Shere Hite: Think about those toys you are buying

Do we want to create a world of conformist boys who grow up to feel that it is 'manly' to go to war?
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The Independent Online

Browsing through the catalogue of one of the largest retail shopping stores in the world in search of children's Christmas presents, I see gender gender gender staring back at me, written all over the pages of toys for tots. We are teaching them their roles as we offer them "fun toys". Shades of the 1950s - are we going backward?

Browsing through the catalogue of one of the largest retail shopping stores in the world in search of children's Christmas presents, I see gender gender gender staring back at me, written all over the pages of toys for tots. We are teaching them their roles as we offer them "fun toys". Shades of the 1950s - are we going backward?

Boys, it seems, should be given toys of boys dressed like military heroes, young males prepared for violent feats carrying an assortment of weapons, from swords to big black guns to military tanks or khaki-coloured helicopters, or offered mechanised robot-monsters. These "toys" stand dressed in dark-coloured clothing or khakis in aggressive, ready-to-fight postures, their muscles pumped up to pumpkin size. They look strange and frightening, not at all "toy-like", with scowls on their faces; to boys they might seem to be the "ideal man".

Ken, Barbie's boyfriend, is the only other male doll on offer, and he seems to be offered to girls. Why is there no other male model, not even boy dolls in business suits Western style? Nor copies of Nelson Mandela? (Is he too old to be a toy?) Are toymakers behind the times or does the presence of these toys reflect "reality", that is, what either boys or their parents/relatives really want to buy? And if this is "reality", do we want to change it?

Girls, as we know, are given gender-specific gifts that encourage them to be mothers and "sweeties"; ie, first they are given baby dolls to nurse and care for (dolls that cry and wet themselves, need their nappies changed...), then when slightly older they are given pink fairy dresses and play make-up or jewellery, sometimes kitchen cooking sets. If I had to choose between the gifts for boys and girls, I'd rather get the girls' gifts, but then, maybe if left to their own uninfluenced development, boys would too.

Girls' personalities are enormously influenced by the gifts they receive, stressing "traditional femininity", by which girls are implicitly informed that their role in life will be to nurse babies and help others, to conform to female norms of the past, or focus on jewellery and clothes; they are also informed by these toy-separations that they are "different" and separate from men and boys (who are "stronger" and more able to engage in "combat"), that they, the girls, must be "saved from peril" by boys (as seen also in the latest Disney films). Of course girls' classes in self-defence and/or judo should have been made a staple of girls' gymnasium curricula long ago, so that "domestic violence" would not claim so many female victims.

While I myself personally like the traditionally feminine pearls of Audrey Hepburn, and her "adorable female fringe of wispy hair on her forehead", I wonder if this has in part put women where we are now. Can we enjoy these things without losing in a world that unfortunately seems built on aggressive combat? Can we make the world differently, more peaceful, so that everyone can enjoy the pleasures of pink?

In addition, the spectrum of what are supposed to be the "right" girls' gifts is not wide enough to allow for varying personalities to emerge or be encouraged in girls - or boys. Girls learn, thus, to limit their own potentials, forcing themselves by age 14 to do poorly on maths tests and later to behave like passive Stepford wives, be focused on jewellery, afraid of not deferring to men, and expect those in authority as priests, heads of corporations and government leaders) to be male. Is this the world we want?

It really is our choice. Think about it: do we want to create a world of conformist girls who believe that pink is for girls, while boys conform like male robots believing that combat is for men? A world of boys who grow up to feel that even business is somehow not as "manly" as going to war, who conduct business, corporations and private life as if they were waging war?

Since we don't want to limit any personality from its own development, we need to think about our own role as adults. A word of caution: our choice is not so simplistic as give girls the boys' war toys, and give boys pink televisions. The gifts we may want to give children are not easily found; sometimes we have to make them ourselves, use our imaginations. (It can be as simple as a draughts set or a game.)

Remember that the gift you give also tells a child who you think he or she is - and who you think he or she will become.

s.hite@hite-research.com

The writer is a cultural historian and author of 'The Hite Reports' on gender relations

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