Toy story

‘Tis the season of present buying, but is gender stereotyping in the toys we choose having a harmful effect on our children? Experts, campaigners, a mother and her children share their thoughts

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I remember it like it was yesterday. Creeping downstairs on Christmas morning, peeking into the front room and discovering that yes – Santa had actually been. As my frantic, five-year-old hands tore at the colourful wrapping paper covering the biggest present I could find, I hoped this sizeable cardboard box contained what I thought it did. The reason I’d tried my best to be good all year – a bona fide Real Ghostbusters toy Proton Pack, complete with its own ghost-blasting toy gun. The memory still gives me chills.

“There’s nothing inherent about cars being for boys or dolls being for girls.”

With this blue hunk of plastic on my back, the family could sleep easy knowing the house was spectre-free – at least until my childhood obsession moved onto something else. I felt like I was actually in the movie. You know, the one where four guys rid New York of its ghost problem? It’s the same story that caused cultural outrage among a sub-sector of fans almost 30 years later, when director Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot dared to suggest that four women could do the exact same job.

In fact, reflecting on my childhood excitement at becoming a Ghostbuster makes me wonder – had I inadvertently played into a gendered toy stereotype that had negative side-effects on a section of my generation? Worse still: is gender stereotyping in toys even more pronounced now, perpetuating these same gender expectations in kids that may ultimately resurface to harmful effect in adulthood?

A recent survey discovered that the average parent spends around £100 per child at Christmas – but how can we be sure that money isn’t buying kids a one-way ticket to unnurtured interests and blinkered career paths? With pinks and blues excessively dividing toys, gender-specific aisles and outdated storybook narratives rife, gender stereotypes in toys and the subconscious knock-on effects they create are sadly alive and well – but some parents have decided to fight back.

“Like many parents, I only noticed how gendered toys and books had become after having my own child,” admits Tessa Trabue, campaigner at Let Toys Be Toys, the award-winning social media campaign aimed at challenging gender stereotypes in childhood. Founded in 2012 by a group of parents who shared gendered-shopping frustrations on the popular parenting site Mumsnet, the campaign soon caught fire online, eventually forcing big brands to take notice.

“Following a few incidents when my son was just starting school, including him telling me he couldn’t choose something he wanted from a shop because the sign said it was ‘for girls’, and being shamed on his first day of reception for having a pink water bottle, I realised what negative effects gender stereotypes could have,” explains Trabue. “One evening, parents decided to act and the campaign was formed, with a petition launched soon afterwards asking retailers to take the signs down and let toys be toys.”

Parents were right to have concerns, too. As Professor Gina Rippon explains in her book The Gendered Brain, this binary mindset isn’t set in stone. It’s learnt and therefore it can be changed. “The raison d’être of The Gendered Brain was to shatter the myth that there are two types of ‘hardwired’ brains – male and female,” says the professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University’s Brain Centre in Birmingham. “This is a centuries-old myth based on the early assumptions that because women and men had different statuses in society, this must be because they had different brains. 21st century neuroscience revealed our brain characteristics are not inevitable, invariable or fixed but have life-long flexibility and can be altered by different attitudes and experiences. So a gendered world can make a gendered brain.”

This is perhaps most critically illustrated by the role so-called training opportunity toys have in the career paths of kids.

“Spatial cognition has been shown to be powerfully influenced by experience with construction toys, sports, hobbies and video games that have hand-eye co-ordination or spatial awareness elements,” says Rippon. “If these are seen as ‘for boys’, then they will get better at these sorts of tasks, enjoy them more and pursue them more in the school subjects where they’re important – especially science. Similarly, the ‘nurturing’ opportunities offered by dolls and soft-play toys can develop the kind of skills that fit those kinds of careers.”

Funnily enough, I can’t remember many girls playing Ghostbusters back when I was running around with my prized Proton Pack – so is it any wonder society spat out its dummy when women tried their hand at bustin’ ghosts?

“If it’s clear that toys are ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ then it’s exposing children to the notion that society has different expectations of girls and boys and different beliefs in their interests and abilities. This will be encoded into children’s emerging identities,” adds Rippon. “‘Girls’ toys may emphasise the importance of appearance or body shape which can become pathological – or that certain games are for ‘really clever’ people and that girls aren’t included among their ranks.

“‘Boys’ toys may emphasise aggression or superhero qualities or deny them the opportunity to show their caring side, which can lead to difficulties with anger management, exposing emotions and asking for help. The gender message also implies that being ‘like a girl’ is somehow negative or inferior. Parents don’t mind so much if girls play with ‘boys’ toys’ but are quite firmly against boys playing with ‘girls’ toys’.”

The Irving family

Manchester-based mother of four Tiffany Irving has encountered many of these issues first hand when shopping for her boys Riley, 14, Asa, seven, and Rafferty, four, and girl Astrid, 11.

“Aside from more niche-brands, toys on the whole seem heavily packaged and marketed towards a specific gender,” she tells us. “Of course, there are lots of other factors but I find that my seven-year-old son, who is very into crystals and jewellery, worries that his friends might make fun of him for having a ‘girl’s toy’.

“He himself isn’t bothered – but other kids are very influenced by that message and in turn, pass that on. Often toys that are marketed towards girls are things I think my boys would enjoy but might actually feel they shouldn’t play with.”

When asked if they might consider playing with a toy aimed at the opposite sex at school, Irving’s young children had varying answers.

“I feel like I’d get embarrassed and boys in my class would ask me why I play with that,” says seven-year-old Asa – before assuring us that he believes “toys should be for everyone”.

Eleven-year-old Astrid had a self-assured view of the situation: “I was recently in a big toy shop looking for Minecraft toys and the shop assistant told me they were on the boy aisle. That really annoyed me,” she says. “I would play with a boy’s toy at school. I don’t care what people think.”

During Trabue’s Let Toys Be Toys tenure, she’s seen some shocking faux pas made by retailers – so many that the site runs an annual Silliness Awards highlighting each year’s worst offenders. “Some of the colouring books we’ve seen have been pretty extreme in the way they group several themes together and signpost them as just being for boys – dinosaurs, space, robots, cars – or for girls – butterflies, rainbows, cupcakes, unicorns,” she says. “Things to Make and Do for Boys by Top That Publishing even had ‘No Girls Allowed’ on its back cover and on some inner pages.

“The evidence is all around us that when given the freedom, children embrace the opportunity to explore their interests without fear of stigma. There’s nothing inherent about cars being for boys or dolls being for girls. Statistically nearly as many women hold driving licenses as men in the UK and we think nothing of seeing dads pushing their children in buggies. Surely we want girls to grow up to be good drivers and boys to be caring dads, so why is there stigma around children playing with toys that may encourage them to develop these skills in later life?”

Thankfully, progress has been made. In October, the results of a survey by the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media on links between play and future careers led Lego to remove all gender bias from its toys. Let Toys Be Toys’ impact can be felt too.

“Our inaugural survey found that 50 per cent of UK toy shops had ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs up in toy aisles. Since then, we’re pleased to have persuaded 15 UK toy retailers, including the Entertainer, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Hobbycraft, to take down ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ signs in their toy aisles and let toys be toys,” says Trabue. “Our subsequent research found virtually no signs in shops, as well as a drop of over 70 per cent in gendered navigation being used on toy retailer websites.”

So with stores full of Christmas shoppers, how can parents buy with a gender-neutral mindset? “Avoid anything labelled ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ or aggressively carrying the pink/blue message,” advises Rippon. “Look for anything creative or constructive, games that support collaboration or books where, ideally, gender is irrelevant or where gender stereotypes are minimised or counter acted – such as brave girls and caring boys.”

Trabue also has some tips. “If you’re shopping for a child you don’t know that well, we suggest trying to find out something about their interests rather than falling back on gender stereotypes. We’ve put together several gift guides on a range of themes on our website.”

Thankfully, more and more parents are becoming aware of this issue too, forcing stores to catch up. “Manufacturers and retailers should be made to market toys in a more gender-neutral way,” suggests Irving. “Our children shouldn’t be stereotyped from birth and have their creativity or imagination limited.”

Come 25 December, children across the land will be creeping downstairs, hoping Santa has brought them the gift they’ve wanted all year. As I can attest, this one event can become a lifelong memory – surely, it’s our responsibility to ensure it’s one full of equality and opportunity.

Play fair

How can we be sure the toys we give the kids in our lives are free from harmful stereotypes? Here are some of the best gender-neutral toys you can buy

You can’t beat a classic. Play-Doh has been around since the late 1950s, inspiring children of all ages and genders to get creative by sculpting shapes, animals, structures and literally anything their developing minds can think of. With a range of vibrant colours to choose from, it’s a great, gender-less option for the art-loving child in your life this Christmas.

A relatively new option playing on the addictive nature of sensory activities, Dimple is a deceptively simple toy that encourages kids to push its various colourful spots to receive a satisfying “pop” sensation. Perfect for fidgety fingers, it might even keep the adults entertained during those cosy nights in front of the telly.

Kinetic Sand
Similar to Play-Doh, Kinetic Sand is another creative and gender-free gift option that encourages creativity as well as play. It’s mouldable, silky wet sand that can be sculpted into a variety of shapes and structures like clay. Its poppy colours can be mixed and spliced to create something unique – all you need to provide are a few big ideas.

Musical instruments
Surely one of the best gifts you can give any boy or girl this Christmas is one that nurtures a creative passion that even they didn’t know they had hiding inside them. Whether it’s an acoustic guitar, a toy drum set or even a simple tambourine, shaker or whistle – musical instruments are gender-free and packed with potential for anyone who picks them up.

Lego Classic Box
Earlier this year, Lego announced that it would be removing all gender stereotyping from its toy line – and this is certainly evident in its Classic Brick Box, containing 790 different bricks of various shapes, sizes and styles. Kids can put their ingenuity to the test by building vehicles, picturesque scenes, castles and more. The possibilities are endless – and so is the fun.

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