Brett Ortler is disappointed that the most gender-neutral of toys has fallen back into gendered stereotypes.
My mission was simple: Find presents for my niece for her third birthday. The automatic doors at Toys “R” Us whisked open, and we could immediately see the garish gleam of the girls’ toy aisles. The fuchsias, lavenders, and above all, hot pinks seemed as bright as airport runway lights, even from halfway across the store.
Of course, we weren’t headed there; the party was pirate-themed and unless we wanted Captain Hook’s makeup case or some other fashion-oriented accoutrement, it was unlikely we’d find much that my niece would find much fun. That’s the real problem of having gendered toy aisles: the options for both genders—but especially for girls—are really limited. Most of the toys in the girls’ section are all-too specific: there are rows and rows of dolls, either babies to be cared for or “adult” dolls such as the ever-popular Barbie, and then there are the cooking sets and “house” sets, which include make-your-own jewelry kits, toy ovens and sinks, and even make-believe broom sets and vacuums.
Now I’ve got no problem with girls playing with dolls or boys playing with plastic soldiers or racing Matchbox cars, but I do have a problem with such toys being the predominant options available. Toys are about more than simple entertainment. In a real sense, play is serious business. It defines childhood—and the child. When a little boy is playing with a Tonka truck or a telescope or a Nerf version of the AR-15, he is often being told something specific: this is something you can aspire to. The same general rule holds for girls’ toys. The problem is, the roles depicted by our toys are often antiquated. Women may be outpacing men in terms of college enrollment (and graduation) and becoming the primary breadwinners in ever-more households, but the mainstream toy market is often stuck in the 1950s.
Happily, one toy has long been an exception to this trend: the humble Lego brick.
Beloved by girls and boys alike, Legos are as sturdy as they are versatile. Thanks to their ingenious design, Legos sets are simple enough to be popular with the toddling set—our one-year-old son literally walks around all day with a Duplo brick in each hand—yet more advanced sets feature moving parts, motors, and even programmable software and robotics. Simply put, they are the perfect toy.
You can therefore imagine my horror when I encountered the Lego “Friends” set. When I first saw it, I thought that the Mary Kay makeup line had produced a knockoff Lego set—the boxes were covered in so many pinks and purples it looked like they were covered in lip gloss. Introduced in 2012, the sets are obviously geared toward young girls. They are quite popular, but that doesn’t mean they are a good idea. On the contrary, while popularity may be the only argument that marketers listen to when establishing a product like Lego friends, there are more compelling reasons to take Lego Friends off the shelves for good.
The Lego Friends sets themselves are exactly what you’d expect; the characters appear to be pre-teen girls and the sets are cutesy scenes of beauty shops and bunny hutches and doll houses. Everything is small and quaint and achingly domestic. There are no Lego Friends hospital sets or Lego Friends astronauts or Lego Friends road construction crews. That’s a real problem: part of the fun of play is imagining that you are the characters—and every once in a while, that pans out. Well, when your characters are pre-teen girls at a beauty shop, there’s not much to aspire to.
It’s therefore no surprise that there are no Lego Friends sets that involve the most educational aspects of Legos, including the Lego Technic sets that focus on engineering and basic science. Such toys, it seems, aren’t for girls. This, it should be noted, is bullshit, and it’s also likely one reason that gender inequality is persistent in the sciences from such an early age. After all, when you’re told that something isn’t for you from childhood, you’re less likely to take such subjects seriously later in life.
The obvious objection to all this is that girls can play with Lego Friends and the more science-based sets. That’s trivially true, but socially, it usually doesn’t work that way. When you differentiate between girls’ toys and boys’ toys, you’re making certain types of toys off-limits. Legos were perfect because they had been the veritable Switzerland of the toy aisle—one of the only places where toys were simply toys. Unfortunately, with the introduction of Lego Friends what had been an oasis of egalitarianism now has a pastel partition.
This isn’t just a metaphorical idea. At any given store, the boys’ and girls’ aisles are perfectly distinct and color-coded; you literally have to cross over into no-man’s land to get from one section to another, and children are relentless minders of social mores, quick to recognize—and mock—any perceived social faux pas, including playing with the “wrong” type of toys. After kids experience this, they are sometimes less likely to ask for such toys—even though they may want them—and this results in a form of self-censorship.
The odd thing is, toys for the younger set (infant up to about sixteen months) aren’t color coded at all. We’ve got a fifteen-month-old, so I’ve been visiting the toy aisles quite a bit lately. (My living room is a Fisher-Price and Duplo brick minefield.) As he’s gotten older, I’ve noticed that more and more gender-specific toys have been creeping in. My question is: What has changed exactly? Given that my son’s vocabulary is both inconsistent and mostly unintelligible, it’s clear that children aren’t the ones telling us that they want gender-specific toys. Rather, we’re telling them what toys to want now—and that in a real respect that tells them who they ought to be later.
I showed up to my niece’s party with a fake parrot strapped to my shoulder, a fake hook up my sleeve, and a treasure map in tow. (We’d been informed costumes were mandatory or we’d have to walk the plank into the kiddie pool.)
With my wife minding him, our little one toddled into the backyard wearing fake dreadlocks and a tri-corner hat emblazoned with the Jolly Roger, and I snuck off to “bury” the treasure chest by hiding it their hammock.
Eventually, we led my niece on a short treasure hunt, and she loved the treasure chest, and there were even some minor squabbles over it among the other kids. I took this as a good sign: the value of a toy is directly proportional to the interest it immediately generates among children.
In this case, almost all of the kids present were interested. Unfortunately, given that it was decidedly marketed as a “boy’s toy,” (it was Jake-themed, as I recall), it’s far less likely that girls would play with it. That’s unfortunate, because the moral of the story is clear: Doubloons are for everyone—and the same goes for most other toys, too.
 There are obvious counterexamples. I played with He-Man, but at no point did I ever expect to actually become the Master of the Universe.
 I mean, if we’re going to foist stereotypes upon on our kids, let’s at least get creative. Perhaps there can be “a cooking set” for boys complete with a Hungry Man TV dinner, a sixer of Bud Light tallboys, and unbearable loneliness.
 There is a veterinarian set, however.
 Girls’ dolls are another example of this. First, it’s rather bizarre that dolls—which are essentially training for caring—are relegated to one gender. It’s also amazing how many dolls are white. My sister and her husband—both are white—wanted my niece to have a doll with a different skin tone. It was pretty damn depressing how hard it was for my sister to find a store that actually had a black doll.
Photo: Per Olof Forsberg / flickr