In this era of toy “pinkification,” a board book stopped me in my tracks. A vintage gift to my kids from my mother-in-law, it had all the trappings of your classic picture book–simple rhymes below illustrations of rosy-cheeked children.
My MIL said she bought it years ago because the book came with something extra–an “interactive” wheel on top matching children with their gifts. (It was a Christmas book.) Indeed, decades before the advent of smartphones and kiddie apps, I guess that’s as interactive as kid toys got.
What she didn’t notice then was something I couldn’t help but seize on when I first flipped through it: There, on the book’s fourth page, was a picture of a girl looking with delight at her new blue bike. On page 7, it gets even better–another girl happily unwraps a gift she “can kick, catch, or throw.”
It was a football!
I really shouldn’t have been surprised. The book was published in 1976, when the second wave of feminism was in full swing. I wasn’t alive then but it makes sense that, at the same time that feminists were arguing for gender equality in the workplace and in the home, children’s authors were slipping into their books subtle or not-so-subtle messages about gender equality in the playroom.
I’m not saying this particular book–”The Santa Claus Book” by Laura French–totally shatters toy gender stereotypes, at least not in an egalitarian sense. If the author or publisher really wanted to accomplish that, they could have had Santa deliver a baby doll or a sewing kit to one of the boys in the book. (The two boys in the book, for the record, received a rocking horse and a sled.)
Right now, my two young boys–ages 1 and 3–have no clue that, these days, footballs and blue things aren’t considered traditional gifts for girls. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my baby thinks that the word gift is defined as “piece of food I take off my plate and try to put in my mommy’s mouth.”
As they get older, I expect they’ll be disabused of this innocence. Despite admirable efforts like the Let Toys Be Toys Campaign in the UK, my boys will learn that the examples in their book, along with this beautiful Lego ad from 1981, are more the exception than the rule. They’ll learn that even engineering toys have been divided along gender lines.
I hope I’m wrong. In a statement to me, toy retailing powerhouse Toys “R” Us said that the chain “regularly features girls and boys playing with all different types of toys” in their advertising materials. Another reason to be optimistic: There are gender-neutral toys out there, like this new black Easy-Bake oven, being marketed to boys and girls.
In an ideal world, we’ll get to a point where no one will care what gender is featured on a toy’s packaging or what color any toy is, as long as it’s fun. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the days my sons ask for their own bikes and footballs. If they request them in pink, I won’t say no.
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