The Christmas holidays of my childhood in Cuba, are now mostly a nostalgic memory of the family we left behind when we immigrated to Panama. But, the one tradition from that time in my life which I still remember very fondly is what happened on January 6, the day when Three Kings, those invisible beings, would come some time in the night to bring us presents. Wanting to be in their good graces, I always made sure they had water for the camels, and food for the Kings. I imagined how hungry they were after such a long trip all the way to Cuba. As much as we wanted to stay awake until their arrival, at some point the excitement gave way to our tired little bodies needing to rest. In the morning, there were small gifts hidden all over the house, even under the furniture. The pleasure we felt finding and unwrapping them was unforgettable. We were free to ask for whatever we wanted because there was no TV advertisements to convince us we had to have “the most popular” toy of the season in order to be popular with our friends. I think about the contrast between my childhood experience and that of children in Connecticut.
As I look at the toys being produced and marketed, it is clear to see how manufacturers continue to create toys almost exclusively by gender.
Do we live in 2017, or in the 1950s?
When I first came to the University of Connecticut in the 1970s to work on a Masters degree in Child Development and Family Relations, it was the beginning of the Feminist movement. As part of my studies I was assistant to the professor who was in charge of the Preschool. That experience, and my subsequent appointment as the Head of the Preschool, showed me how striking it was that even at that early age, gender roles were already established. Boys only wanted to play with “boy” toys, and the same was true for the girls. It took a lot of prodding on our part to get them to work in teams, and in particular, for the boys to share the workbench. As I watched those children slowly willing to share their toys, and their new willingness to work together, I was naïve enough to think that we were making a difference, observing a crack in the wall of the gender behavioral stereotypes those children were already acting upon. We believed that those changes would show a new way in which society could open up opportunities for how both genders could treat each other and what professions they could choose later on in life.
How wrong I was! What a great disappointment I experience every time I open a store catalog and read circulars in newspapers and realize that their mission seems to be to encourage parents and others to buy toys to choose those made exclusively for “girls” or for “boys.”
However, this gender division, while more obvious during the Christmas holidays, is encouraged year-round. I have selected three stores to illustrate this point.
Target: (31 pages) A little boy drives a car, while pink bicycles wait for girls. Later on we have a display by the Disney Company, which I think symbolizes the worst of sexism, promoting dolls from Frozen and also Elsa’s palace, where girls can enter into their magic kingdom while they wait for a handsome prince to show up, at some point, to rescue them or make them happy, while the boys get to play with the “Air Jet Drone,” and puck game or with Transformers robots, which will be teaching them engineering and technology while girls play with Barbies.
ToysRUs: (35 pages) Pink castles for girls and Disney princesses are found right away, while boys collect info from “Animal Planet” surrounded by some science gadgets. or they can play with” action figures” like Superman and other male heroes, ready to save the world. Wonder Woman need not apply. But, to be fair, Disney is not the only one perpetuating the image of the happy princess or mother-to-be for girls, which by the way shows mostly white girls and white dolls. I was shocked to find only two black dolls in all the pages I looked at.
KMart: (39 pages) shows us Barbies and Newsberry dolls, and a little girl playing with a (pink) stove in one page, while in the opposite page boys are playing with a Craftsman Deluxe set and a wooden work bench. The marketing by gender extends even to the blankets:”mermaids” for girls, “action heroes” for boys.
The purpose of these toys is solely the continuation of stereotypes by gender, in which girls are not encouraged to develop intellectually or physically, or taught that they can grow up to choose from all professions as boys can.
My question is who is responsible for this: Toy manufactures, marketing companies or the parents and adults who buy these toys, encouraging the sexism they represent?
More and more jobs in the future will be related to technological knowledge. We are not doing girls any favors by encouraging them only to spend time brushing Barbie’s hair, changing her outfits, or cooking in their Disney Princes Gourmet Kitchen. Isn’t it time to start promoting a more balanced set of toys, which both genders could feel comfortable playing with? Or how about also giving children books — never found in these catalogs– to help them develop intellectually and which they can share with each other regardless of gender.
Bessy Reyna is a frequent contributor to CTLatinonews.com, a former oped columnist for the Hartford Courant and editor of the arts page for Identidad Latina. To learn more about her work, please visit: www.bessyreyna.com