Last week marked White Ribbon Day in Australia, a focal point for the male led campaign to end violence against women. On the same day, a Senate inquiry into the relationship between children’s toys and entertainment and the gender stereotypes that contribute to domestic violence was announced.
Predictably, the inquiry was instantly deemed “a war on Barbie”. It was also an opportunity to label the Greens, who initiated the inquiry, as kooky for linking Tonka trucks with Australia’s family violence crisis.
Both the federal government and the opposition were eager to uncouple themselves from any suggestion that they might begin policing toy boxes. A spokesperson for Labor leader Bill Shorten remarked that any notion of “a clear link between toys and domestic violence is absurd”.
Last year, the Greens supported the No Gender December campaign, which encourages families to be open-minded when choosing toys to place under the Christmas tree. The campaign highlights how toys are marketed in ways that segregate play along gender lines. Most toy shops erect an invisible Berlin Wall that largely keeps girls in the pink, sparkly zone and boys in the sector of camouflage-toned action.
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The suggestion that children’s toys, books, or films might have any connection with the beliefs children internalise about gender and the kinds of adults they become rankles many people. We commonly take exception at the idea that anything that formed part of our beloved childhood could be anything other than innocent and delightful.
It is time that adults “grow up” and stop ridiculing the idea that the cultural products we make for children are influential and can have both positive and negative impacts.
Parents tend to accept that young children might be swayed by advertising for junk food, depictions of smoking, alcohol or drug use as desirable, or TV or movies that are infused with swearing. Children are consistently absorbing cultural cues about how to behave and act. As a result, parents might restrict their children’s exposure to things they see as harmful, or at least help children negotiate what is socially acceptable and healthy for their own wellbeing.
When it comes to the negative influences of gender stereotyping in moulding how girls and boys feel that they can act as kids and as adults, we inexplicably change tack. These are only innocent or trivial toys or cartoons. And children won’t be thinking about adult concepts like the gender pay gap or domestic violence in any case.
The Reducing Violence Against Women and Their Children report, released this month, demonstrates that young people have already formed views about gender relations and violence. It shows that when presented with hypothetical scenarios, boys as young as ten years old think that female victims of domestic violence are at fault; girls tend to blame themselves. Why would children already blame women for domestic violence if they were not absorbing ideas from the cultural around them?
Individual toys do not transmit troubling beliefs about violence directly, but the gendering of toys is a reflector of, and a contributor to, the gender inequality that produces domestic violence.
Critics of the inquiry propose that Barbie and other traditional toys marketed for boys or girls have been available for decades, as if to suggest that popular practices cannot possibly be wrong. They also ignore the coexistence of gender inequality with these and other superficially innocuous traditions throughout this period.
There is no social engineering in the suggestion that we should examine how the marketing of toys and children’s entertainment might bolster gender inequality. No one is proposing restricting the interests or freedom of children to choose. Rather, we must remove the limitations on children that are deployed through gendered marketing.
Toys that are categorised for girls are often related to domestic chores, fashion or babies, mirroring the ongoing expectation of women’s disproportionate contribution to housework and childcare. While boys’ toys involve construction, adventure, or warfare. Gender inequality is entrenched in the way that toys that are marketed for girls are unacceptable for boys or else they will be mocked because what is feminine is unimportant, frivolous and incompatible with being a “real” boy or man.
The gendered marketing of toys is not the direct reason why one in six Australian women has experienced domestic violence. Yet we cannot expect that “raising awareness” and simply telling men to respect women and monitor each other will make any meaningful difference to the long history of violence against women. It is time we looked seriously at where gendered inequality originates and is cemented to understand how we might shift the power imbalance at the core of violence against women.