Earlier this month, the White House convened
a day-long conference on breaking down gender stereotypes in media and in
toys. Sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department
of Education and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the
University of Southern California, the conference focused on exposing children
to "diverse role models and … a variety of
skills so they can develop their talents and pursue their passions without
limits, and so that we as a nation can meet the needs of our economy in the
It's a welcome goal in an era when we still have to deal with the cultural reality of gendered toys.
Young girls, in particular, stand
to thrive under the central ideas discussed during the White House conference. Instead
of delimiting girls' realities to kitchen sets and doll babies—or
to terrible messaging about how they're "too pretty to do homework"—we
should broaden their horizons to include toys that stimulate interest in STEM
fields. This seems like a painfully obvious goal.
But what might not be so obvious
is that boys stand to benefit just as much from all this breaking down of
gender stereotypes. It's not only girls who have a lot to gain from playing
with traditionally gendered "boy toys." Boys stand to gain a lot from playing with
traditionally-gendered "girl toys," too.
Dismantling gender stereotypes isn't simply about exposing children to diverse role models.
1. Fairy gardens
Perhaps hipster twee-worship had
something to do with the rising popularity of fairy gardens. But outdated
gender stereotypes have everything to do with the relegation of many fairy garden
toys to the "girl aisle."
Fairy gardens, however, are a
perfect toy for any child, regardless of their reproductive organs. In fact,
one of my sons spent an entire summer creating over a half-dozen fairy gardens,
each one composed of a blend of succulent plants and whimsical little fairy
"Really?" someone asked me at the
time. "Fairy gardens? For boys?"
Yes, really. Fairy gardens are for
boys. Fairy gardens are for girls. They're for all people. They're part
horticulture, part design: part botany, part beauty.
And who doesn't love a toy that
blends science and art?
Dismantling gender stereotypes isn't
simply about exposing children to diverse role models. It's also about giving
children the space to model different types of work and behavior.
Dolls give boys the opportunity to
do just that. They can practice tenderness, infant care and all acts of
parenting, broadly speaking.
In fact, giving boys dolls might
be one important step in dismantling the stereotype of the incompetent, bumbling
father who's too
dumb to change a diaper.
3. Rey action figures
This very specific toy faced a very
specific problem following the release of "The Force Awakens": It didn't exist.
Or at least it seemed that way.
The assumptions that fed into toy
companies' decisions to leave Rey out of their games and action figure
collections were as diverse as they were disappointing: Little boys don't want
to play with female action figures. Girls don't play with action figures. Boys
and girls won't notice or care if Rey is missing.
The toy companies were wrong, of
course. "Where's Rey?" became a sort of battle cry among parents and children
alike, even prompting a popular #wheresrey hashtag.
Ameliorating these inequalities shouldn't just start with people who already have children. It can, and should, start with children themselves.
But beyond Rey—a toy that
represents a woman who is strong, fierce and wickedly smart— children deserve
an even wider range of action figures, including but not limited to more women,
more disabled people and more people of color.
When marginalized people are
represented in the toys that we make available to our children, we expand our
children's imaginations and broaden their conceptions of what it means to be powerful,
and what it means to be worthy of admiration.
According to a 2015
Pew Research Report, mothers in two-parent households are more likely to
report an unequal division of household labor than fathers are. The disparity
is especially striking when it comes to two-parent households where both parents
work. For example, though nearly half of families with working mothers and
fathers report that they share household chores equally, approximately 31
percent of working mothers report that they take on the majority of these
chores, while only 9 percent of working fathers do.
Ameliorating these inequalities
shouldn't just start with people who already have children. It can, and should,
start with children themselves.
So give a boy a toy vacuum cleaner
and a toy kitchen. Give him a small feather duster and put him to work.
If he becomes a parent someday—or
even if he doesn't—his partner might thank you for it.
5. All toys whose marketing or toy aisle placement arbitrarily
identifies them as "girl toys"
So long as a toy is actually for children, it should be available to
and marketed to all children.
And this goes to the very crux of
the White House conference goals: when we break down all gender stereotypes in
media and toys, we don't just demonstrate that we value girls and boys equally. We show that we value all forms of
gendered work and gender expression equally, too.