Juliet Dunlop: Gender neutral toys a gift

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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GOOD news gift givers! Buying a present for your, or someone else’s, little treasure, is about to become a whole lot easier.

Soon, and not before time, selecting a toy will no longer pose a post-feminist conundrum wrapped up in a gender-specific moral dilemma. Toys will just be toys.

Phew. I’m glad we have that one cracked.

Or they have at Marks and Spencer, at least. The retailer – not exactly known for its trendsetting ways – announced this week that it was finally making all its toys “gender-neutral” after customers complained about a range of products called “Boys Stuff”.

If you haven’t perused the aisles in a while, this particular range contains the sort of stuff that most boys would indeed love: cars, planes, a dinosaur hunting kit and a fire station. The range aimed at girls meanwhile – the “Little Miss Arty” collection – offers a selection of fairies, princesses, other pink sundries and a handbag decoration kit. So far, so obvious.

Now I’m no expert on toys, or kids for that matter, but having canvassed the opinion of a couple of fairly picky little blighters, I think we can safely say that both collections hold a certain appeal for their intended recipients. As toys go, they’re harmless, inexpensive stocking-fillers. It’s us, the adults, who have a problem with them. Toys have become complicated and loaded with meaning.

In the 80s and 90s we were worried about golliwogs and guns. We’re still worried about racism and violence, only we’re worried about sexism too, hence the sudden change of heart at Marks and Spencer.

I am pleased that the bellwether of the high street has chosen not to rely on lazy stereotyping to ruthlessly target small children and their harassed parents. That would obviously be terribly unfair (a bit like putting brightly coloured packets of sweets next to the till – at buggy level). But the truth is, we all make judgments based on gender.

Little boys like Spiderman and Lego; little girls like Barbie and fairies – or at least they do at some point. It’s inevitable. The argument about whether that’s social conditioning, peer pressure or just biology, is fascinating and ongoing.

Certainly, we’re right to question the sort of gimmickry that shops employ to sell us things. But the way I see it, this so-called re-branding is really just a clever marketing exercise in itself. Marks and Spencer will go on selling the same toys, only the packaging will be slightly different and the boy-girl divide less obvious. The name “Boy’s Stuff” will be replaced by a logo, while the “Little Miss Arty” range will become ‘Poppy and Blue’ and a bit less girly. Satisfied? Not really? Storm in a small, plastic teacup?

You could argue that this was never about the toys anyway. That it’s all about the labelling setting boundaries and preferences, limiting choices based on outdated notions.

And that explains why some of us get so annoyed by crude generalisations about what children like and don’t like. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign has been putting pressure on retailers to stop marketing toys based on gender, and Tesco, Toys R Us, Next and Boots have already altered the way they present products. It would be interesting to know what impact this has had on what children want and adults buy.

But the good news is, the toys we’re given as children are unlikely to do any lasting damage. I can remember how I pleaded with my parents for a little wooden cooker. It was a thing of beauty: the oven lit up, the knobs clicked as they turned and four small pans sat snugly on the pretend hob. It may even have come with a pinny. Yet as an adult, I have been known to store books in the oven and prefer the ping of the microwave to slaving over the proverbial hot stove. Equally, few boys turn out to be hot-shot shot racing drivers. I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Perhaps if the planes were pink and the fairies were dressed in camouflage gear everyone would be happy. In the meantime, go “gender-neutral” by all means, only don’t buy the little dears a chemistry set. I had one of those. It ended in disaster.