By Christina Hoff Sommers
If you are thinking of giving your daughter a Hello Kitty tea set or your son a Transformer, you may want to reconsider. There is a growing movement to abolish the pink-blue divide in children’s toys. It began with a few fringe Internet activists, but has gained steam.
Last year Target announced it would remove gender labeling in its toy aisles. This spring the White House hosted a day-long summit on the hazards of boys’ and girls’ toys. Gender-specific play apparently limits a child’s life prospects and may even endanger the nation’s economic future. Could that be right?
Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama, opened the White House gathering by reminding participants that “changing culture is not necessarily easy and doesn’t happen overnight, but we can do it if we work together.” Scholars and activists committed to Jarrett’s vision shared their findings and insights. Representatives from companies such as Mattel, Disney, and Lego were present as well. Their role was to absorb the lessons and to explain how they planned to help break down gender stereotypes so “children could dream without limits.”
This summit was not a response to public outcry. In a 2015 market survey, only 28 percent of Americans agreed that “The toy industry perpetuates gender stereotypes and should be marketing every toy to both boys and girls.” But public opinion may be changing. Among millennials, 40 percent agreed.
Children Are Not Gender-Neutral
The media is full of excited stories heralding the revolution in children’s play. This recent headline in Time is typical: “The Next Generation of Kids Will Play With Gender Neutral Toys.” But children are not gender-neutral, and they famously resist efforts to make them so. If 40 percent of millennials think otherwise, that’s probably because they haven’t had kids yet.
Parents and teachers should certainly expose their kids to a wide range of toys and play, and teach them to accept kids who enjoy gender non-conforming toys. When toy companies rigidly classify certain toys as girl-only or boy-only, that may create a stigma against those who cross the line. Overt signage is superfluous anyway. So let’s hope other retailers follow Target’s example.
But the crusade promoted by the White House is not about tolerance for non-conformers. Its goal is to re-socialize the majority of gender-typical children toward gender neutrality. Jarret is right that it won’t be easy. With few exceptions, children are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play.
Parents who read too much Judith Butler in college and view gender as fluid and malleable may be startled by the counterevidence their three-year-olds provide. The usually eloquent Julia Turner, editor of Slate, became tongue-tied a few weeks ago when she tried to explain a mysterious development at home: Her little twin sons were obsessed with wheeled objects—particularly cement mixers. Parenthood, she confessed, had “complicated” her worldview. Turner kept affirming her loyalty to the gender-is-a-social-construct school. But then, referring to her sons’ insistent boyishness, she uttered four heretical words: “There’s a there there…”
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