It’s that time of year again! Christmas songs are playing off the hook, there are twinkling wreaths all over the place and every email in my inbox has something to do with holiday discounts. Santa is indeed coming to town, and my friends and I actually went to pay him a little visit this weekend at Macy’s in New York City. All of Santa’s elves – complete with sugary names and detailed backstories – welcomed us to the North Pole as we waited in line to have our photo taken with Santa. We were surprisingly not the only group of 20-somethings in attendance.
My friend, a big lover of Christmas, was donning her very own elf hat, and Santa’s elves ate it up, engaging her in conversations about where she was from and what work she did for Santa. I was impressed by how true to character these Macy’s elves were, but I was not impressed by what “Sparkles” said she did at the North Pole.
“I make girl toys!” she said excitedly.
I was tolerating the pseudo-snowy wonderland until this moment. I wanted to say something, but I caught my roommate’s eye and she telepathically told me to let it go, so I did.
But, COME ON! Really, Macy’s? You’re telling your elves to tell kids that they make girl toys or boy toys? How about they just make toys, no gender qualifier necessary?
I wanted to ask Sparkles what, exactly, a girl toy was. I’m assuming a doll, a pony, anything pink or SPARKLY, or perhaps an Easy Bake Oven. But what if girls like Legos? Or Hot Wheels? Or soldiers or dragons or monsters or remote control helicopters? If a girl likes it and wants to play with it, it’s a girl’s toy. If a boy wants to make friendship bracelets or bake an imaginary cake, that’s cool too.
Maybe Macy’s should take a hint from London’s celebrated toy store, Hamley’s, and stop grouping toys by gender, and reinforcing gender discrimination through their holiday help. Hamley’s put an end to reinforced gender stereotypes back in 2011. But here in the US, we’re still sending the message that girls should be in the kitchen and boys should be out building things and curing cancer.
Hamley’s began organizing its store around sections like: Outdoors, Games, Build It, Dolls, etc. The store has even done away with the use of pink and blue, and stuck to the more neutral sign colors of red and white. London Department store Harrod’s jumped on board in July 2012, organizing its toys around themes as opposed to gender. And in September of this year, Toy R Us decided to rethink the organization of its stores after some convincing from Let Toys Be Toys.
Some believe that gender roles are reinforced by toy selection, and that the way toy stores are organizing their merchandise is actually hurting the number of women taking leadership roles in science and business. I don’t know much influence it has, but it’s certainly a contributing factor. Maybe these gender stereotypes are so engrained in our culture that we aren’t even aware of their consequences. It could be advertising, more than store organization, that perpetuates this gender discrimination. But it is apparent that inequalities exist, and it’s important for us to really think about and determine the reasons for those inequalities.
Differences between boys and girls are natural and inevitable. Those differences, for the most part, will never go away. But we as a society need to be aware of them. It all boils down to this: We are unique individuals who care about and are good at different things. Pigeon-holing anyone into one category is detrimental to self-development at any age, but especially at a young age.
It’s inevitable that the majority of girls will prefer dolls to bulldozers and boys will prefer building to baking. Or is it? Are we just depriving them of even thinking there’s another option?
Maybe if we fashioned sections of toy stores where both boys and girls were welcome, we would send the message that either a man or a woman can rule the kitchen or the court room. Subtle changes such as this won’t make a monumental difference, but that’s not what we need. We just need kids to know it’s okay to be themselves, to play with what they want to play with, to learn what they want to know. We need to let kids become who they’re supposed to be. And they (not Sparkles) are the only ones in charge of determining who that is.