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Plugged In

What’s the harm in pink toys? Plenty.

Plugged In

Girls like pink. Boys like blue. It’s a cultural attitude so strong it might as well be burned into our DNA.

Few things are more powerful than that -- and the idea’s never been stronger than it is today. But what appears to be a harmless-if-a-bit-sexist fashion statement is sending messages to boys and girls alike that parents may not intend. And I’m not talking about the time-honored way Barbie dolls teach kids that the ideal body is some sort of emaciated, stilt-legged freak. Although they do.

No, there’s worse out there: a growing trend of deliberately sexist toys that are conditioning our children to be defined and constrained by their gender well into adulthood.

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Oh dear.

Currently blowing up the Twitter feeds of parents worldwide is this "It’s Girl Stuff!" cleaning toy, sold by Sports Direct, the UK’s largest sports retailer. Emblazoned with female symbols, flowers, and done up in purple and pink, the message is clear: cleaning is the sort of work to which girls should aspire -- and, just as importantly, boys need not apply. Although the furor means this particular toy’s days are probably numbered, it’s nothing you can’t see on the shelves of dollar stores in any U.S. town.

Take the 2012 debut of Lego Friends, a line of sets aimed squarely at pre-teen girls, packed with hairbrushes, ponies, and kittens. It’s part of a long, deliberate trend away from Lego sets being something that you played with as you built, and towards something that you built and then played with. Self-assembly toys, as it were, rather than construction sets. More IKEA, less Home Depot. Witness, too, the way mini-figures have drifted away from non-gendered, race-neutral, smiling faces towards ones that clearly express identity and even mood.

Lego Friends isn’t the first range Lego released deliberately targeting female consumers and it is far from the most egregious. Nevertheless, while the idea dismayed some activist groups, it has caught the imagination of parents: sales of Lego products to girls tripled after its launch. Sure, lots of girls played with Lego before Friends came along, but many more are playing with it now.

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Nerf Rebelle (Credit: Hasbro)

This realignment trend continued through 2013. Among last year’s breakout girl-targeted toys -- new My Little Pony dolls, Barbie-themed makeup apps, and bracelet-making sets -- was a spin-off range of Nerf guns, “Rebelle.” Should we be happy that Hasbro can successfully make toy guns for girls? Or should we be ashamed that in order to do so the toys need to be done up in pastel prints and called names like “Heartbreaker” and “Pink Crush?”

Boys, generally speaking, have it easier. Gender-neutral toy kitchens, for example, are easy to find (Hasbro even makes a gray version of the Easy Bake oven, although it took a telling-off from a thirteen-year-old girl for them to do so.) But boys who prefer to play in stereotypically “girl” ways can expect to be aggressively set straight -- so to speak -- by everyone from their parents and siblings to even the likes of Dr. Phil, who really should know better. It’s much more acceptable to be a tomboy than a tomgirl, and woe betide the little boy who likes to wear pink.

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FDR, a boy in a dress. (Credit: Smithsonian)

It wasn’t always this way. It seems self-evident to modern parents that boys get blue things and girls get pink things, but the concept is a hundred years old at most. A famous boyhood picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the 1880s shows the future wartime president sporting long blonde curls, a frilly white dress, and Mary Janes -- a sight that’s simultaneously hilarious and unnerving to modern eyes, but one that was totally unremarkable at the time.

Indeed, the whole idea of gender-specific colors didn’t come along until well into the 20th century, inspired by the realization that differentiating between boy products and girl products was a great way to make mixed-gender families buy everything twice. And the blue-male, pink-female dichotomy that we take for granted was by no means self-evident. In times past, pink was regarded as a stronger, more masculine color, and as late as 1927 Time Magazine was advising parents to dress their offspring the “wrong” way around.

None of which will come as news to neuroscientists, who have known for years that any differences between the brains of boys and girls are vastly overwhelmed by variations between individual children. Why do girls wear pink and play with dolls, while boys wear blue and play with cars? Because that’s what well-meaning people give them. So that’s what they want. Because that’s what they play with. Round it goes, in a self-perpetuating circle that’s setting kids up for a blinkered future. Think it would have taken a century to welcome the first woman to run a major auto-maker if little girls traditionally played with cars, not baby dolls?

And that’s the real problem with these toys. Of course little girls want to play in ways that emulate their mothers. But they want to play in ways that emulate their fathers, too. There’s nothing wrong with toy brooms or cars or construction sets, but when they’re marketed in ways that exclude one gender altogether, we run the risk of curtailing our children’s ambitions before they’re even out of diapers.

So encourage your girls to play with trucks. And your boys with dolls. We already live in a world where dads are homemakers and moms are running vast, high-tech corporations. Gender isn’t a constraint on the way adults work and live any more. Neither should it be one on the way our children play.

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