Saturday, November 05, 2005

Trains & Dolls

As we all know, once you buy something from a catalogue, your name and address is whooshed through the great Catalogue Mojo Machine and suddenly, you're on everyone's mailing list. This is particularly true for children's products, especially toys.

And, as we're all aware, once the gauntlet of Halloween falls, marking the official passage into the Holiday Season, toy manufacturers are quick to remind us that it is, once again, time to start shopping for our little munchkins.

Being an only-child parent of an only child, the majority of whose parent-friends live in other states, I actually don't mind the onslaught so much. My memories of toddlerhood are hazy and as such, I need a little help with ideas. And for this reason, I don't mind the bombardment by Fischer Price et al and quickly set to browsing through the pages to make my Santa List.

Being an unrepentant junkie for social politics, however, means that the Big Picture is never far from my mind, and as I flip through the glossy displays of multi-colored plastic wonders, the armchair pundit in me starts to grumble & twitch.

Now, as ever, gender politics is part of the national discourse. Whether it be reproductive rights, pay parity or child & health care policy decisions, this country is still in its adolescence in its treatment of men and women and the differences therein. Despite our ideals, we still struggle with the simple things, like division of household labor, for instance. One might not necessarily connect the dots between who does the vacuuming and whether women earn cents on men's dollars, but this failure of connection has meaning.

I don't intend to make some over-the-top claim that there's a directly causal relationship here, but I do mean to suggest a certain correlation that we benefit from being mindful of.

Browsing through these catalogues, the indoctrination into gender roles simply couldn't be more obvious. Train sets, race cars and erector sets are clearly placed in the boys section, are decorated with "masculine" colors, and are pictured in the raptured gaze of Handsome Father and Delighted Son. Conversely, toy kitchens, sewing machines and dolls are prominently featured in the girls section. Invariably decorated in some shade of pink, they're cooed over by pigtail sporting Little Ladies while Proud Mama smiles with approval. In some catalogues, the sections are so blatantly divided as to contain blue pages for boys, pink pages for girls. We all know the scene.

Nowhere in these pages do we find, say, a boy pushing a toy vacuum, or a girl cheering her Hot Wheels around a slick and windy racetrack. We don't find Dad attending a tea party or Mom helping out on the carpenter's horse. The lone spot of neutrality is sometimes found on the pages sporting video games, but even then, subject matter is still clearly divided along gender lines.

These are not revelations, to be sure. However, it's worth remembering while we, The Great Progressive Liberals, consider our holiday shopping this year. If we all agree that the "glass ceiling", for instance, is an insulting reality for our bright and powerful sisters, let's make sure that we don't inadvertently contribute to gender role indoctrination while stuffing Susie's stocking.

Instead, buy her the train set. Give Billy the toy blender. If Bobby wants a doll, give him one. Don't let his grandparents cluck their tongues and shoot you disapproving glances when sister Ashley squeals over her toy workbench. Dress her in pink only if she LIKES pink. Let her wear her brother's hand-me-downs and don't worry about whether or not there's a spare ribbon to put in her hair so as not to confuse folks at the mall.

By all means, get the Bubble Mower if your son wants it. Just make sure your daughter knows it's for her, too. Little efforts like this accumulate over the years, and help shape their perceptions of Who Does What. Wouldn't it be great if, by the time they encounter starkly defined gender roles as young adults, they're so alien to them as to be laughable. Then imagine the world such a generation will create.

19 comments:

tmp00 said...

Jesus- do they still do that?

It is 2005, isn't it?

Geo_Chick said...

I had a girl, then a boy. I got my girl toys from both sections of those books. I have to say, she really just ignored the boy ones and loved the girl ones. Those poor ignored toys were found by my son years later and were his favorites, while those from the girl section sat ignored by him. These were kids under 2. The main playmate my son had was his sister who really wanted him to play dolls. He just wanted to play with the cars. I can't explain it, and until I had my kids I would have had a hard time believing it. But as soon as they could make choices, they largely stuck to the supposedly 'gender appropriate' selections. Not to say there was never any cross over. My son convinced my daughter to play house with the hot-wheels cars standing in for dolls. My daughter got my son to play with dress-up and barbies. But when given the choice they stuck to their 'sections' almost always.

For those who wonder, I am not the kind of mom who didn't want to my son to be girly or vise versa. We all paint our toe nails together (Sarah has pink polish and he has green or blue; colors they selected) for example. My husband and I share the chores, so our kids are getting a very broad view of gender identity. But I must admit that nature plays a huge role in such things. Nurture pushes those boundries, but nature kicked in so early I was really surprised.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

In the resulting discussion of this over at MLW, some folks have had the same to say. Conversely, there have been others that run toward the opposite. I don't deny that genetics predispose us to certain things by any means. I do think, however, that there's no need for us amplify those inclinations simply out of habit and cultural norms.

Geo_Chick said...

Trust me, that I don't do that. I really do provide all sorts of toys both kids can play with. And I don't ever tell my kids that is to girly or boyish. But I let them have a lot of free will. When toy shopping, making x-mas/b-day lists, or choosing from what is already at home, THEY choose that way. I don't reinforce it. In fact I encourage them to try things from across the gender. We have a small vacuum that the kids have to take turns with. But Sarah likes it to pretend to be a grown-up, and Shady likes the racing engine sound. Even in similiar toy selection motivations show thru.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

I didn't mean to suggest you did, just expanding on my view...

Geo_Chick said...

I know you have an idea of my parenting style, having seen it in action. But I was expanding more for your other blog addicts.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

Gotcha.

Lily said...

Well I think my son was pretty happy playing barbie AND trucks, and we didn't really read too much into the notion of what is a girl or boy toy, and figure the more we talk about them that way the more we reinforce it. In our chaotic household toys are toys, the person best able to do laundry does it, and so on. But as my son grows up he does seem to be drawn with little influence to things that make noise, are mechanical (like trains) and while I try to be conscious of gender stereotypes and that sort of thing, my concern is more about the materialism and sense of entitlement derived from accumulating toys. I try to think more now about if a toy is actually good or if its just another plastic stupid thing that they slapped a picture onto of 'Dora the Explorer".
Toys are a tough subject for me, I love to give and know that 'stuff' makes them happy but I also am concerned about non-material enjoyment too. The holidays can really be ruined by consumerism and commercials if we let it- the shopping, the standing on line, the pressure. Who needs it?
A suggestion for those with kids a bit older- try something like "adopt a raptor" or injured animal, or Audubon's "adopt a puffin' in addition to the mountain of plastic shit this December. Link holidays to more than gifts.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

I can't agree enough. I've always admired familes that stress the value of homemade over store-bought gifts, and it's something I look forward to doing with the little man when he's old enough.
You're absolutely right -- the entitlement I see smeared all over some teenagers faces is absolutely appaling, and you know it doesn't just turn up over night. Someone recently told me of a tradition in which each family member gets just one gift per person, which forces those choices to be truly meaningful, I think. In my own extended family, presents were only allowed for kids; adults simply didn't exchange them for many years. Granted, this was based on financial concerns we all had, but it certainly broke our mindless gift shopping habits and let us focus on what really matters about the holidays -- togetherness.

Geo_Chick said...

See I agree with not too many toys, but I have this brother that works at Mattel. Last year the kids wrote him a letter instead of Santa. He spoils em. But for every thing they get they have to let something else go. We donate things to classrooms, shelters, friends, and charities. We do talk about how some kids don't have hardly any toys. My daughter gets it, she's 9. But my 6 year old son has a harder time. I agree there is too much consumerism involved in the holidays. In my family the adults each draw a name for the gift exhange. We each get one present. Everyone wants to get something for the kids though. I work hard to try to prevent that sense of entitlement. So far it feels like it is working, but only time will tell.

Renee said...

Andrea and I had this discussion yesterday. We are giving all the kids this year personalized children's books. So when it came time to decide who gets which book, Andrea wanted the boys to get Batman, Dinosaur, and sports books, and the girls were to receive Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc. I told her we should peg gender roles, yet we went ahead and did exactly that.

Why? We want our presents to be the most popular?

Bill Ziemer said...

The first day of preschool, Shayden came home doing the gun thing. He had no idea what a gun was, but dang it was fun! The peer conditioning kicks in hard and early. The preschool actively discouraged such play, but to no avail.

Lily said...

Or maybe you have a broad perspective, considering many concerns, and realize that gender toys are only a small part of the sexism/gender picture and simply try to focus your energy on some other concerns, like listening when the kids talk, encouraging them to have plans and goals, fostering their curiosity. Now I can preach like any other hippie about organics and consumerism, but in all honesty- showing love and respect to other adults and being a good model of values is much more important than which toys the kids play with anyway.They learn what they live. My little girl talks about "conditional pacifism" at the dinner table for a reason. She is included in the conversation, instead of tv shaping her world view. She is important enough to sit and talk to, listen to.
I mean not to minimize the power of indoctrination, and certainly as I stated try to be mindful of stereotypes and too many damned toys.. But acting like a fanatic, always second guessing, screeching about the toxins ALL the time projects a negative world view. I say sisters, do the best you can this Christmas/non specified holiday season.
I say focus less on contriving play and more on getting down on the floor, making those messes, playing with those barbies and trucks. Show them they are loved and valued, versus teaching them that it is demonstrated by what comes in a box.
More harm comes from the way we mothers trash each other in front of our girls!!

Cantankerous Bitch said...

::hooting & hollering from the choir::
Right on, Lily.

Bill Ziemer said...

Absatively posilutely!! On a related note,
peer group conformity is also a powerful motivator. Shayden came home from the first day of preschool (9-11am) and was all excited about playing guns. The preschool actively discouraged such play, but there you go.

Lily said...

My boy found a sword on the playground, and was ecstatic- this from our little nonviolent home without weapons. He was so happy to FINALLY 'play violence'. Then a kid's dad pulled up to retrieve the forgotten toy.
Point is, many kids grow up with 'issues' because we try to do the right thing and restrict these bad things. I was not allowed junk food, and so it took on a disproportionate importance to have candy, etc. Kids need to learn moderation and self control from somewhere. I still hate violent play, but hate tight ass parents more that scrub down every little thing and transfer their control issues.
Some reading on Montessori-style learning and cooperative play helps.

Renee said...

Well said, lilly.

Lily said...

I don't know why but I love that picture of tmp up there ^ Its like he's peering at me.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

He is.

Be good.