Pirates & Princesses

28th November 2014

In the 65 years since Lego went on sale, those ubiquitous bricks have been made into pirate ships, castles and space shuttles, sent myriad parents hunting under their sofas, and even sparked theme parks and a film. There have been sets celebrating everything from Middle Earth to Pirates of the Caribbean – and now, around a Research Institute.

Launched last summer, Research Institute prompted headlines everywhere, because – featuring female scientists, palaeontologists and astronomers – it was aimed squarely at girls. That may not sound radical, but it’s far from the norm.

For these days, manufacturers make toys for boys or girls, but rarely both, and they’re sold at toystores in designated blue or pink aisles. So while a y chromosome means action figures, an x brings glitter, pink sequins and the suggestion that a tiara is the ultimate goal. Only this week 7-year-old Maggie Cole from Dorset pointed out to Tesco that flagging Superhero alarm clocks as ‘fun toys for boys’ was ‘stupid’. Tesco agreed, apologised and removed the sign from all its stores. The fact that it was there at all illustrates the problem perfectly.

“It’s incredibly toxic,” says Sue Palmer, author of parenting book Toxic Childhood. “Go on Amazon and you see racks of princess dresses, and then racks of superhero outfits.”

“This weekend at Toys R Us, I saw a pink Monopoly set,” agrees new father Craig. “Apparently, it’s for girls, based around buying boutiques. It’s hateful.” And, he suggests, a far cry from his 1980s childhood, when many toys were unisex. “You didn’t get so many pink cookers.”

Lego Research Institute; used by permission ® 2014 The LEGO Group

Even Lego, feted for their latest product, still sell the pinkified Lego Friends, inviting your daughter to play games like ‘Butterfly Beauty Shop’. Forty years ago they were including pamphlets in their kits with a message to parents warning against gender stereotyping: ‘To parents... The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s imagination that counts… A lot of boys like dolls houses. They're more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They're more exciting than dolls houses. The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.’

Professor Becky Francis, a researcher into the educational value of toys, traces the start of “the ubiquitous princess sparkle pink thing” back to the explosion of child-centric television channels in the 1990s, offering advertisers a captive audience. Nowadays, there are also children’s websites, apps, and the increasingly common film tie-ins, for advertisers to work with.

As a result, this ‘pink versus blue, princess versus soldier’ message, which says that girls should play with one sort of toy and boys another, is everywhere. And it sticks, among children and parents alike. “We’re at the stage where if boys like pink everyone is convinced they’re gay when they’re about four,” sighs Palmer.

Hertfordshire mum Rebecca Carruthers blames “aggressive” advertising for the fact that her children – five and three - already know what constitutes ‘girls’ toys’ and ‘boys’ toys’. Her son likes pink, she says, but “won’t play with the toys as they are in the ‘Girl’ section of the toy-store”.

The fact that we now live in an age of gender-divided toys leaves campaigners from worthy-sounding groups like Let Toys be Toys seething. But beyond the fact that fewer hand-me-downs from girl to boy siblings leave parents out of pocket, does it matter? After all, children seem content to play this way, so perhaps the divide is based on something real.

Carruthers acknowledges that manufacturers are in part responding to what children want. “It is based on something meaningful,” she agrees. “Or at least it was. Historically girls were drawn towards toys that showed mothering attributes, and boys were drawn to toys that let them be heroes.”

Even now, says Dr Ellie Lee, Director of Canterbury University’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, children respond to the stereotypes. “My daughter likes pink things and princess dressing-up and my son likes Spiderman. They have fun with it. I can see why people get irritated when you go into toyshops and the pink-blue thing is ubiquitous. But I can’t get all hot under the collar about it”

In any case, says Lee, children have to make sense of the world, and toys can help think about being a boy or a girl. “Inevitably they do so by putting things into categories,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

But campaigners argue that kids are getting a false understanding of the differences between the genders, since girls don’t naturally prefer pink to blue, or sequins to soldiers. As Francis points out, in non-Western countries where this distinction isn’t as pervasive, children don’t respond to it.

In her view, advertisers have convinced children what they should like, so that’s what they ask for, ultimately lining the pockets of opportunistic toy-makers. “The manufacturer response is always this is just what kids want,” says Francis derisively. “Well, drug pushers say that.”

Megan, of Let Toys be Toys, points out that very young children – before they are susceptible to outside influences – play with a range of toys. “As they grow socialised they start to behave in a way they think will please adults,” she says. Her gripe is that the different toys – with their distinct colours and themes – tell girls they should behave one way and boys another.

“Girls are encouraged to be quiet, beautiful and focused on the home; boys are told they should be strong, brave and adventurous,” says Megan. “When you look at which toys are assigned to which gender it perpetuates gender stereotypes.” And not just for girls; as Equalities Minister Jenny Willott noted earlier this year, it is “equally unfair” to make little boys feel ashamed of playing with dolls.

Perhaps more importantly, Megan’s concern is that through their different toys, the genders learn different skills, with long-lasting consequences. Boys’ toys tend to involve more instruction and thus active learning, while girls’ toys emphasise creative play, giving them particular cognitive skills,” explains Francis. This affects potentially later school choices, she adds, arguing this is one factor in why girls frequently opt out of science subjects.

While it sounds fanciful – how could the pinkification of a girl’s toybox possibly impact her career, when she probably won’t remember what she played with? – the decline in women pursuing careers in science and engineering has coincided with the expansion of gendered toys. Speaking in Parliament, MP and former engineer Chi Onwurah warned that “society socialises girls away” from these professions via “pink and patronising” toys.

But there’s no proof the two are linked; that playing with Lego Friends rather than Research Institute will script the life of a girl in any long-term sense. “Loads of things impact more strongly on decisions about what to study than toys,” says Lee, suggesting that the educational view that boys and girls learn in fundamentally different ways is equally relevant.

In any case, she says, what child plays according to the picture on the packaging? “You can buy Lego Friends, but it all ends up mixed up in a box.”

In her view, the debate misses the point. Put aside the debate about pink toys, and you’ll see women outpacing men at university, or in fields like medicine. “Women are now in a completely different position. It’s probably why people find the pink-blue thing so weird.”

Yet campaigners see de-gendering toys as a crucial step in the drive for equality. “I find it ironic that despite progress in other areas this seems to have almost got worse,” says Francis. That parents are still throwing ‘princess and pirate’ parties’ is “depressingly regressive,” she sighs.

Ultimately, she’d like to see manufacturers accept a social responsibility to expand horizons rather than narrow them – or be required to by law. Already, in Sweden adverts must show girls and boys playing with every toy.

Yet with an election coming up, it’s hard to see any British party jumping on board that bandwagon. And despite a scattering of victories won by Let Toys be Toys over particularly egregious cases of pink-blue marketing, manufacturers are unlikely to stop advertising Barbies to girls and trucks to boys. After all, until parents vote with their feet, where’s the incentive?

For those who want to desegregate the toybox, hope rests on wider numbers of parents taking up the fight, and resisting pester-power from children. Yet even that is a long shot. “The difficulty comes in giving children genuine choice, free from outside influences telling them what a girl or boy ‘should’ like,” points out Megan. But she’s not giving up.

“All we’re asking for is if you’re selling a book about fairies, call it that, not ‘stories for girls’,” she says. “If you’re selling a science kit, show a boy and a girl on the box.”

Now that Lego have made the first move, perhaps that’s not such an impossible dream.

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