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When the boys were younger they really wanted an Easy Bake Oven. They would stand in the aisle at Target and discuss the things they would bake with the same awe and imagination that previously existed only a few rows over, lost in the rambling dreams of building blocks and galaxies far, far away.
"Why is it for girls?" they asked. Every. Single. Time.
"It's not," I would respond. "It's for anyone that wants to play with it. My sister had one when we were little, and I used to play with it."
"Your sister," they would say as if I had made their point. "She's a girl."
They were right. The toy was clearly packaged for girls, or at least what the marketing department thought of them. The images on the box played heavily upon pink and purple stereotypes, the smiles of fashionable little girls and the promise of heart-shaped cookies.
Pan back and the aisle itself was one that many boys feared to tread, mostly because we—marketers, society—told them to fear it, laced as it was in more of the same and covered in pails of glitter.
My sons were right in the mix, throwing caution to the wind and bracelets to anyone who wanted one—their smiles as wide as every girl in the commercial.
The next row was no better, despite it over-correcting into a modern day "He-Man Womun Haters Club," full of prepubescent testosterone and booger jokes. The only thing missing were cans of Axe Body Spray covered in superheroes, overpaid athletes and fake wrestlers.
The line was clear and obvious: there are boy toys and girl toys, and never the two shall meet.
I tried to convince my boys that gender had nothing to do with an Easy Bake Oven, even going so far as to place one in the shopping cart on several occasions. But we always stopped short of the purchase.
They weren't afraid of what people might think about the implied audacity that stems from crossing gender aisles, rather the honest belief that they weren't allowed to play with it. They thought my words of equality were an open act of rebellion against the rules of society—rules enforced by everything they encountered in pop culture and the markets that catered to it. They were afraid that playing with a known "girl toy" would get them in some sort of trouble.
"It's just a piece of plastic and a light bulb," I told them. "Nobody is going to care if you play with it."
They refused to believe me.
So we went home and their mother and I taught them how to use the real oven. We made banana bread and cookies from scratch. We even brought the stove into the act, and, frankly, we were all the better for it.
Kids can do anything, and the last thing they need is some toy suggesting that they can't.
As we built our baked goods with hands and flour, we tore at the lazy fabric of society, the constructed defining of future generations and the constant enforcement of outdated thought. Why encourage children to accept divisions and implied differences, when it is so much easier to provide them with options and the freedom to make choices for themselves based upon their own tastes and interests? Tomorrow might be a whole lot better if we would quit trying to mold it into yesterday (then bake it under a light bulb for 20 minutes).
Thankfully, by the time Rainbow Loom stormed the schoolyard the kids had moved far beyond the pressures of packaging, despite that product pulling out every trick in the stereotype handbook. The interactive toy allows kids to construct all kinds of stuff from small rubber bands and became a huge hit for boys and girls. My sons were right in the mix, throwing caution to the wind and bracelets to anyone who wanted one—their smiles as wide as every girl in the commercial.
It might have been the study of sales or it may have been a stand on the matter by President Obama at a toy drive last Christmas, but companies are finally starting to move forward and change the way they market to children. With it, they're alleviating the engrained repercussions of stereotypes, like doubt and insecurity, not to mention the overt denial of fun. The online retail giant Amazon recently made a decision to stop listing toys by gender. And now Target has done the same.
It is much appreciated.
Kids can do anything, and the last thing they need is some toy suggesting that they can't. After all, there is far too much at play for that.