My youngest cousin turned three a few months back and in my quest to buy her gifts that were neither pink nor fluffy nor a blue eyed fair skinned doll, I found a teddy bear in a sailor cap and a pop-up bedtime book about a bunny going to sleep, in a gift shop near Westminster Abbey. While I was quite proud of not reinforcing gender binaries in my choice of gifts and not succumbing to capitalist companies that decide what a girl and boy must play with, I was quite exhausted at the effort that goes into buying gender-neutral gifts.
Toy shops generally have two sections – A blue one for boys and a pink one for girls. Nowadays, there is a miscellaneous green/purple section which like the second and third laws of thermodynamics is familiar to only a selected few – this usually comprises of books and random knick-knacks. A newborn baby boy is expected to play with a blue rattle and a pink one for a newborn baby girl (I am quite sure that the babies have their priorities straight especially when it comes to the paint pigment on their rattles). Mixed sex babies are never taken into account. A ten-year research from the University of Maryland shows that there was no gender-color symbolism until the 20th century. Today, mass marketing enforces gender-color binaries and expects consumers to confirm to the same.
What is in the boys’ section? Cars, superheroes, mechanical sets, PS4s, drones, guns, pistols, remote control toys, color changing light sabers (Can I have that one for my coming birthday?) and the rest. What is in the girls’ section? Dolls and more dolls – dolls with blond hair, blue eyes, in nice fluffy dresses (and if you are born in Asia like me, chances of your doll looking anything like you is slim), kitchen sets of all shapes and sizes, Dolls’ houses, Barbie with her extended family and sometimes comes with her own house, convertible and bathtub. Sometimes even the stuffed animals/ plush toys are gendered, Teddy bears for girls might wear a skirt and a bow and the one in the boys’ section is usually dressed in overalls.
Children are highly imaginative beings, the imaginative capabilities are unfortunately culled before they come of age. Growing up, children are expected to choose a side instead of coming off on their own in the wide gender spectrum. Mitigating gender binaries in childhood will go a long way in breaking restrictive gender stereotypes in adulthood.
This is not to say that all toys meant for boys and girls must be removed from the market, but to not have ‘meant for boys’ or ‘meant for girls’ categories in itself. Free will is a concept propagated by Eastern and Western philosophy, theology and science, and forms the bases of many legislative frameworks and tenants by which we live today (though the extent to which these frameworks are executed is debatable and fodder for another discussion). On that basis, a child whatever their gender must have the opportunity to walk into a toy store and pick up a toy that they find amusing.
My parents were veterans in breaking stereotypical norms when buying toys for their children. I had my first surgeon set when I was 5 and my mechanical set when I was 8 and it came with a complete handyman toolbox. And as a young girl, I had as much fun shampooing Barbie and Midge’s hair as much as I did making my first trailer park. One of my brother’s always bought home a kitchen set along with his Hot Wheels and Mini-Superhero figures.
Being able to afford to buy toys for your children, nephews, nieces, friends et al, is a great privilege. Therefore, it is important to exercise that privilege with great caution. A young girl must have as much freedom as her brother to pick up a fighter jet, who knows, she might be a fighter pilot someday.
It gives me great joy in seeing my baby cousin put down her iPad (on which she watches Dora trotting the globe with her backpack) pick up her book and laugh at the pop-up bunny. And I am glad that her parents are people who would let her pick up her choice of toys and let her be who she wants to be.
Breaking stereotypes, I hope every child gets to not only pick up any toy they want to without having to conform to any societal expectations but gets to grow up and be whoever they want to be.
In the loving memory of Rabi, my first rabbit plush toy who wore a frock but who I decided was a boy.