Gendered Toys: A Matter of Balance

Yes, an educated parent might choose a toy that is gendered and possibly unequal to other similar toys for the opposite gender; but this isn't always a bad thing.

“This is the kind of daughter I aspire to raise,” a friend recently posted on Facebook alongside a link to an article in the New York Times. This friend and I have known each other since junior high and high school where, as part of our single-sex education, we were initiated into the rites of feminism by some of the original activists of its 'second-wave.' So even though there were 43 other pressing things on my list that hour, I clicked.

The article, Saying No To Picture Perfect, was an inspiring report on a group of young women known as SPARK: Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge. According to the Times, Spark was founded in 2010 by college professors as a "girl-fueled activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media.”

"Hurray", I cheered, "feminism isn’t a dying cause after all!"

Because of letters and signatures by women as young as 14, SPARK recently crashed the website of Seventeen Magazine with a request that they include at least one photo spread in every issue that’s not digitally retouched. Because of SPARK, according to the Times, “Vogue pledged to no longer use models who "appear to have an eating disorder." In February, Glamour pledged to ask its photographers not to manipulate its models' body sizes.”

"Way to go girls," my heart sang.

SPARK’s latest campaign even took on a new line of Lego products for girls called Friends, which includes sets for building a hair salon and cupcake shop.

Screech! The cheering stopped, and in it’s place the silence in my brain was deafening.

They couldn’t be talking about the same Friends Lego set I just recently got my 5-year-old on the advice of a friend whose daughter spends hours on them, could they?

"Your new Friends marketing campaign is not only insulting and condescending, but it is dangerous," the group wrote in its letter to Lego. "This is not about the color of your building blocks," the letter said. "It's about your distorted notion that, in order to buy Lego, girls need messages about the value of shopping, clubbing, baking and tanning.”

Oh, yep, that Friends Lego set, one and the same. I had to laugh at the irony. Here I was, a sworn Waldorf, Simplicity Parenting parent, the one who rarely buys toys for her kids and if I do they are hardly ever plastic, and almost never 'scripted.' But not only had I broken these rules, but I had done so with one of the few toys being targeted by a group of feminists I really respected.

Of course I took the Lego set back right away, teary protests and all, right? Wrong. No, what I did do, for one brief shining moment, was use my analytic brain to break down what was really going on. In reality, in a house with cars and dolls, trucks and ball-gowns, blocks, silks, little media, and a big back-yard, this toy was a fish out of water, not the norm. What’s more, it was balanced out by parents whose entire lives were examples of gender equality and imaginative thinking. In reality, this toy was not a problem for us.

On the flipside, my 5-year-old had started to shy away from most Lego play as she got older and had little any interest in the fields of transportation, aliens, or weaponry that most of their more complicated sets encompass—even though she’s been given full access to such toys if she so chooses (OK, maybe not the weaponry so much, so sue me). But now that she has a pretty pink set to build a restaurant with, she’s hooked.

We could debate all year on whether or not she was socially programmed to choose this set, even without the TV and movies many kids are raised on. But what is not up for debate, at least for me, is whether or not the play that’s resulted from these Legos has been beneficial. I could have gotten caught up in how gendered this toy was and never offered it to her. Similarly, I could’ve balked based on my usual concerns about not providing too much 'scripted' playtime (there is really only one way to build these things to look like the picture on the box, which is what she wants to do with them.)

Instead, I chose to focus on balance and flexibility and try out something new. The results have been terrific. Because she can’t totally assemble these things by herself yet, this toy has given my daughter another fun activity to do with a parent or grandparent and without her sibling—just for her. Also, it gives her a chance to continue to develop fine motor skills, and by digesting the visual directions it’s introduced a totally new aspect of spatial relationships. Even more importantly, she loves it and it’s fun! The look on her face when we finish a big portion, alone, is proof.

But as I’ve said, this is an issue of balance for me. If this was the only kind of toy I bought or exposed my daughter too, perhaps I could see SPARK’s point. Of course this is only true if the rest of the toy companies do not follow suit, but that would be unlikely in a market with educated consumers like myself.

So what I’d like SPARK to recognize is the role of the parent here. The only way Lego is limiting my daughter’s worldview to be a consumerist and sexist one, is if I let them. Thanks but no thanks guys, this parent has been raised on the notion of free-will and the power of choice. So, my plea to the feminist movement that was so instrumental in teaching me these values is to remember that in the end, a parent with the power to see the big picture and provide some balance, may be wiser than you think. So, please, never underestimate a woman’s power to choose.


Tanya Jones June 02, 2012 at 01:33 PM
My daughter has a pink Lego castle, princesses, princes, fairies and all, apparently carriages and horses are not sufficient in this day and age so her brother's cars are used to transport the Royal Family via his car carpet to the village made out of his Lego blocks.


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