The Gendered Message In Big Box Toy Stores

With the holiday season once again upon us, big box stores are filling up with the familiar faces of spazzed-out shoppers rushing to finish buying gifts for their lists of friends and loved ones. It’s a time of stress and rabid consumerism, but also of family, merriment, and celebration. I like this time of year. I always feel warm and fuzzy throughout the month of December. I like putting the lights up on the eaves of the house, coming home after a long day to a beautiful tree in the living room, and sitting down with a cup of hot chocolate after two hours of shovelling the driveway. I like joining my family, putting our differences aside, and enjoying one another’s company. Yes, I like this time of year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have issues with it. You see, the holiday season is a time when we promote togetherness. The spoken message is charity, love, and unity. Why is it, then, that we blindly accept the message of difference, division, and gendered expectations sent to our children by the big box toy stores?

Now, I am aware that opinions like the one I’m about give are not appreciated this time of year. I’m used to being confronted by people who just hate it when somebody kills the mood with the truth, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. I value our future too much to remain silent on the subject of what I consider to be a borderline abusive message being sent to our children. I understand that you may have never questioned the expectations placed on gender because it has always just been “the way it is;” but the truth is that genitalia does not dictate behaviour, no matter what some psychologists may claim. The ideas we have about what it means to be male and female are so demonstrably … well … stupid … yet big box toy stores continue to push them. The cultural landscape is changing and gender lines are starting to blur, but this won’t happen the way it should if we don’t all work together for it.

I’m really getting tired of walking into toy stores to be immediately assaulted with distinctly gendered separations. Big box toy stores, at least the ones I’m familiar with, are great places to go if you want to see where the ideas of difference and discrimination begin. As soon as your 3-year-old walks into the toy store with you, they learn that boys and girls are supposed to like different things, different colours, and different types of play. Science toys, trucks, cars, things that are blue, etc are in the “boys” section. Easy-bake ovens, toy brooms and vacuums, things that are bright pink, etc are in the “girls” section. Even Lego drank the cool-aid, adding to their traditional “boy” lego kits with the new pink, light grey, and totally lame “girl” lego.

What are we telling our kids?! Why is it that anybody you ask will say they believe in equality, but will have no problem walking into a big box toy store and just accepting the harmful message it sends? Boys are supposed to be tough, rugged, like machines, science, math, blue, black, and dark colours. They’re supposed to enjoy getting dirty, preferring outdoor toys, and let’s not forget action figures (heaven forbid they should be called “dolls”). Girls are supposed to be dainty, fragile, like cooking, cleaning, hair products, make-up, pink, and other light colours. They’re supposed to enjoy being inside doing domestic things and taking care of children, preferring kitchen sets, and lets not forget dolls (heaven forbid they should be called “action figures”). The toy store sends this message loud and clear, and takes it even further by separating the boys and girls sections at opposite ends, often kept apart by a baby section in the middle. The message to kids is not only that boys and girls are different, but that their interests are incompatible. In other words, it’s all set up to make the little girl in the G.I. Joe aisle feel out-of-place, and the little boy in the Barbie aisle feel the same way. The little boy who likes dolls is seen as abnormal, effeminate, weak. The little girl who likes G.I. Joe is called a “tomboy.” This isn’t harmless. If your child is being led to believe that everything they are drawn to is abnormal, what do you think is going to happen? Do you think they’ll just grow out of it and carry on? If you do, you should know that a mountain of recent evidence disagrees with you.

This message isn’t exclusive to in-store marketing. For as long as I can remember, it’s also been widely distributed in the form of a ‘wish book,’ printed and sent out by a big box store that shall remain nameless. The wish book was a big part of my holidays as a child. I never saw anything inherently wrong with it, but how many parents have sat down at the table with their children and said things like “oh, you don’t want the Barbie, Frederick, look at these nice yellow trucks,” or “oh Jane, that’s a boys toy. How about this princess kitchen set?” I’m not suggesting here that parents have a sinister intent to promote these divisive ideals to their children, but as the world changes and moves toward acceptance, perhaps we should be thinking about it. The companies marketing and selling these toys are certainly not innocent. They know exactly what they’re doing, and shame on them for keeping our heads in the chaotic and divisive status quo.

Many girls, of course, love princesses, Barbie, and pink everything. Many boys love trucks, space craft lego kits, and G.I. Joe. The point is that every child should be allowed to freely engage in their personal interests, free from criticism or ridicule. Why create division, when it would be just as easy to bring the toys together and market them without gender suggestion? The strategy wouldn’t have to identify any specific agenda, just drop the “for boys” and “for girls” stuff. Lead by example, eventually people will follow. Our children learn from everything they see, everything they experience, everything they hear. How many more generations do we want to give this message to? The divisive ideas that breed hate often appear benign and innocent, but they start very early in our childhood.

Whatever you celebrate this time of year – Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, etc – let’s give our kids gifts that appeal to them personally. Not because of their gender, but because of who they are as people.

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