Earlier this month, Toys R Us decided that all its stores in the United Kingdom would display toys in a gender neutral manner, doing away with decades of blue and pink aisles. This follows a Swedish toy catalog Leklust's announcement that they are moving away from outdated gender roles by picturing Spiderman pushing a pram, for example.
Although I no longer play with toys, and I don't plan on having children anytime soon, the response by both retailers filled me with delight. Enough of boys and girls walking into different sections of the toy store! Enough of girls left with no choice but Barbie's kitchen set!
My first memories of playing with Barbie are from when I was five. I insisted that my mother buy me the doll; all the other girls in school had them. She gave in to my persistence, despite the often-high price tag. When relatives would ask what I wanted for my birthday, there was only one answer: more Barbie dolls. Obviously, my favorite color was pink. I won the citywide Barbie dress-designing contest. The prize was an elaborate sewing set. I was thrilled by this validation of my talent, hungry for the approval of my six-year-old peers. The need for approval coincided with being subjected to daily bullying.
However, when I started to play with boys, I began to feel distinctly excluded. Boys would refuse to play with me, because I was "girly" and I "should play with dolls." I was fascinated by their funky Hot-Wheels contraptions and Meccano sets. I saw this exclusion as testament to my weakness, something I was extremely defensive about, especially since I was just getting out of the bullied phase.
This time I decided to discard my girly identity.
I started to hate pink. I would tell people I didn't like dolls. I made sure I never cried in public, for fear of being labeled "girly." The plot didn't succeed; boys still refused to let me play with them. Also, my parents have always defied traditional gender roles, which confused me a little. In these tumultuous times, I found joy in the one activity which my parents encouraged wholeheartedly: reading. The Famous Five, Nancy Drew, and Harry, Ron and Hermione became my fun friends who led exciting lives, doing things I wanted to do. The Five would hike in the countryside, Nancy would help catch bad guys, and Hermione taught me it was okay to be a nerd — glamorous even.
Once I stepped back from my pink and blue aspirations, I saw that gender stereotypes in toys are dangerous — for boys and girls. They limit children's daily choices, by limiting the choices of their plastic role models. Socialization forces children to play with toys that they might not even like. In a study conducted at Western Connecticut State University, some adolescent girls responded that they often acted violently toward their dolls, pulling off their heads and cutting off all their hair. One girl said: "They are all perfect [and] it's just too much."
A lot has been written about how Barbie's unrealistic anatomy reinforces unhealthy body image in girls who will then grow up to be surrounded by more arbitrary beauty archetypes. Developmental Psychology published a study concluding that girls exposed to Barbie dolls suffered from body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. These ideal standards lead to inanities like push-up bikinis for seven-year-olds.
A valid criticism of Barbie is that the most of the dolls ascribe to very stereotypical professions that entail nurturing, care-giving, and household work. And, of course, there's the quintessential Princess Barbie. As Justice Sotomayor explained on a Sesame Street episode, "princess is not a career."
The manufacturer might respond by saying that Barbie has had a multitude of careers, including on in the military and as a presidential candidate. It's not as simple as that. In fact, I think it backfires by showing girls that, no matter the career, you can't let go of the need to look a certain way.
Obviously, career and lifestyle choices are affected by a variety of role models and social circumstances, and I'm not trying to pin blame on toys for our perceptions of gender roles. However, if we do want to raise sensitive, well-rounded adults, we might as well begin when they're children. Some initiatives like Goldieblox, an engineering toy for girls, and Roominate, a DIY architecture set, are interesting starts. Barbie sales are falling. And now there's that Swedish, pram-pushing Spiderman.
I have come to realize that my favorite toys are the ones I still engage with: gender-neutral board games like Scrabble, Scotland Yard and Monopoly. If only my six-year-old self had known that it's okay to not be girly or boyish at play.
As a law student, I can now say that, as it turns out, Barbie didn't inspire me at all. For all the presidential candidate Barbies and soldier Barbies, there's still no lawyer Barbie.