Doing my Chanukah/Christmas/Festivus/whateverthefuck I’m celebrating shopping. [Note: I wrote this post a while back.] Looking at the toys. Thinking about what the kids would like. Remembering my own childhood. Reflecting on Barbies, Lammily, Bratz, Princesses; Ninjago, Thomas, Super Mario Bros.
Once upon a time, I was the kind of person who stressed out a lot about the kinds of messages society sends kids, the way parents force their kids into particular molds, etc.
Then I actually had kids, didn’t get enough sleep for about 8 years and counting, and mellowed the fuck out because my priorities became things like, “What do you mean you didn’t eat lunch?” and “oh no there are no wipes in the diaper bag” and “GO TO BED IT IS PAST YOUR BEDTIME.”
I have also learned some things like, “Even though we own tons of dolls, the boys never touch them,” and “the girl likes to do everything her brothers do, but always seems to append ‘princess’ to it.”
I’m going to go out on a very sturdy limb and say that gender roles are part socialization, and part innate. Some things do appeal more to boys, on average, than to girls, on average, and vice versa. Some activities appeal more, too. And in my limited observations of my small-N and their companions, girls and boys do seem to have different basic, instinctual ways of moving and relating to the world. (Basically, boys fling themselves into action, ignore you, and get in trouble more. Girls move smoothly and thoughtfully, are responsive, and generally only need gentle reprimands because they actually seem to desire to be good.)
For the past god knows however many decades, at least two as far as I’ve been aware, there’s been a fairly constant discussion, especially on the left, about the terrible terrible ways things like Barbies and Princesses and the genderization of toys socialize girls into feminine roles and give them eating disorders and generally perpetuate all of the ills of Patriarchy. Some of these arguments have been valid; many have been very silly. (You think Barbie’s bad? Seriously? Have you visited a toy aisle lately? Let me show you some Monster High Dolls’ dimensions. Or Bratz or a half-dozen other lines that are even less realistic and skinnier than Barbie.)
Despite this, these views have gotten very popular. Take the recent success (so far) of the Lammily doll, marketed as the “realistic Barbie”. You can even buy, I shit you not, stickers to simulate stretch marks, cellulite, and acne for your kid’s doll.
(You know what I suspect kids don’t really want in their toys? Realism. That’s why bright purple ponies sell better than realistic looking toy horses. The whole point of play is that it’s imaginary.)
Despite how this might sound, this is not actually progress. (Let’s assume that we want progress, where progress = fixing all of the stuff feminists complain about.) Why? Because Lammily is a single blip in the ocean of dolls that have become even less realistic than Barbie over the past 20 years.
Once upon a time, Legos were marketed (and sold) as a basically gender neutral toy. I had Legos; you probably did, too. Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, all sorts of toys featured girls and boys on the packaging and were bought by parents of all genders. Sure, girls liked dolls and boys liked trains, but there was a lot of stuff in between. Even Disney movies aimed to be gender neutral, with such exciting flops as The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.
Disney animation almost shut down completely under the weight of such crappy movies, until the release, in 1989, of The Little Mermaid, the first modern “princess movie” and the movie that saved Disney animation. Since then, they’ve released the occasional “Lion King”, with cross-gender appeal, (and the occasional dud, like The Hunchback of Nortre Dame, Jesus, what the hell were they thinking?) but their core success has revolved entirely around the Princesses.
Little girls love princesses. I don’t know why. I think it’s because princesses get awesome clothes and look pretty.
Lammily gets boring ass clothes and stretch marks.
When I was a kid, “princesses” were not a thing. There was She-Ra, Princess of Power, but she was a very different phenomenon. Today, it is totally normal for little girls to wear sparkly princess tutus literally everywhere. Ballet and dress-up clothes have become completely normal.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Lego released its Star Wars lines, Ninjago, etc., until finally I suspect someone looked at the shelves and said, “Gee, all of this is explicitly marketed to boys.” So to make it up, they started a line explicitly aimed at girls, the Lego Friends.
Tinkertoys comes in pink. So do Lincoln Logs. But rare is the successful Disney animation with a male lead.
1. Little kids don’t give a crap what grownups argue about online, and marketers have figured out some successful marketing scheme.
2. The people who complain about kids’ toys aren’t generally the people with kids. People with kids don’t care, and will buy their kids whatever.
3. People who tend to complain about kids’ toys have also chosen to have very few children compared to people who are explicitly anti-feminist and pro-genderizing of toys. As a result, the current crop of kids may actually have a tendency (socially and/or genetically induced) to want to be more gendered and play with more explicitly gendered items than previous generations.
The one exception is masculine toys linked to conservative culture, like b.b. guns. Those are probably way less popular.