Swedish schoolchildren challenge Toys R Us gender stereotyping.

// 9 October 2009

I’m sure we’ve discussed the horrible gender stereotyping in Toys R Us stores in the past on The F Word, and I was actually in there at the weekend, trying to contain my rage as I walked past pink ‘Girlz’ aisles full of baby dolls, princess toys and house keeping equipment and blue aisles full of action toys, dinosaurs, cars and the stuff I generally found fun as a child. So I was delighted to come across this article about a group of 13-year-old Swedish schoolchildren who lodged a complaint against Toys R Us based on the stereotyping in their 2008 Christmas catalogue:

According to the youngsters, the Toys”R”Us Christmas catalogue featured “outdated gender roles because boys and girls were shown playing with different types of toys, whereby the boys were portrayed as active and the girls as passive”.

The group’s teacher explained to the local Smålandsposten newspaper that filing the complaint was the culmination of more than two years of “long-term work” by the students on gender roles.

Thumbing through the catalogue, 13-year-old Hannes Psajd explained that he and his twin sister had always shared the same toys and that he was concerned about the message sent by the Toys”R”Us publication.

“Small girls in princess stuff…and here are boys dressed as super heroes. It’s obvious that you get affected by this,” he told the newspaper.

“When I see that only girls play with certain things then, as a guy, I don’t want it.”

Classmate Moa Averin emphasized the importance of children being able to be who they want even if “guys want to be princesses sometimes”.

Can you imagine this coming from UK children? Given that the recent Women and Work Commission report highlighted continuing gender stereotyping in schools it’s highly unlikely. I think it’s fantastic that they are being urged to actively challenge gender stereotyping; it can only lead to a fairer society and better opportunities for all of them as they grow up.

Their complaint was upheld by the Reklamombudsmannen (Ro), ‘a self-regulatory agency which polices marketing and advertising communications in Sweden to ensure they are in line with guidelines set out by the International Chamber of Commerce’, and Toys R Us have been publically reprimanded, although the agency has no powers to formerly punish the company.

Comments From You

Laurel Dearing // Posted 9 October 2009 at 1:12 pm

ah thats so good to hear. so many people here seem to get annoyed by children learning anything about themselves and other people as PC gone mad, but honestly, an open mind can make people want to learn more about things, and its something that children not getting as much home education can catch up to easier as well. i was an extremely intelligent child and i have to say im a little disconcerted as to how many brainwashing points i let into my head unquestioned until i found feminism (through growing triggers to rape depiction) and my best friend. not just gender things but so much. id never have read the daily mail and hated racism, but assumed that if so many newspapers were going on about benefit frauds, and immigration, and such then it must be some sort of a problem even if i didnt condone the actions made against them.

either way, its once again backing up my contingency plan to move to scandinavia when this place is past help.

thebeardedlady // Posted 9 October 2009 at 2:11 pm

That is very good to hear. Well done to everyone involved, but especially to the teacher, who has clearly been working on this for a long time and with a lot of good results.

Teachers are really well placed to do this kind of work, in theory, but in practice are often without much autonomy over how courses are designed. However, it can still make a difference to have a teacher who asks you to question your own assumptions – and to work out what you believe.

Children often respond well to this because they can relate to the issues involved. They often feel oppressed and powerless, and many of them are stuck in abusive or neglectful homes. So once prompted to examine society critically, they have no problems coming quickly to anti-racist, ant-sexist, pro-feminist, humanist, socialist conclusions.

Troika21 // Posted 9 October 2009 at 2:58 pm

I don’t care what its for, this is exploiting children, you don’t get to drum political messeges into 13-year-olds. They are not old enough to understand them, nor to realise that teachers should be politically neutral when teaching.

The quote: “When I see that only girls play with certain things then, as a guy, I don’t want it.” is very interesting, don’t you think?

It seems to me that gender roles have already developed in these children, they’re being pushed into this by adults they should be able to trust. It does not come from themselves.

Laura // Posted 9 October 2009 at 3:08 pm

@Troika21,

I fail to see how encouraging children to see that it’s okay for boys and girls to engage in whatever activities they want is exploitation. It’s not a political message, it’s the truth (though I disagree that 13 year olds cannot understand political messages). The boy’s quote suggests that gender socialisation has already happened to these children – not that they naturally prefer certain things – and it’s sad that a boy would feel that he can’t play with something that is ‘for girls’. Pushing gender stereotypes on children limits their opportunities and harms those who do not want to conform to the stereotypes: it’s very common for boys who like toys and activities traditionally seen as being for girls to be bullied and berated for their preferences (note that this is less likely for girls due to anti-women sexism). I applaud teachers for trying to put an end to this.

Josie // Posted 9 October 2009 at 3:16 pm

Love it! I’m an Early Years practitioner and was in a primary school the other day – I passed two large plastic boxes in the corridor, one labelled ‘boys’ dressing up clothes’, the other labelled ‘girls’ dressing up clothes’. Makes me so furious! We really do have a long way to go in this country. Laurel, I think I’ll join you on that plane to Scandanavia, especially if we face Torygeddon next year!

Chris Morris // Posted 9 October 2009 at 3:17 pm

Troika21: “teachers should be politically neutral when teaching”

I’m not sure that it’s possible to get a “politically neutral” view of society from within it. How would you go about teaching history (or really, pretty much any subject other than maths) in a politically neutral way?

Amy Clare // Posted 9 October 2009 at 3:28 pm

This is great. Yay Sweden.

Don’t read the comments on the original article though, they are saturated with ‘ZOMG but boys and girls are just DIFFERENT don’t you see!!!111!! This is political correctness gone mad!!111!’ type rants. Quite horrifying to see how many people are saying that everyone should just shut up and leave things as they are because girls have genes that make them want to be princesses and anything else is just ‘soft’.

@Troika21: part of being a teacher is to discuss social issues with pupils. We had PSE (as it was called in the 90s) lessons at school where we debated political issues, the environment, religious issues etc; however we didn’t discuss gender roles and I wish we had. I would have loved to have had a teacher like this who encouraged pupils to accept others for who they are, and told them it was okay to do things outside of their stereotypical gender roles. Encouraging children to question their assumptions about the world is not exploitation, it’s education.

Mhairi // Posted 9 October 2009 at 4:26 pm

Good for them. Woman’s Hour have had a few interesting discussions about gendered clothing and the ‘tyranny of pink’ in the last week or two – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/listenagain/2009_39_thu.shtml and http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/listenagain/2009_40_thu.shtml

@Troika21. I agree with Chris that there’s actually no ‘neutral’ teaching, everything is taught so as to encourage particular ways of thinking – but ideally that means developing independent critical faculties and learning to question rather than take the world as it is. This protest only looks like political manipulation if you accept without question its alternative – girl as princess/ domestic goddess and boy as train driver/ soldier – as non-political, a completely natural state of affairs, free from social or marketing influence. And I’m not sure we can say that of anything.

That this boy is able to reflect on his gendered responses to marketing in this way is not proof that he has been ‘exploited’ away from his natural path; it shows that he has already been conditioned to self-censor according to what is considered ‘girly’ or masculine, and is now aware of this process when confronted by the glut of consumer propaganda he is subject to as a child/ adolescent (and which, I’d suggest, is far more disturbing and exploitative than any teacher’s gender roles lesson). How many men or women 20 years older can say the same?

Incidentally, of course 13 year old have political awareness, it’s just less matured – by that age I’d turned vegetarian, had been noticing and complaining about sexism and boy classmates’ lechery for years and was already getting pretty left-wing. Not because I was exploited but because I read a lot, listened a lot and was educated by people who encouraged me to read, listen, and above all, think.

thebeardedlady // Posted 9 October 2009 at 4:39 pm

Troika21, political messages are drummed into children (and adults) all their lives. Messages like, ‘boys do this, and girls do that’, ‘white people rule the world’, ‘develop your identity through spending money’, etc etc. I agree that this is absolutely wrong and exploitative.

Anybody who counters that with encouraging children to think critically, question the political messages that are drummed into them, and resist their exploitation, is doing a great and worthwhile thing.

Katy // Posted 9 October 2009 at 6:51 pm

I used to prefer barbies and animal toys, but only in the sense i used to involve them in stories, not because I could comb their hair and dress them. In an equal sense guys have to play with ‘action themes’ constantly and are discouraged to play with every day sociable themes – ‘going to the shops’, boyfriend/ girlfriend barbie. It’s the typical restrictive stereotypes – guys almost trained to be overly agressive and girls ‘trained’ to be boring airheads. Especially as today’s barbies and bratz focus on doing hair and make- up more than ever – stories (rapunzel) and themes are almost a thing of the past.

Britain’s feminism is a long way from Sweden’s.

polly // Posted 9 October 2009 at 8:02 pm

@troika21

“”The quote: “When I see that only girls play with certain things then, as a guy, I don’t want it.” is very interesting, don’t you think?

It seems to me that gender roles have already developed in these children, they’re being pushed into this by adults they should be able to trust. It does not come from themselves. “”

Children are conditioned into gender roles from the second they’re born. Yes of course 13 year olds have already been conditioned into – not *developed* gender roles. They”ve had 13 years of being told girls do x, and boys do y. Which is why it’s a good thing to challenge it. Because a lot of them would like to step outside those gender roles, but they fear the consequences if they do.

Kristy (NZ) // Posted 9 October 2009 at 10:19 pm

Imagine how different the world would be if we all had such gender awareness education. The fact that many people assume boys and girls have some sort of ‘natural’ tendency to prefer certain types of toys show how much we need this education in our schools!

As a psychology student nearing the end of my degree, my peers who are studying teaching are almost teachers, and I am appalled at how ignorant they are (the teachers-to-be that I know) towards gender and I can’t help but be scared of my child starting school with teachers existing that have no gender education. I feel that there should be a compulsory paper at universities for future teachers that give them an awareness of what gender is and how it impacts on everyday life for children

NorthernJess // Posted 12 October 2009 at 5:03 pm

Troika21, are you telling me every political protest I went on and every letter I wrote to MPs before I was 14 is redundant because I was exploited into having my own views? Sorry that is just massively insulting.

Genevieve // Posted 13 October 2009 at 10:58 pm

Don’t read the comments on the original article though, they are saturated with ‘ZOMG but boys and girls are just DIFFERENT don’t you see!!!111!! This is political correctness gone mad!!111!’ type rants. Quite horrifying to see how many people are saying that everyone should just shut up and leave things as they are because girls have genes that make them want to be princesses and anything else is just ‘soft’.

I think the most infuriating one was when a commenter said that following societally-prescribed gender roles was “having a personality” and that those of us challenging gender roles wanted everyone to be exactly the same. Sure, this kind of bullcrap encourages “personality”–if one’s personality consists of nothing but absorbing and reflecting what’s on the TV.

Kathryn // Posted 14 October 2009 at 2:30 pm

As a science educator and communicator, it really annoys me that toy catalogues nearly always only have boys in photos depicting science toys and activities. When you actually enter the shop, the science toys are almost always in the boys’ section. If there is a girl’s science toy, it’s something like Bathbomb Factory or Perfume factory or something!

Not very encouraging for getting more girls into science

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