Emma Cowing: Gender stereotype toys make me blue

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NOT long ago, I found myself trawling through a gift website searching for a present for a friend who had given birth to a boy. Clicking on what I thought was the baby page, I took one look at it, shook my head, and clicked through.

It wasn’t until later on that I realised the reason I had been so dismissive was because I had accidentally landed on the gift page for baby girls, and everything on it was pink.

I like to think of myself as a reasonably liberal, enlightened feminist, but here, I had been caught out. If it was pink, I had thought to myself, it couldn’t possibly be for a boy.

These days, it is increasingly hard to buy a gift for a child that is not one of two colours – blue or pink. Take a stroll down any supermarket toy aisle or, if you can bear the racket, round any of the many toy stores now squatting on the high street, and you will come across the same demarcation. One shelf is pink, another shelf is blue, and never the twain shall meet.

Yet, perhaps one of the most shocking things about this gender stereotyping of toys for children is that it is actually a modern phenomenon. A campaign group called Let Toys Be Toys recently posted some pictures comparing girls’ toys of the 1970s with those of today. The older toys, which nevertheless included classic “girl” playthings such as prams, dolls houses and cooking sets, were every colour of the rainbow. A selection of similar toys for girls on the market today were relentlessly, violently pink.

One of the campaign’s founders, 44-year-old mother and copywriter Tricia Lowther, said recently: “What pushed me to make a stand was the realisation, after my daughter was born, that gender stereotyping in children’s products had become worse than when I was a child myself back in the 1970s. It’s something that has become almost impossible to escape and is very limiting for children.”

When I was a child growing up in the 1980s, I had a penchant for cars (I still do, although the ones I favour now are a tad more expensive), and remember being a huge fan of a blue garage with lots of “boy” coloured cars in blue and red. I don’t remember having a lot of pink in my life, and given its sickly sweetness and the fact I wasn’t particularly “girly”, suspect I would have rejected it anyway. It is perhaps no coincidence that, as an adult, my favourite colour is blue.

One of the things that concerns me about the relentless gender stereotyping around today is the absence of choice that it affords. In the past, parents could buy toys in every shade of the rainbow and children had a choice. Now, the boundary is so strong, there are many little girls out there who have probably never played with a toy that isn’t pink, and boys who think they are only allowed to play with toys that are blue.

There is also the astounding notion, prevalent in many children’s toys on the market, that boys want science sets, adventure games and cars, while girls want kitchen sets, make-up and dolls. I’m not sure what message this sends to the children who receive these gifts, but I’m pretty sure it’s not one we want our children to take to heart if we have any desire for them to grow up in a world that is more interested in equality than marking human beings out by their gender.

A couple of years ago, a Canadian couple attracted opprobrium when they announced that they would leave it up to their child Storm to “decide” what gender he or she wanted to be, and refused to tell anyone what sex the baby was. It seemed a cruel and unusual way to act out your frustrations against society on a defenceless baby who cares not a jot either way.

But while this is perhaps the ultimate example of “taking something too far”, there is a lesson to be learned here. Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner, Tam Baillie, is a huge advocate of listening to children – and points out that it is something we do not do nearly enough of in modern life.

Girls and boys only play with pink and blue toys respectively because it is what they are given, what lines the supermarket shelves and what they see their older brothers and sisters playing with.

Gender stereotyping is an artificial construct –something invented by adults, for adult consumers, that ignores the needs of the child. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we can put a stop to it.