Against my better judgement I ventured into a toy store recently. Toys aren’t what I love giving the kids in my world. I prefer the idea of books and clay and donkeys and paint a whole lot more. But I wondered if maybe I was missing out on something, so off I went on a toy hunt. My first reaction was to be stunned with the enormity of choice so I asked a sales clerk if they might be able to help, to offer some ideas for children of various ages. I started with a toddler.
Is it a boy or a girl? the clerk asked.
Does it matter? I said. They can barely walk.
I was assured that, yes, it does indeed matter and once I’d identified the recipient as a girl child, was whisked to the pink side of the room where the shelves were so shockingly bright I momentarily lost focus, barely heard what the clerk said. Something about unicorns. When I asked what she would recommend for a boy the same age she directed me to the opposite wall, said trains were popular.
I was fascinated yet disheartened by this girl/boy division and considered taking solace in the world’s softest snowy white owl—for myself—but the lines were too long. Instead, I decided to to undertake an informal survey of area toy stores, popping into various ones over the next few days, asking for gift ideas for different ages. Result of survey: whether it was a small independent shop, a medium-sized chain or a huge honking warehouse, in every single case but one, the first question, regardless of age, was: is it a boy or a girl?
When I said I’d rather not be limited by gender specific toys, and that I’d prefer if they could just go by age appropriateness instead, sales clerks were flummoxed. It was clearly so ingrained that this stuff is for boys and this stuff is for girls, that it actually took them a moment to consider what to give an individual “kid”.
I kept expecting the first question to be what interests the child had, but no one asked that, at least not until they determined how said child peed.
In one case I was asked if the girl was a girly girl or a tomboy… with a distinct negative tone on the word ‘tomboy’, as if offering condolences. Message received: girly girl = good; tomboy = possibly cute, but slightly off the mark.
In another instance, when I said I was shopping for both a girl and a boy, of approximately the same age, I was shown a fabulous MegaBlocks set complete with helicopter, police station, cars, bulldozer, roads, cruisers—more than 1700 pieces in all. I said that the girl would love this. The owner of the shop, a man, informed me it would be better for the boy and then, pointing to a small shelf behind me said, This is for girls… it’s pink. He actually said It’s pink. It was also MegaBlocks, but in a plastic storage bin. The label showed that inside were the ingredients to build a domestic scene: a small house, a cat, a bush, a few flowers and a tiny car. I said it looked a bit dull, not much to do here but drive up to the house and back out again, maybe water your tree. It hardly compared with the helicopter and police station possibilities for saving the world. The guy shrugged, said, yeah, but… it’s for girls…
I began to realize how limiting and subliminally ‘shaping’ is this world of toys. For example, if your boy child likes gardening, I hope you [and he] have the chops to deal with the fact that ‘gardening’ kits are pink and/or have a girl on the cover. Ditto foodie/cooking type stuff.
In one store the boy’s side had signs indicating “Science Books”, “Science & Discovery”, “Brio”, “Thomas Railway”, “LEGO & Duplo”, “K’Nex” and “Chugginton”.
The girl’s side signage listed: “Dress-Up”, “Fashion & Bling”, “Arts & Crafts” [all pink], “Doll Houses”, “Corolle Dolls” and “Calico”.
The boy’s side included toboggans, table hockey and all manner of balls and racquets and sports things as well as kites, cars, walkie-talkies, wagons, sci-fi material and science projects.
The girl’s side: tiaras, wings, pink and silver slippers, life-size doll heads for practicing hair styles [age 3+], Princess Castle, Sparkle Kittens, glitter art, Bling Bracelets, button making, finger-nail art, costumes, My Sweet Diary, dolls and a whole line of Project Runway merchandise including a makeup and hair design sketch portfolio [age 8+].
In another store, a whole section of pink was devoted to merchandise of an early motherhood training variety. Not that there’s anything wrong with dolls and dolly car seats and other domestic paraphernalia… it’s that it’s all pink.
One can go pink mad.
And I think I did.