

    I definitely agree with the principle behind this article. I have a boy and a girl, and while they definitely have different interests, my son has logged in plenty of hours at the toy kitchen, and my daughter loves playing with legos and blocks (even ones that are not pink).

    What I find interesting, though, is that among feminist mothers of girls (and I’m unapologetically feminist), I find a current of mothers who seem to be themselves against the idea of the child, especially the girl, who is gender normative. The argument is that “girl toys” set a girl up for a life of brainless vapidity. If a girl likes pink/sparkles/frills/princesses/dolls/ponies/kitchens, etc., she’s on her way to being a cheerleader, getting an MRS degree in college (if she goes at all, since those girls are told not to like math), and then being a baby factory. I find this highly offensive.

    My son is a boy’s boy who loves soccer and Angry Birds and killer whales and cooking. My daughter wears dresses and skirts and loves fairies and unicorns and sports and math. Can we stop being so rigid?

  19. Brandon

    THANK YOU!

    As a dad who enjoys cross-stitching as a hobby and has worked as a professional baker, I love that my 2 year old son takes an interest in cooking, helping me mix the wet and dry ingredients for bread, takes an interest in picking out what he’s going to wear that day, and that he loves to run his fingers across the little ‘x’s in the pattern I’m working on and picking coloured floss. He loves playing in the kitchen section of his preschool, and I have never actually seen anything ‘girly’ about any of that at all.

    My wife is currently pregnant with our second, and I have been thinking about getting my son a baby doll for Christmas to help him learn about how to hold and care for his forthcoming younger sibling!

    How is this anything other than fun and education?!?

  20. Marie Harris

    I bought my son a baby doll when he was 1. She sat on a shelf in his bedroom, totally unloved for the next 3 years. I bought my son a kitchen when he was 3. He took off the oven door and made it into a tunnel for his trains. I banned all guns. He made guns out of lego.

    • Let Toys Be Toys is all for children following their own interests. In some cases that will match the stereotypes, in other cases it won’t, or not all the time. We just want children to feel free to find their way without pressure to conform to marketing stereotypes.

      My own son has never shown much interest in baby dolls, though he plays very gentle,caring games with some of his stuffed toys. I do find it interesting that other people often seem to take more notice of the things he does that match their expectations. eg People will comment on how his interest in cars is ‘typical boy’, but they won’t say so much about how much he enjoys sewing or playing with his sister’s Polly Pocket dolls. Both of them are equally ‘typical him’.

  21. Jer

    sorry my spelling and grammar is not my strong suite lol

    I work at a school and I like to wear Hello Kitty shirts and i like hello kitty. When I wear them the little boys would tell me its a girl thing and why would you wear that I would smile at them and say that “I like hello kitty” and move on with my day. Once the kids got use to me wearing them they thought it was really cool that I wear them.

    Also when I was an intern for a special outdoor school up in the mountains where kids from other school come up and spend a week up there. I had a bunk house that decorated with some of my favorite stuff if am going to be stuck up there for a semester might as well make it more homie lol anyways the boys would come in and said “ewwwww who has the hello kitty pillow” I would smile and say it was mine. Then the boys would go off telling me its a girl thing and so. After like 3 days the boys in my bunk house would come up to me and tell me “that so and so told me that your shirt is girly and its stupid.” I look at them ” What did you say?” they would say ” I told him that you were the coolest intern up here and that you tell us stories.” By the end of the week most of the kids would come up to me and ask me where i got my shirts. I was told by a teacher that the kids like me because am not afraid to be who I am.

  22. Children do what they see not what they are told to do. It seems to me that if we want boys to feel they can choose what toys to play with without ridicule and what role they can take in society they have to see their dads, uncles, grandads engaging in the so called
    “Women’s roles”. And getting the boys to help them in the kitchen or cleaning or playing with dolls houses not always taking them in the garage.

  23. Some lovely comments from parents about their boys’ play on this post on the Cbeebies facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cbeebies/posts/854911361210834

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