Girl Toys, Boy Toys: Unpacking the Gender Issues of 2011's Hot Gifts

Behind the extreme gender polarization of this year's bestselling children's toys.

Watching television commercials for the toys eligible for this year's “Toy of the Year Awards” in both the "boy" and "girl" categories, as I have just done, makes me not want to have any more children and scared to raise the one I've already got.

Given what we know about the neurological importance of "critical periods" in a child's development, it's hard not to see the extreme gender polarization of this year's bestselling children's toys as the festering rootstock of so much of the baggage men and women are forced to overcome as adults. Let's start with the premise that there are distinct girl and boy toys.

As the parent of a two-year-old son, I am reminded daily of a study published in 2008 which found that baby boy monkeys are more inclined to play with trucks than their female peers. “Male and female rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) of all ages and ranks show preferences for wheeled and plush toys that resemble the preferences shown by human children in many studies of toy choice,” the paper found. “This cross-species demonstration of male–female differences in toy choice strongly supports and extends prior work... showing that sexually dimorphic toy preferences reflect basic neurobiological differences between males and females and are not caused solely by socialization."

Biology is not destiny, however. In the modern world, women are earning more college and advanced degrees than men, weathering the great recession better, and in every respect (besides compensation), demonstrating as much or more success in our technologically enabled civilization. You'd think childhood would be the time to teach boys and girls that in the real world, the roles of men and women overlap so greatly that the fringes where they don't are the exception.

Let's set aside the fact that the Toy Industry Association, which administers the annual awards, has decided to divide its toys by gender. Instead, let's focus on the fact that the closest thing to an educational toy in the "girl" category is a pink-and-purple Dora the Explorer kitchen that teaches girls how to cook.

I don't know how things work in your house, but in ours, cooking for yourself is a survival skill. In a world of creeping prices, declining food quality, and an obesity crisis caused in part by our inability to prepare our own damn food, this toy is doubly offensive. Not only does it imply a regressive view of women's role as a homemaker, what could have been a gender-neutral toy seems custom designed to repel little boys who have already been conditioned to identify pink as a girl color and the signifiers of gender as separate and inviolable.

Then there’s Fijit—the pink, purple, teal and day-glow yellow knockoff version of that cute Keepon robot that once appeared in a Spoon video. (Pink, purple, teal, and day-glow yellow are the girl-only colors of the 21st century, by the way.)

Fijit likes to dance and talk to children. What does it say? "I live for weekends!" And also: "You look fabulous!" In the grand tradition of Barbie, presumably the makers thought it better that little girls learn early that leisure time and appearance are their primary pursuits.

I think we understand by now that Justin Bieber has replaced ponies as the anvil upon which adolescent girls may hammer out their identities as proto-sexual beings. The Rockin' Tour Bus and Concert Stage Playset is the ultimate expression of the desire to hang out with a crush as inoffensive as the Bieb, so it's hard to object to this toy on its face. It's more a confirmation that our own childhoods, from the over-the-top masculinity of He-Man to the Lisa Frank acid trip of Care Bears and My Little Pony, weren't so different from what kids face now—and that's sort of the problem. It's hard to think of an area of our culture that seems more completely frozen in time.

The rest of the list of "girl" nominees for the Toy of the Year Award includes dolls and something called Squinkies, featured here engaged in an orgy of (nostalgic, pre-crash) consumerism surreally recapitulated in the volume of intellectual property notifications embedded in its actual, I-am-not-making-this-up name:


Every one of these toys is pink or purple.

Boy toys, meanwhile, are allowed to be every color under the rainbow as long as girl colors don't overwhelm their overall palette. Of course, toys that encourage creativity, exploratory play, and validation through anything other than looking good and obsessing over the right member of the opposite sex are also coded as "boy" toys.

This year's crop of boy toys also includes a strong undercurrent of Beyond Thunderdome via WWE. Here is a pair of boys throwing down over BeyBlades, a Japanese import that encourages boys to create the most lethal spinning tops possible. I get that this is a boy thing, but I also get that culture shapes how boys express their desire to compete, and fails to address the needs of boys to express themselves by other means.

DaGeDar's battling steel core marbles seem tame by comparison, even if the idea is more or less the same: To become the undisputed Khan of your tiny adolescent universe.

Finally, there are Hexbugs. It's difficult to explain their charm if you haven't seen them in person, but imagine the world's cutest insectoid robots: The sort of thing an alien race would drop on our planet in advance of their arrival to prepare our young to find their own larvae charming rather than horrific. Hexbugs are about the blurry line between life and non-life, creativity and curiosity.

The advertising for Hexbugs includes a gender-balanced, multi-ethnic cast of children who are at least trying to broadcast the message that toys that prepare us for a society in which we will all work hand-in-glove with machines are for everyone. But since they've got motors and sensors tiny computers inside them, they're labeled "boy" toys by the Toy Industry Association. And we wonder why enrollment of women in computer science programs has never been lower.

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