Dreaming of a Pink Christmas

As Christmas approaches, the children's toy industry goes into overdrive. Rosalyn Ball looks at how girls and boys toys are still unbelievably segregated along strict gender lines.

Rosalyn Ball, 16 December 2006

Christmas time! Mistletoe and Wine! Going out shopping in unforgiving crowded streets until all the milk of human kindness has drained slowly from your body let alone the money from your wallet. The frantic rush to buy buy buy. Presents for family and friends. 'Secret Santa' for work colleagues. Maybe finding one spare minute to send a present to someone who will have a less fortunate Christmas. Buying food to feed an army. Lighting your house up with decorations to blind the neighbours.

And let us not forget, as the bombardment of adverts on the television reminds us, that the focus of this seasonal mass consumption is centred on children. Yes, we're all doing it for the kids apparently. Which is lucky for toy manufacturers. Around 50% of yearly toy sales happen between the months of October and December alone. Christmas is the season for making profits and setting trends that will keep children coming back to their brands year after year. That's an awful lot of kids presents under the UK's Christmas trees.

I find myself at a point in my life where I am now visiting toy shops again at Christmas, not as an over-excited 1970's child but as a doting Aunt. With two nephews under 5 and another baby on the way my sisters and their partners are giving me all the pleasure that having kids around at Christmas can bring. Although its easy to be cynical about the consumer frenzy that this practically secular festival has become it also brings me great pleasure to see the kids' excitement and remember my own happy childhood Christmases fondly.

coded warehouses divided largely along gender lines

What makes me less happy is what I have started to discover now I am visiting toy shops in the 21st century and what the toys inside are teaching our children. Have you visited a toy shop recently? Superstore toy shops are colour coded warehouses divided largely along gender lines. I was quite shocked by the very obvious divisions in the toys on sale and whether they were intended for boys or girls. There have been various authentic scientific studies on these subjects but let me give you a few of my own experiences on one visit to Toys R Us. There is a very obvious area designated for girls and these aisles are a sea of candy pink plastic and fluff. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that what can be found in these aisles is make-up kits, dolls, dressing up clothes including 'Dream Dazzlers', angels, princesses (all pink) and a witch outfit (black with pink trim!). In these aisles I found many 'baby' dolls and many 'teen' fashion dolls, all packaged in pink. In a less pink aisle I found a play-kitchen and a play-ironing board. These items were not in pink boxes but unsurprisingly had pictures of girls on the boxes. So to recap, girls toys reflected motherhood, domestic chores, physical appearance, passive activities and PINK!

To the boy's aisles and the contrast is marked. Most products, like the pink in the girl's aisles, are distinguished by their 'boyish' red, black and dark blue colours. There are cars, wrestling figures, toolkits with only pictures of boys on the boxes, weapons like the very unpleasant and large 'Ninja Sword' with sound effects. Costumes included a fireman, Power Rangers, cowboy and pirate hats, 'Fantastic 4' character outfits complete with rippling padded biceps and six-pack. These aisles suggest boys play involves mechanics, action, fighting and athleticism.

'So what?' my mother frequently says to me when I bemoan the situation. 'Boys are boys and girls are girls, they ARE different'. Yes of course there are differences between the genders, and if evidence was presented to me that girls and boys in a vacuum used toys along the gender lines I have described then I may even believe that girls really are pre-disposed to liking pink. However I know pink is just a colour and I can see that it is the significance that we as a culture attribute to the colour pink that gives its use meaning.

My 4-year-old nephew loves the colour pink and requested it as the colour to paint his new bedroom, but it would be a very liberal parent that managed to close their minds to the significance we attribute to pink and used it in a boy's room. What makes me sad is that soon my nephew will be starting school and I think he'll learn very quickly that some other children will not think it acceptable for him to like the colour pink.

it is the significance our culture attributes to pink that gives its use meaning

Yes children can be cruel, but If you're in any doubt about who influences the way children develop their gender awareness you just need to look at the 'Baby X' studies of the 70's and 80's. This US research included an experiment where the same baby was introduced at different times as male and female to adults with three toys, a small rubber football, a Raggedy Ann doll and a teething ring. None of the men presented a "girl" baby with the football, and 89% of them presented "her" with the doll. Eighty percent of the women presented a "boy" baby with the football, and 73 percent of them presented a "girl" with the doll. Principal Investigator Phyllis A. Katz says 'its hard to disentangle the part [of the child's behaviour] that's really there from the adult's socialisation of the kids.'

Furthermore it's not just the gendered toys that we give children that will affect their behaviour in the long-term it has also been proved that we literally handle boys and girls very differently. In another experiment two female and two male babies appeared in both 'gender-appropriate' and gender-neutral clothes and they were given gender-appropriate names for their apparent sex. Women, who were themselves mothers, then interacted with the babies, whom they had never before seen. The sex they perceived the baby to be changed their behaviour toward it. When they believed that they were playing with a boy, even if they were not, they verbally encouraged the baby and responded significantly more often to the "boy" baby's movements. The researchers concluded that it would be no surprise that boys tend toward higher rates of activity and physical prowess, not because of a natural tendency toward it, but because of stimulation during infancy. Likewise further research has shown that without knowing it parents will talk to a female child much more and play with her in a less boisterous way.

Back to the coveted Christmas toys though. For myself when I was a child I was what we quaintly call a 'tomboy'. My toys included Mechano, a Scalextric set and dragster racers. I had one doll, I'm not sure where it came from, but interestingly it was a rather chubby bald plastic thing and its gender wouldn't be that easy to define. Despite preferring these types of toys I do remember very specifically a moment when I realised I was behaving in a way that was not 'expected'.

I can't remember the reason why but myself and my sister were taken on a shopping trip to town and were told we were allowed to buy one toy. My sister chose her first My Little Pony and I chose a dragster racer car that you fired out of a little trap. Just what I wanted, at least I thought I did. I have a very vivid memory of getting home and watching my sister play with the 'girls' toy and feeling very deflated, almost humiliated that I picked something that was 'wrong', or so it seemed to me. I certainly do not remember anyone in my family saying anything that made me feel like this, it was just something that I had come to understand from what I had experienced of the world so far. I felt I was supposed to want the girls toys and I think I felt bad because I had not acted in the perceived correct way. It is amazing how strong the memory and the feeling still is. My early experiences were that not conforming to gender stereotypes made you feel different and confused.

not all girls want to play with the toys you find in the pink aisles

Girls and indeed boys who want to cross these lines who are less obstinate than I was must often find themselves falling into line so as not to rock the boat let alone the fact that they may just accept it subconsciously. Children want to please and be accepted very much. I remember having quite a few My Little Pony toys after that point. However children can also be single-minded and resilient. This My Little Pony phase didn't last long and I think it was the next Christmas that I got my much prized Scalextric set.

So I know from first hand experience that not all girls want to play with the toys you find in the pink aisles, and in my experience, despite the social pressures I and my parents were subject to they were happy to let me play with whichever toys I chose to play with. As time marches on and we expect a more equal society we may expect gender stereotyping for children to be diminishing. So why are our toy shops more gender segregated than ever?

As with so many things these days, and like Christmas, its all about cash, money, the pink pound. Stereotypes sell. They are the quickest and easiest way for companies to rake in the profits. The human brain responds more readily to things that it can recognise easily so stereotypes are helpful to human cognition. If you think of the brain as a bit like a computer, in basic terms, stereotypes allow our brains to do less 'searching' when we evaluate new people. In this way the human brain can also become confused when it is presented with information that contradicts this stereotype information.

It is probable that some people see past stereotypes. However, what has been established in research is that people tend to live up or down to the expectations that are communicated to them. A number of studies have revealed that there is pressure on individuals to behave in stereotyped ways and these behaviour patterns are generally equated with social acceptance. We can all remember what it is like at school, never in our lives do we feel more pressure for social acceptance. Female children are fed expectations from the toy industry daily and we cannot pretend they have no effect.

children are fed expectations from the toy industry daily

However I don't necessarily think a particular conspiracy in the toy industry exists to repress girls, but rather that companies think only of profits. Therefore products are created that the human brain will recognise most easily and buy most readily. The toy makers and advertisers 'amplify' the perceived differences between the genders in order to quickly communicate with its desired audience. In an experiment where children viewed ten toy adverts once the children could identify the target audience every single time. The target audience of boys or girls are very obvious to children and make the products easy to understand and therefore easy to sell, but the unpleasant side-effect of this is there is an implication of whether the product is suitable for them or not depending on their gender.

So The Market wields influence on lives like never before. Consumption is king, so stereotypes used to sell are all around us all the time. The largest concern that I have with these representations is the effect on children's aspirations for themselves. Women can legally no longer be discriminated against in the workplace and can enter into any career of their choosing. However the subtle messages learned from birth seem to me to still be separating our boys and girls into roles that society unthinkingly calls 'natural' to each gender. What a shame we can't replicate the Baby X experiments for teenagers. I think we would find adults are still directing them along gender lines with little self-awareness.

So is it all bad news? Well I wouldn't want you to think that I am condemning all of so called 'girls' toys and 'girls' pursuits. Or that 'boys' toys are somehow more beneficial. In fact there are some very unpleasant boy's toys such as weapons and murderous video games that are debatably not suitable for any child. No, in fact as we see girls achieving higher results and success in school than boys we must actually value the way that parents interact with girls. As I described, in research parents have been found to speak to their daughters much more frequently. This and the 'role play' girls are directed towards with dolls can be seen to enable improved communication skills and give them emotional intelligence, both of which are increasingly prized in the workplace and arguably very helpful in maintaining relationships. Boys could benefit greatly from more of this kind of socialisation. Likewise girls do not need to be treated physically differently to boys - they are not made of different material! We must not imagine girls are somehow more delicate and less active in any way.

'femaleness' is shunned as something humiliating for boys

Another interesting caveat to this debate is that it has historically been much more socially acceptable for girls to cross the gender divide than it has been for boys. It would seem unlikely for a girl to be frowned upon for choosing to play with 'boys' toys as I did, but sadly for those boys like my nephew who like pink they are likely to be steered quickly away. This is sad for boys but sadder still that society still doesn't value the things that are deemed 'girls' interests. Is the 'femaleness' still to be shunned as something humiliating for boys.

The work of Colorado State University has a great set of activities intended to help children themselves talk about gender stereotypes and understand that they limit themselves and each other when they use them. You can take a look at their ideas here.

They argue, 'if we keep sending messages with toys that girls can only do certain things and boys can only do certain things, their options for who they want to be and who they think others can be becomes very limited. We want to allow more options.'

I do too - and I think I'll start by buying my nephew something in pink for Christmas.

About the author

Rosalyn Ball

Rosalyn Ball lives in London.

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