Saturday, January 26, 2019

Being carefully taught

Despite all the progress we’ve made in advancing equality of the sexes, some things still pull us backwards, like toys. Even in 2019, we still see toys promoting sexist and outdated gender roles.

The photo above is described in the Instagram caption. It’s a toy sold by The Warehouse, New Zealand’s discount retailer. On the company’s website, the product is breathlessly promoted: “Pretend you're just like mum and dad with the Play Studio Role Play Vacuum Cleaner!” So… only a little girl features on the packaging, yet somehow boys grow up to vacuum, too, and be emulated by—girls only? How does that work?!

There’s been a trend toward gender-free marketing of toys, even though some children will nevertheless choose toys based on “traditional” gender roles, even when they’re all mixed in together. But that’s different from children being steered toward particular toys by the packaging alone.

I don’t remember much (well, anything…) from when I was in the “3+” age group, but I do remember form not much older than that age that I gravitated toward toys that other boys chose or, if that wasn’t a cue, ones that depicted boys on the packaging. Or, at least, I’d have avoided toys with girls on the packaging.

When I was a little boy, I remember that I wanted a toy kitchen, but I also “knew” that such things were for girls, not the least because the packaging made that clear, as did the fact everything was always pink. So, I made do. And when the “G.I. Joe” dolls were introduced, it provided a gender-safe way for boys to play with dolls without any disapproving or worried reactions from adults. And I did.

So, while I can’t remember being “3+”, I nevertheless can know that I wouldn’t have chosen a “Role Play Vacuum Cleaner” that had a girl on the packaging. I “knew” better than that.

One could argue that such packaging merely prepares children for a lifetime of making consumer choices based on marketing and little else. It’s certainly true that children are trained from a very early age, even before they can read or write, to respond to marketing. But that doesn't require companies to reinforce antique views of gender roles, like that vacuuming is only for girls, something that website’s wording doesn’t change, with the intent clear on the packaging.

Sure, this particular toy will not, by itself, undo all the hard work of generations of people who have worked for equality of the sexes. But it sure doesn’t help. It’s time toy companies, and the retailers that sell those toys, did better.

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