Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Toys Matter: The Doll and Oven Debate

The new model of Hasbro's Easy-Bake Oven
Even if the end of the Mayan calendar cycle doesn't bring forth the apocalypse, a shopping centre in the days just before Christmas resembles something close to the end times. Many poor souls are buying up toys for their children or child relatives, the happiness of their innocent hearts depending on the right purchase. The world toy market in 2010 was worth over 83 billion US dollars, with 2.6 billion spent in Australia alone. 

Last month I gave a talk at Melbourne Free University about sexism in popular culture. In one brief sentence I mentioned the popular Lego Friends range for girls. The question time of almost half an hour afterwards was almost entirely consumed by debate about the girls' Lego. I talked about Prime Minister Gillard's media representation and popular culture's fixation on women's appearance and sexual desirability, but the audience was most fascinated by toys. We  have all played with toys as children and continue to interact with them if we have our own children or grandchildren: toys are ubiquitous. They are also often seen as having no broader significance or importance (i.e. not important enough to warrant serious discussion). Yet attempts to influence the kinds of toys that are sold, their colours and marketing so as to minimise gender stereotyping always attract negative responses about social engineering that seeks to upend innate gender differences.

The 'old-school' Easy-Bake Oven in its Betty
Crocker incarnation
In the past month, an American girl named McKenna Pope has petitioned Hasbro to manufacture an Easy-Bake Oven that her four-year-old brother, Gavyn, who likes to cook, can use without feeling like a traitor to his sex. The Easy-Bake has been sold since the 1950s and enables children to actually cook small treats, formerly through a light bulb that generated heat and now via an electrical element inside. Though it has always been explicitly marketed to girls, as advertisements and packaging from past models make clear, the oven used to look much like a regular household oven. The new model gives up verisimilitude for pink and purple colouration, giving off the signal, along with the girls featured on the packaging, that this oven is not a toy for boys. McKenna's petition now has 43,000 signatures and some leading chefs have put together a video in support of the cause, all championing the idea that cooking is something that both boys and girls should be able to enjoy. And so should Gavyn feel able to whip up some cookies, but the total saturation of male chefs featured in the support video suggest that perceptions about home cooking being a role for women has not impacted upon the prevalence of men in the more respected realm of professional chefs. With this employment reality in mind, the pinkified Easy-Bake Oven seems more about hemming girls in than stultifying the ambitions of boys.

While many seem supportive of the idea of toy ovens for both sexes—after all most chefs are men, and many celebrity chefs are quite coarse, like Gordon Ramsey, so it's not as if cooking is seen as inducing effeminacy—a Swedish toy chain's recent gender-neutral catalogue has been reported with a greater degree of scepticism. Sweden is the model nation with its aims to minimise the effects of gender stereotyping, and not to mention its progressive laws on prostitution, which criminalise the buyers of sex, not the sellers. The Egalia pre-school in Stockholm caused an international fuss when news of its aims to reduce the effects of social expectations of gender were reported in the media.The school encourages children of both sexes to play with all kinds of toys and the teachers do not use gender-specific pronouns, but refer to children as "friends" or use a gender-neutral term borrowed from Finnish, "hen".
A page from the Swedish Toys R Us catalogue
Top Toy, the franchise holder for Toys R Us in Sweden, was given training and guidance by the country's advertising watchdog for the gender discrimination it perpetuated in its catalogues, which replicated the standard segregation of toys along gender lines. This nudge encouraged the chain to produce their latest catalogue with a girl shown deftly working a Nerf gun, a small boy nurturing a baby doll, and both a boy and girl playing with a doll's house (though the boy is perched precariously near the end of the house where a male doll appears to be luxuriating in a spa). When the UK's Daily Mail reported on the catalogue, it placed "gender-neutral" in scare quotes, presumably to emphasise the ridiculousness of such a concept, and described the toy retailer as "forced" to show boys and girls playing with all kinds of toys, as if such representation went against all that is logical and natural.

Unlike the Easy-Bake Oven, which may prove a gateway to an acceptably male career in the male-dominated restaurant industry, boys cuddling baby dolls and rearranging the furniture in a doll's house were presumably seen as perverting the natural order, in which girls are meant to desire these things because they will become mothers and homemakers. Though young boys seem equally attracted to dolls, as Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender explains with reference to studies that have measured young children's reactions to them, they are taught that it is only girls who may play with them. "Action figures" like G.I. Joe are distinguished from "dolls" that are about fashion and make-up, like Barbie and Bratz, and mothering, like Baby Born and Baby Alive.
'Lottie', Arklu, 2012
'Black Barbie', Mattel, 1980
As  Dolls are understood as central to girls' play alone, and hence some parents and professionals are concerned by the unnatural proportions of the likes of Barbie, who was modelled on the German Bild Lilli (an adult novelty, moreso than a children's toy). A new doll named Lottie, who resembles a nine-year-old girl, rather than an adult woman or a baby, has been released by a UK company, Arklu, and has been praised as "a healthy alternative" to Bratz, Barbie and Monster High. Lottie has a flat chest, does not appear to be wearing make-up, has normally proportioned legs and wears typical girls' play clothing, rather than focusing on high fashion or a sexy appearance. Lottie is probably not the type of nine-year-old who is going to grab hold of a Nerf gun, however. In addition to two dolls dressed for playing in the garden, two of the incarnations come clothed in ballet and horseriding outfits, while another is wearing a party dress to wear to a masked ball. "Lotteville Festival Lottie" has black skin, though as with Barbie's "Colored Francie" who debuted in 1967 and "Black Barbie" of 1980 and onward, her features are still those of a white girl. (Colored Francie was made using the head mould of the regular white Barbie.)

As the examples of the Easy-Bake Oven and boys playing with dolls show, we place great strength in the idea that what kinds of toys that children play with helps to determine the kind of adults that they will become, especially in terms of how appropriately masculine or feminine they will be. Another clincher for this argument is the recent release of "Breast Milk Baby", a doll that enables girls to play at breastfeeding and which comes complete with a function that enables it to make suckling sounds. Predictably, some have seen the idea of breasts being used for their primary function of feeding children through doll play as "sexualising" girls while others have emphasised that we should be normalising breastfeeding to girls to ensure that breastfeeding rates do not continue to fall.


Anonymous said...

Great post! There are problems, absolutely. In terms of Easy Bake, it's definitely portrayed as being for girls, but there actually is a green oven available (, despite the recent rhetoric about how boys don't have an oven they can play with - it's just the 'ultimate oven' that is purple (not pink!) that is getting all the attention. Why can't a boy play with things that are purple or pink though? This seems to be the big issue. Seeing a girl with a boy's toy is 'gender neutral', sometimes surprising, but rarely shocking. Seeing a boy with a girls' toy? I really liked your point about that. I still worry that our concept of 'gender neutral' is becoming based in the masculine and simply becomes an issue of erasing explicitly feminine signifiers. I knew someone who worked at a 'fairy store' - she said the little boys would always resist the fairy wings that were introduced for boys (more manly wings!). There were tantrums. Those boys wanted the glitter, the feathers, the pink wings! Basically, I think there's work to do in making people understand... that's okay.

Michelle Smith said...

Thanks, "Doc"! The green one seems cooler too because it uses the old-school lightbulb for the cooking. As you say, there shouldn't be a reason why the colour of a toy prevents a child of either sex playing with it. There is nothing wrong with a boy being attracted to pink or purple, or glitter or fairy wings. But these things have become so explicitly coded as "girly", and definitive of what a girl ought to like that it is not only hard for some girls to find something outside of that limited realm, but almost impossible for boys to be allowed to desire those things. Surely a four-year-old should not care what colour a toy oven is? But clearly this boy is already aware that it will somehow impinge on his "boyness" to play with a toy marketed toward girls.

And I also agree that "gender neutral" shouldn't mean removing typically feminine qualities or features, but should be about the freedom of girls and boys to float between different kinds of toys that appeal to them without fear that playing with them will somehow inhibit their development as girls or boys. Why can't a little boy wear pink shoes, for instance?

Anonymous said...

I loved that boy in his pink ballet flats - he rocked them! Why were people so concerned? There was a time when little boys wore dresses like their sisters. We live in odd times...

And more options for girls, for sure. Not every girl likes pink. Gasp! Or pink to the exclusion of all else. I always find it funny when people are sometimes surprised that I don't often wear pink. In fact, I don't have a pink dominated wardrobe. I can like pink without being obsessed by it. I think marketing directed at children hasn't realised this.