How Your Childhood Toys Impacted Where You Are Today

November 24th 2014

Lindsay Haskell

With Black Friday just days away, two photos circulating the internet are sparking debate about whether children's toys enforce gender roles.

The first photo is from 1973 -- showing that we've asked this question for a long time. (So you can't blame new age feminism for this!) Redditor fryd_ posted this photo from a 70s-era LEGO set. The toy included a note stating the company's message to parents about letting kids use LEGOs for whatever they want, even if their creations did not fit into their gender roles. 

A lot of boys like dolls houses. They're more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They're more exciting than dollhouses.

The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them. 

Fast-forward to 2014, and we're asking the same questions, as emphasized by another tweet from a parent who took her daughter, Maggie, to Tesco, a grocery and merchandise store in the United Kingdom. At Tesco, she took the following picture:

"She spotted the sign before I did," the parent told Buzzfeed. "[She] it out to me by indignantly saying something like, 'Well that’s wrong! Anybody can like superheroes, they’re being stupid aren’t they?'" Tesco has since pledged to remove the sign from all stores.

Enter Goldieblox.

Two years ago, Goldieblox made a stir by raising money on Kickstarter to manufacture engineering toys for girls. Now, Goldieblox is making another splash with its new advertisement for an action figure for girls, in which a little girl smashes - literally and figuratively - the idea that "Beauty is Perfection."

As the video notes at the beginning, "Fashion dolls teach girls to value beauty over brains. One is sold every three seconds."

Of course, this seems to be an allusion to Barbie dolls. Many react to the outrage over Barbie by saying, "What's the big deal? They're just toys, after all." I would counter that it's an incredibly big deal - we continually ingrain this message of an ideal body and a singular perception of beauty to children when they are first learning about the world around them. How can we not expect them to link their gender to a certain role when that's all they see around them, from advertisements down to their toys?

Now, to be fair, the Goldieblox action figure basically looks like a Barbie doll - white, blonde hair (although the hair is more askew than a typical Barbie's) - but instead of dressing the doll up in heels and makeup, Goldieblox outfits it with overalls, a tool belt, and a hammer. And though this may seem like a minor difference, it's not.

A study from Washington and Lee University revealed that how Barbies are dressed makes a significant impact on how girls viewed their future career possibilities. The majority of pre-school aged girls who came in for the study believed that they were not capable of doing non-stereotypically feminine jobs. However, when the researchers outfitted the Barbies in astronaut and firefighter uniforms, the young girls' perception changed. As one girl noted, according to study author Emily Coyle, "I've never seen a girl do that before, but, yes, I could do that job when I grow up."

Now, this may just seem a bit simplified but that's exactly the point - even a simple shift of how we dress a doll can quickly alter a child's perception of their own abilities. Can we run around smashing every Barbie doll on the shelves, similar to the girl in the Goldieblox commercial? I wish, but no, it's probably not a great idea. But what we can do is promote other ideals to girls to counteract what they see all around them on the shelves of toy stores - such as engaging them in games that involve their minds over their appearances and highlighting influential women in history over actresses and models on the covers of magazines.

Sadly, this culture of valuing a girl's appearance is particularly ingratiated into American culture. Last year, one mother wrote a piece in The Daily Life entitled "How To Break The Ice With Little Girls That Doesn't Involve Commenting On Their Appearance," in which the author notes just how often people comment on her young daughter's looks. In fact, it's practically the first thing anyone brings up with her daughter. Her piece begins by stating, "Dear Santa, What I want for Christmas is for people to stop objectifying my daughter," and the piece goes on to describe a scene in which a Santa Clause that she brought her 4-year-old daughter to see commented on every piece of clothing the girl was wearing, even going so far as to tell her she could model when she grows up.

As the author notes, this isn't an isolated incident -  in fact, looks are often an easy way to spark up a conversation with a young child. After reading this article, I myself thought about my interactions with little kids. Now, to be fair, I am the youngest child in my family and never baby-sat growing up, so I find it particularly uncomfortable to speak with young kids. After all, what do we have in common? What can I talk to them about? And so, like many others, I rely on complimenting them - telling a young girl what a pretty dress she's wearing or how cute her shoes are. But, like toys, how could this continual barrage of looks-based affirmation not affect a young child? When all you hear growing up is how your worth is tied to your appearance - which is further validated by beauty advertisements when you grow older - it's nearly impossible not to believe that, as the Goldieblox commericial notes, "You are beauty and beauty is perfection."

In fact, after reading that article, I decided to do my own experiment, and found it harder than expected. I worked as a barista at the time, and would often have young kids come up by the espresso machine as their parents waited for their drinks elsewhere. Now, as you can imagine, it already feels incredibly awkward for me to have to entertain these random children on my own, as I also try to do my job. But I noticed immediately that my first instinct in breaking the ice was to compliment the little girl's appearance. I fought those instincts, though, and decided instead to ask her what she was doing that day, or what she was learning in school, or what she was reading at the time. Was this the hardest thing to do? It turns out, not so much. But it does take that awareness of how we treat young children - particularly girls - and a conscious decision to break that mold.

Not only does this objectification - both in the form of dolls and interactions - only serve to pigeonhole little girls, they also reinforce specific gender roles. Earlier this year, a father penned an open letter entitled, "My Son Wears Dresses, And That's OK With Me," in which the father details how at first, he tried to force his son to wear "boys clothes" but then realized that what he essentially was doing with that was stifling his son's ability to express himself. The most heartbreaking part of this father's story was the comments that he received from others -  from "Do you think this is funny? There are kids here. You want them to see this?" to a gay friend trying to comfort the father by saying, "Just so you know I didn't wear any dresses when I was younger."

This attitude - not only that being gay is somehow a bad thing (that a father must be reassured that his son will not be, but also that a boy wearing dresses is something worrisome that shouldn't be seen by other children) reflects just how limited we view our own children and teach them. After all, little boys should wear shorts and sneakers and run around playing sports, right? While little girls are free to put on their parent's makeup, dress up in a dress and even high heels, and play "house," Even writing those statements, they feel antiquated and unfair. And yet, we continue to adhere to them in most ways. We refuse to break the mold in any way, for fear that by doing so, our kids will turn out "different." But shouldn't that be exactly what we want? We tell our kids that they're unique, that they're special, and can do anything they want to do - so why shouldn't our attitudes and our children's toys reflect those ideas?