There’s good news across the pond for parents who want their little girls to believe they can grow up and be anything they want: A parents group called Pink Stinks, which pressures toy companies and stores to rise above marketing based on traditional gender roles, seems to have been successful in getting the Early Learning Center to change their pink ways — at least a little bit. Last year the ELC’s holiday catalog dress-up section was a hot mess. Girls’ dress-up clothes were princesses and fairies, as well as nurses; boys’ options included superheroes, adventurers and a variety of professions. One spread called “things people do” depicted eight kids with only one girl dressed up as a nurse, while the boys were dressed up as a firefighter, policeman and other professions. Pink Stinks could plainly see how last year’s ELC holiday catalog showed what they think about little girls: it’s all about being pretty. “Time and time again the word ‘pretty’ [was] being used to describe girls. Pretty princesses, pretty in front of the mirror, pretty, pretty, pretty. What does this tell a girl about what she’s worth?” This year, however, the word “pretty” was noticeably absent. Pink Stinks wrote: “the wording is very carefully gender neutral — even in the most pink pages.” Could it be that ELC was finally listening?
I poked around Early Learning Center’s website — I do have three princess-obsessed nieces and a LEGOs-obsessed nephew to shop for, after all — and what I saw was mixed. There is a pink apron, as well as numerous pink kitchen sets and tea sets, which are obviously aimed at girls. However, I did see some kitchen sets in blue (assuming this means it’s for boys) and little girls modeling police and pirate dress-up costumes. There was also a really cute (pink) vet’s outfit. It’s heartening that ELC is trying to present their toys in a less gendered way — but this is only the beginning.
Of course, many others are guilty of reinforcing stereotypical gender roles through toys. Remember, earlier this year when we noticed LEGOs “minifigures” only offered two options for girl LEGOs? They were a cheerleader and a nurse. Boy LEGOs included a wide range of choices, like a spaceman, a magician and a deep sea diver. The Bible recently got “princessified.” And don’t even get me started on Barbies. (No, really, don’t get me started: diehard Barbie fan Annika and I could come to blows.)
Critics of groups like Pink Stinks say that a dedicated parent could purchase any dress-up costume, any LEGO set, or any toy they choose. No one is forcing them to buy their 3-year-old daughter a pink princess dress, a pink vanity and a set of nail polishes. The supply/demand argument also gets made: “But they’re just giving people what they want!” (That same argument is often used to justify reality TV shows like “Bridalplasty.”) Apparently, just because people want something must mean it’s good!
Yes, it’s true parents hold the purchasing power. But we have to question why the toy stores do what they do. If the onus is on consumers, why do toy stores and catalogs sell their wares in such a gendered way? Why use the word “pretty”? Why not photograph the little girl model in the policeman and fireman’s dress-up outfits? (As commenter PinkRanger wrote awhile ago, back on the LEGOs post, “[Girls] are gonna take part anyway, why make them out as an oddity or an exception?”) Obviously, decisions are being made and there is a reason certain toys are sold a certain way.
I believe it’s because toy makers, toy stores and catalogs think they can make more money by sticking to the traditional narrative when it comes to toys and gender. Giving consumers a script to follow rakes in more money than selling more gender-neutral toys or presenting their existing toys as gender-neutral. They “pinkwash” their products — “This is for girls! Because it’s pink!” — rather than sell a toy to anyone and everyone based on its own merits. The same goes for “bluewashing” toys for boys. Reinforcing sexism is so much easier for everyone involved.
You really don’t have to look much farther than the ELC catalog’s prior use of the word “pretty” to see why toys are sold this way. Tapping into our culture’s values — girls are pretty and sweet, boys are strong and adventurous — is what sells. And never mind if it shows your 4-year-old girl that being pretty is an important goal for her: it sells.
The problem is every little bit of sexism adds up; nothing in life happens in an isolation. Kids are always listening and always learning. But both little boys and little girls deserve better options for toys. Both boys and girls deserve to expand their imaginations, not be encouraged to follow the traditional scripts that consign us gender roles. Frankly, the kids with loved ones who purposefully think outside the gendered box when it comes to presents are lucky.
Have you been shopping for kids this holiday season? Have you noticed any particularly gendered catalogs/toy stores/toy displays?