[Columns, letters or cartoons published are the work of the attributed author and do not necessarily represent the official views or opinions of “The Highland Echo.”]
Sometimes, it’s really hard to be an angry feminist when you work in retail. I have to hear about women hating their bodies, listen to uninvited racist comments about our president from elderly customers and get hit on by creeps, and I barely make minimum wage for it. The one thing that I hate the most, though, is the toy section.
I can put up with a lot, but the fact that I’m not allowed to mix up that divided sea of pink and blue is almost too much to handle. In most stores today, gender is the only way they know to market toys. At my own store, we have large sections for boys and girls and one tiny shelf for things like art supplies and puzzles. Girls have dolls and princess dresses and toy ovens.
Boys have building sets and fake guns and really cool Avengers action figures that I secretly want to buy. Kids gravitate towards their appropriate sections, and they don’t often deviate from them. That doesn’t mean that they don’t deviate from them, though. You can find stories online from retail workers and other shoppers about watching parents steer their sons away from dolls or their daughters away from superhero costumes.
I’ve seen more than one girl wander past the glittery pink line and get called back towards the girls’ section by their concerned parent, and you’ve never known rage until you’ve been me hearing the words, “No, honey, those toys aren’t for girls.” If I didn’t need my job to pay for my extravagant lifestyle of Netflix subscriptions and Taco Bell, I would have already been fired for lecturing customers on gender constructs. You might not see anything overtly harmful in having separate sections for boys and girls. It seems totally normal. In fact, people can point to studies that show that girls pick dolls over trucks, and vice-versa for boys, at a pretty young age.
Of course, if you glance over at the infant and toddler section of any store, you’ll still see those waves of pink and blue. We also treat boys and girls differently from birth, whether it’s gendered toys or how we compliment them, with people having the overwhelming tendency to tell little girls how pretty they are and little boys how smart or strong they are. It’s hard to say anything about how biology affects gender when society is constantly reinforcing the gender roles that people claim are just natural.
These roles aren’t just harmful because they divide kids up, though. One of the worst things is that while we’re telling girls how pretty they are, we’re also pushing them towards kitchen sets and baby dolls and makeup. There’s nothing wrong with any of those. I rocked a fake oven in my day, and I turned out to be maybe the opposite of a Stepford Wife. And there’s nothing wrong with girls growing up to be wives and mothers, if they have a full range of other options available.
The problem is that while girls are learning to be domestic, boys are learning to be engineers. They have more motivation to play with toys that challenge them to create and solve problems and explore ideas. K’nex and Legos and other building sets are largely marketed towards boys, and other “boys’ toys” are more active and engaging than those intended for girls.
Also, toy sections that reinforce strict ideas of gender leave no room for kids who are gender questioning or nonbinary, meaning they don’t identify as either a boy or a girl. We teach kids how to act and what to like from the day they’re born, but it’s not as easy for some kids. There will be always kids who need a color that isn’t blue or pink, who don’t have a section of their own, and there will be always be girls who want to dress up as Batman and boys who want to dress up as princesses.
As you finish up Christmas shopping, think about what part you play in this. Think about the kids in your life and how you can encourage them to be their happiest, healthiest selves, even if it means they go to the other side of the toy aisle now and then. If it didn’t take hours and endless patience to reorganize a toy wall, I would encourage you to go mix some Barbies in with some Spiderman toys, but don’t do that.
Instead, glare at parents who shame their kids for being different, for me and the rest of the retail workers who have to smile and keep working and pretend like they don’t want to quote Judith Butler.