I am slightly embarrassed to admit that my partner and I bought our five year old daughter the ‘Enchanted Ball’ game for Christmas. Marketed as a very pink board game for girls, four plastic princesses try to win the affection of one prince. Motorized magnets move the princesses and prince around until he finally hooks one with his arm. The game is very dull (for us, and her), and gives out an extremely dubious message to little girls.
The gender bias in toys starts as young as one or two years old and can have a huge impact on children and their social play.
Educationalists and parents have reported an increase in incidences of children being bullied for liking activities or things deemed to be for the opposite gender to themselves.
Last week an 11-year-old boy tried to kill himself after he was bullied at school for being a fan of My Little Pony, because it was a “girls” programme and therefore he must be “gay”. This shockingly sad incident has rightly raised issues of homophobia in schools, which according to Stonewall is still a huge problem in the UK. But should this incident also question the negative impact of enforced gender stereotyping of toys and TV programmes?
CBBC has recently been criticised for gender stereotyping and promoting girls as ‘over emotional’ and ‘manipulative’. There is evidence that gender stereotyping in toys is putting girls off maths and science, combatted to some small degree by the design of toys such as the Roominate. Research also suggests that it’s not just the potential career paths of girls that we need to worry about – gender stereotyping is also having a detrimental impact upon the behaviour and academic achievement of boys.
Phrases like “boys things” and “girls things” have crept into the minds of children as young as two and three. Young boys are discouraged from playing with toys we feminise, expected to “man up” and hide the emotions needed to developing empathy and self-awareness (such as sadness). Girls are encouraged to aspire to looking pretty and value good looks far above being intelligent. From my own personal experience, at the age of just three my daughter was quick to inform her Nana that she was not smart, she was pretty!
I have no objection to my daughter playing with princess dolls, wearing pink and going to ballet lessons – but what I do object to is her worrying she will be teased for playing with toys that she considers to be “for boys”. As a child growing up in the 1970s I can’t remember worrying about whether the toys I played were specifically “for girls”. Of course, there were toys marketed at boys and toys marketed at girls, but nothing like the extreme gender bias in toy marketing today. In the 1970s we grew up with a lot of gender-neutral toys such as Lego and Play Dough.
A parent led group has launched a Let Toys Be Toys campaign for gender-neutral toys. They are “asking retailers to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys”. This is welcome move and has already sparked leading retailers, such as Marks and Spencer, to make all its toys gender neutral by spring 2014.
Let’s hope that other retailers follow their lead.