Non-Fiction

Children at play: the war on pink

This article has appeared in the online magazine Independent Australia

Pink fills the girl-aisles of toy stores, because everyone knows what little girls want, what little boys want. And these things are different: boys do not want what little girls want, and vice versa.

Isn’t that so? We know the categories from which to choose – boys have go-get-‘em toys like trucks, things you can build, models of muscle-bound heroes or villains. Girls have domestic toys – the tiny ironing board, the dolls, the little toast rack. They have dolls to dress in swanky clothes; they have dolls’ houses.

So that’s clear. Isn’t it?

Many of us don’t think so. In fact, there is at last a resurgence – in response to the wash of pink aisles in toy departments, that assume so much about girls – of those who object to the gendered way toy marketing is being done. There is even a YouTube video of little girls being vocal about their frustration – little girls, dammit, are demanding engineering toys!

Way, way back when I was a new mother, we visited a family with two young boys. He-Man, Skeletor and various of their entourage lay about the floor in wait for the unwary, their knobby hard plastic ready to inflict pain underfoot. 

The boys’ mother turned to me, raised her eyebrows and said: ‘I just don’t know what they do with them for hours!’

I must admit to being a smarty-pants at times, and well versed since the seventies in all things feminist. I looked at those little plastic monsters scattered amongst the sandals and socks, and it came to me.

 ‘Well, after all, what did we do with dolls?’ I said. Sometimes, you have these moments of clarity.

Years later, when my own two boys had their own He-Man and Skeletor, and collected other over-muscled, snarly, diminutive blokettes, I tried an experiment. 

We had any number of large cardboard boxes around at the time, for some reason (perhaps because my then partner would buy large things and then couldn’t bring himself to throw away the boxes because we might need them. Whatever.)  So I made my boys a dolls’ house, and a splendid one it was too. It had two storeys, with a connecting ladder made from take-away shaslik-sticks tied with cross-pieces and thread. I made some beds, with sheets made from tissues; there were silver-foil mirrors. It’s possible I still had some dolls’ furniture left over from my own childhood – in any case, the tiny kitchen was well supplied with itty-bitty table and chairs. It’s even possible I might have gone all wistful and bought some new. Well, I confess I did.

Then I sat back and watched as He-Man and Skeletor viewed their mini TV at night, climbed the ladder to bed and got up in the morning for breakfast in the kitchen.

From this I concluded that gendered roles are largely to do with gendered language. In fact, I put it to you that it turned out He-Man, Skeletor et al were just dolls after all.  You just don’t find them in the pink aisle, is all. On top of this, pink was the manly colour for little boys until the 19th century, when suddenly it became all girlie. And thanks to QI for this quite interesting information.

Another time,  a friend described the toys her great-niece had received for Christmas. Besides being suitably shocked at how many gifts this child got, what really attracted my attention was the description of the toddler’s favourite – a toy toaster.

‘She was bored with everything else very quickly,' my friend said. 'But that toaster – she watched the toast pop up over and over and over!’

She looked at me. ‘It could have been a Jack-in-the-box, really.’

Certainly it could. But someone will assume this small child is fascinated by the toaster because, as a girl, she must naturally be fascinated by domestic appliances. Or maybe notions of toast are hardwired into girly DNA, to take things to their most absurd extent...

But, somehow, I think she is simply fascinated by highly-coloured objects that fly out of other highly-coloured objects, possibly with a funny noise.

It really is high time we looked at definitions and how they mould our understanding.  And it’s time to discuss and understand what we are seeing.

To muse a little further ... when I was a child I was often on my own and entertaining myself. I had inherited my older brothers’ toy trains and, in these pre-Lego days, a bag full of stick-together bricks, a green rubber roof, and little rubber window frames.  I had some dolls, small and large, and access to a very handy old-fashioned coat-rack. 

Trains went round and round on the tracks I put together, houses were built and demolished, and I festooned that coat-rack with string, toy cradles and scraps of material to make a complex construction I swore was a hotel for dolls.  I dressed up in lovely draggy things I found in my mother’s drawers; I created prison cells from sheets and the backs of chairs, where I lived on bread and water for about half an hour before defeating the Enemy. I made a fire in an old Churchman’s cigarette tin and then tried to disguise with desperate crayoning the blackened patch on the cupboard floor.

Outside, I peered at beetles and ants and took the tail of a lizard to my lucky mother. I made a cubby-house from a huge crate and I tried to glue things with melted plastic. It is not necessarily possible, I discovered, to distil the colour from a rose by boiling it in water. I climbed trees. I tried to make a bow and arrow. I read, in equal parts, Superman comics and the classics.

And so on. 

How would you gender-define this play – and why, really, would you bother?

p.s.

I also posted a version of the above in Opinion Online (Australia), and received a number of interesting comments. One of these expressed outrage at the terrible things I had done to my sons' psyches, and assumed I had ruined them for life. In the meantime, I find these same sons use the same story regarding He-Man, Skeletor and the dolls' house in their own arguments with others about gender stereotyping. Bless 'em.