Every toy is in some sense educational, though we tend not to think about this much while buying toys, and people always become excited when there's a struggle over the curriculum. So last week, in response to a protest campaign, Hasbro announced that it would be expanding its Easy-Bake Oven line: In addition to the current toy ovens targeting girls, the company plans to introduce a model targeting human beings.
A 13-year-old girl named McKenna Pope had publicly challenged Hasbro to make an Easy-Bake Oven that her brother could play with, and Hasbro showed her a prototype in the works. "It's black and blue and silver," she said, according to news accounts. "It kind of looks like an appliance you would legitimately have in your kitchen."
Imagine! An oven that looks like it belongs in the kitchen. That contrasts with the existing oven, in swirly shades of purple, which looks like it belongs only inside the maximum-security segregation unit known as Girls' Toys.
The line between Girls' Toys and Boys' Toys is perilous territory, patrolled by twitchy guards. Before the Easy-Bake announcement, there was a toy panic, or posture of panic, about a Swedish toy catalog. (Actually multiple catalogs, though most of the opinion-having people seem not to have spent much time looking at the source texts.) People were appalled because the Swedes had ordered a Swedish toy company—which carries products for Toys "R" Us—to make its catalog photos gender-neutral.
Christina Hoff Sommers—who has made a nice career in the Boys' Toys section of the opinion-having business by arguing over and over that men have been victimized by feminism—explained to the readers of The Atlantic's website how dangerous this intervention in the toy-marketing business really is. "[N]othing short of radical and sustained behavior modification" can change children's "elemental play preferences," she wrote. And:
The Swedes are treating gender-conforming children the way we once treated gender-variant children.
They are calling them special epithets and beating them up and sometimes killing them? (Also: "Once"? Do tell.) But no, sorry, what she means is that these scheming Nordic elites are trying to modify the poor children's natural behavior. Only they aren't even doing that, really. They're just putting some different photos in the toy ads.
The sinister gender-abusive material includes such shocking and ludicrous images as a girl playing with a toy gun and a boy playing with a toy hair dryer. One image even shows a boy and a girl playing together, side by side, with what a Victorian time-traveler might identify as a dollhouse, but which, being the color of a dried scab, is clearly an action playset, for boys.
And the catalogs, if you page through the online versions, also include pictures of boys playing with toy guns and girls playing with dolls. They just don't include only those pictures.
But you don't have to do a close reading of Scandinavian toy catalogs ("Darth Maul-dräkt Heldräkt och mask. Ljussvärd säljs separat") to understand how dishonest and embarrassing this particular anti-reverse-discrimination campaign is. All you have to do is stop by an ordinary American Toys "R" Us and stand in the very wide aisle separating the pink part from the blue part. This is what kids are actually being taught by their toys: that they live under a system of gender-based apartheid.
When I was a kid, the boys' dolls—dolls with superhero capes, natch, or guns or ljussvärds—were separate from the girls' dolls at the Toys "R" Us, but at least they were on parallel aisles in the same part of the building. And the girls' aisle was only pink because the merchandise was in pink boxes. Now the store itself is done up with pink and blue signage, to warn kids against even coming close enough to glimpse the wrong playthings.
The Swedes are not close to overthrowing this regime. One catalog page shows two girls playing with toy laptops: the Disney Pixar Cars laptop and the Disney Princess laptop. There are Bratz and Bratzillas and Winx Club dolls, photographed with no children at all. How would you even start to gender-neutralize the world of the Bratz?
This is right and good, the traditionalists say. "Children," Sommers writes, "with few exceptions, are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play." She tells the inevitable personal anecdote:
When my granddaughter Eliza was given a toy train, she placed it in a baby carriage and covered it with a blanket so it could get some sleep.
Oh, yes, the toy train being wrapped in blankets. There is always a toy train—or, maybe more often, a truck—being treated like a baby, in these stories. If only Sommers had had a grandson, she could have told the story about him holding a Barbie doll by one leg and using it as a gun. And it is quite possible it would even have been true.
But as the sociologists say: so fucking what? What's the damage if little Eliza wants to rock Baby Train to sleep? Baby Train is snug and warm, and is also an inanimate object. Little Eliza is enjoying herself. Why does her grandmother have to be an asshole about it?
Here's a different anecdote: A year ago, our older son, then four, was daffy about Dora the Explorer. He watched Dora DVDs all the time. He colored pictures of Dora. He had a Dora book. And then, one day, he quit Dora cold turkey. I stopped hearing the Dora theme song playing on his computer. He didn't mention her.
I should have been happy about this. I hate Dora. But there was something wrong. One day his baby brother knocked the Dora book off the shelf, and the older boy picked it up and paged through it, furtively. Then he held it up and announced, "I don't like this."
Eventually, after some questioning, he explained that the other kids at preschool had said that Dora was for girls. (Specifically, the girls had said so.) He was busted up about it, but the rules were the rules.
Children are stupid and rotten and conformist, and elevating their weakness to a point of pride is insane. Trying to make them to stop being that way isn't confusing or cruel; it's one of the basic duties of being a parent and adult. Any pundit who starts holding forth on the superior behavioral wisdom of small children deserves to be bitten by one.
Yet there is Sommers, blasting the Swedes for not "allowing male/female differences to flourish in early childhood." If only the narrow-minded "androgyny advocates" would accept that "[m]en and women can be different—but equal." Yup. Separate but equal. This goes a long way toward explaining how we end up with boys so caught up in gender-segregation rules that they refuse to play sports against girls.
So I told my son, as one must, that Dora is for everyone, but not even the people who make Dora believe that. Dora was for everyone, and then the people who make Dora decided to spin off her cousin Diego from a supporting role—a boy who happened to sometimes join a girl on her gender-nonspecific adventures—into the lead role on his own series, which allowed them to sell Diego merchandise to boys. And then, just to make sure, they invented an age-accelerated middle-school "tweenage" version of Dora, with a flowing hairstyle and a bracelet instead of her wristwatch, who hangs out in a group of Explorer Girls. Preschoolers got the message.
But of course children are only following their own very natural innate instincts about how to act and what to like and which toys to play with. That's why the American Toys "R" Us catalog has girls pushing strollers and boys playing with the Beyblade Metal Fury Performance Top System Destroyer Dome Set, the way little hominid boys did on the African savanna. That's why it has a girl sitting demurely on a pink Daisy Pocket Mod Electric Scooter, next to a boy crouching half-upright on a Dirt Rocket MX400.
And that's why it has a boy and a girl in little cowboy hats, each riding a spring-frame plush bouncy horse. The boy's horse is a bay, with a white blaze and white stockings. The girl's horse is two shades of pink (with a white blaze and white stockings). Because if there's one thing you have to make extra-girly so girls know they can play with it, it's a pony.
Or maybe the pink horse is there to tell the boy he's allowed to ride the horse-colored horse. It's not just the gender-nonconforming kids who run afoul of the toy apartheid system. (It might even clarify things for some of them: "The girls like H.," the now-five-year-old told us, about a boy in his kindergarten class, "because H. likes princesses." This makes his kindergarten class certifiably smarter than the blogger for The Telegraph who wrote in response to the catalog news, "No boy grows up dreaming of being a princess.")
Toy apartheid teaches even the kids who identify with their expected gender that they have to identify more with it, that girls and boys belong in separate worlds, that you need clearance from top-level executives at Hasbro before you can buy your brother a toy oven to play with.
Yes, kids are wired up in certain definite ways. Our younger son is rowdy and brawny in a way his brother has never been (though his brother likes math and subway trains and comic strips, which is a helpful reminder that "boy things" isn't even an internally coherent category). Where the older boy was indifferent to playing ball, the younger started chasing and grabbing and flinging balls around as an infant. Before he could even walk, he spotted a big toy garbage truck that his big brother had never cared about, tucked away in the closet, and he dragged it out and started shoving it around the floor.
But while he's vrooming trucks around, the little macho man keeps an eye on the door to the washer-dryer closet, because when it's open, he can get his hands on his other favorite thing in the world: the Swiffer. He lives for the chance to start sweeping the floor. You might even say he's "powerfully drawn" to the task. And those insane, utopian Swedes have featured, in their catalog, a picture of a little boy playing with a toy vacuum cleaner. Below that is a toy mop-and-broom set. Our guy would play at housework with that stuff all day, if we had it. It'd be the most natural thing in the world to him. But we don't live in Sweden. Also we have too much crap lying around already.