Like so many of life's conundrums, it all started in the grocery store.
As we stood in the checkout line, my two-year-old son, James, grabbed a cheap doll out of a sale bin – one strategically positioned there for precisely this reason. "Mine baby! Mine!" he announced, slobbering so many norovirus-infused kisses on the doll's plastic head that I couldn't possibly return it to the bin. I bought it, averting a public tantrum, and thought nothing more about it until his brother, Freddy, age six, picked it up later that evening.
"A girl left her doll here," he said, holding the toy away from his body as though it might bite him.
"That's your little brother's new favourite toy," I said.
Freddy made a face. "But dolls are for girls."
He shrugged, "I dunno. They just are."
But James didn't discriminate. For the next few weeks he carried his "baby" everywhere – in his stroller, to football, swimming, dance class and play group. He soothed it to sleep on the bus and fed it porridge at breakfast and changed its nappy in bed. He played with his baby tenderly and with patience. He didn't hurl it down the stairs or stomp on it like all the other trucks and plastic dinosaurs in his toy box. On the street, people said, "Isn't she sweet?" – even though James is possibly the least feminine-looking child I have ever seen and exclusively dressed in dungarees. In his classes, everyone thought it was "cute" and "hilarious" that he carried around a doll. The range of reaction was the same when I brought a hand-me-down toy kitchen home for the boys. I was confused: Why was it cute or even remarkable for boys to play with dolls or kitchens in a world where dads change nappies and husbands cook dinner?
I tried not to take it seriously – it was a just a doll, after all – but after a while I started to feel it: The slow simmer of anger in the face of everyday sexism. The irritation was hardly new. But as a parent of boys I'd assumed (with a certain degree of guilty relief), that I would not have to feel it on behalf of my children.
Boy, I was wrong.
We've all read about the gendered marketing of toys, and how it's resulted in a world of pink princess crap for girls (Peggy Orenstein's book Cinderella Ate My Daughter is brilliant on the subject), but fairy dresses and tiaras are really just the sparkly tip of the iceberg. Children, particularly in the early years, are deeply impressed by stereotypes because they are just beginning to grasp the befuddling notion of gender. They feel understandably confused about what it is to be a boy or a girl and thus instantly cleave to toys that are "only for boys" or "only for girls" because such choices seem to reaffirm their burgeoning identity.
Toy marketers know this and exploit our children's confusion, offering them a sense of false security in the form of gender-stereotyped toys and merchandise. So the little boy thinks, "I'm a boy, therefore I like guns and superheroes," instead of, "I'm a boy and therefore I can like anything that interests me." That's why gendered marketing for kids isn't just politically incorrect – it's genuinely socially damaging.
But it wasn't until my son brought home his doctor's kit, courtesy of the CBeebies kids' magazine (the children's version of the BBC) that I truly lost it. "What dis?" he asked, holding up a stethoscope, a clipboard and a clip-on necktie. Yes that's right – a man's necktie. "Dada doctor," he said, affixing the tie to his collar and stomping off to give his baby a checkup. Now, thanks to Britain's public broadcaster, my son thinks that only people in neckties – i.e., men like his father – are doctors.
Luckily, there are smart, brave people pushing for change. After I tweeted my dismay about the CBeebies necktie, I was contacted by a wonderful British organization called Let Toys Be Toys, which has been campaigning since 2011 to get the toy and publishing industries to stop marketing their wares as only suitable for one gender or the other. They have blogged and protested and conducted fascinating research into questions such as, will "boy books" help close the reading gap between boys and girls? (Answer: nope – but class advantage will.) And how much of our children's toys preferences are "natural" and how much are based on outside social cues? (Answer: far more of the latter than you might expect.)
"People often think toys are trivial, but just ask a child how important their toys are!" Jess Day, a 41-year-old mother of two and the organization's spokesperson, told me when I contacted her to commiserate.
"Play is absolutely fundamental to children's learning and development, and putting limits on what kind of play is permitted is putting limits on children's development, it's as simple as that."
So far, Let Toys Be Toys has pressured 13 major British retailers, including Boots, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, into removing unnecessarily gendered labelling in their stores (and if you think about it, why should such a measure be limited to toys – why not clothes as well?). Last year, they noted a 60-per-cent reduction in gendered children's signage in British stores. And perhaps more importantly, they've got the rest of us talking about the issue.
"I think we've sleepwalked into a situation where telling kids what they're meant to be interested in seems normal," says Day. "This simply wasn't the case 20 or 30 years ago."
Nor, increasingly, is it the case in adult life. So junk the gendered marketing, and let's let toys be toys.