Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gender Neutrality, for boys!

I've been reading a lot lately about this gender neutral Easy Bake Oven petition and I think it's a really interesting idea. I think it's nice that a young girl was motivated to approach a large corporation and ask them to change. I think it's nice that she was trying to make the world a little easier for her baby brother, who wanted an Easy Bake Oven but assumed it was "just for girls" because of the insanely pink and purple, hyper girly way it's marketed. 
By now we all know, pretty much, that toys are marketed for girls or for boys using stereotypes about what each gender should be like and I can't really think of many toys that aren't. Toys seem to have become much more focused on gender in the past few decades: for girls toys have become much more feminized and sexualized; for boys masculinity and violence seem to be really played up. Walk down a toy aisle of boys toys and you see a lot guns, fake grenades, war-themed games and objects, cars and trucks, or trade themed toys(construction etc). The toys I saved from when I was a child that are still in production today have changed so much I can't even recognize them. Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite look like a bizarre mixture of grown woman and baby deer -- girls toys especially focus on appearance highlighting humongous eyes, teeny tiny noses, and pouty mouths.
It's just a fact that people buy different toys for girls and boys.These two lists from Squidoo of the "top toys of 2012/2013" are really telling:

Boys toys are all like "action!" "adventure!" "learning!" While girls toys seem to be more like "hair!" "caring!" "friends!" There are some crossover toys, like the Leap Frog Explorer Tablet, but a tablet would sell games and apps separately and I imagine they are pretty different when it comes to girls and boys.
These are "Novi Stars", one of the top ten girls toys for this year:

I'm sorry, but wtf are those things? When did we start making toys for girls that look like this? Each of the "stars" is wearing spiked heel shoes, have splayed feet, short skirts, massive doe eyes, and pouty pout lips. What does a girl do with these toys? Is she like, "heeeey, I love not being able to walk because my shoes are so cool!" What is the point of creating suggestive dolls for little girls? So that they want to wear high heels and show off their sexy alien legs? I don't know, but if I had a daughter and she said she wanted those I'd be freaked the fuck out.

Next we have a toy from the boys list, the Brachiosaurus! This toy is a machine AND a dinosaur PLUS you build that shit yourself. The dinosaur has no real physiological features, as a real dinosaur would, and you're encouraged to view it as a mechanical thing rather than an animal. Very similar to a Transformer. Sure, you can buy this for your girl and I'm sure she'd enjoy it but the point is that it isn't being marketed for girls.

I'm not saying there are no gender stereotype breaking toys -- On the girls list there is Doc McStuffins(also on the list) , a show about a little girl who "fixes" toys. The boys list doesn't really include anything all that stereotype busting and this is one of the reason I am really conflicted about this gender neutral Easy Bake Oven.
I think it's really problematic to push for gender neutrality based on the assumption that "girls toys" are damaging for boys. Gender neutrality on boys behalf ignores the fact that "for girls only" marketing and toy design also hurts girls by acclimatizing them to stereotypes that they may or may not be inclined towards. Why has a black and silver Easy Bake Oven been on the design table for 18 months if what they're building is gender neutral? If it's gender neutral then just take the toy you have and make it a different colour, use a plethora of colours! Kids love colour! The fact that Hasbro had to re-design the "girly" Easy Bake Oven suggests that gender neutrality is not actually the goal, but rather that satisfying a more "boy friendly" audience is. It's not alright for boys to play with a pink Easy Bake Oven, but allowing girls to play with it is fine? How does the Pink Paradigm damage girls at the same time as it alienates boys? Go gender neutral Hasbro but don't ignore that often times "gender neutral" really means "not girly."
Another thing I find interesting about the Easy Bake Oven debate is the voice of celebrity Chefs piping in. Bobby Flay publicly supported the petition, saying that he used to play with a green Easy Bake Oven as a child and it pushed him towards cooking as a career. This makes me really, really uneasy. Are we really suggesting that making Easy Bake Ovens more available to boys will make them more likely to become chefs? If so, then we need to take a huge step back and look at the gender dynamics of the Culinary Arts. I think it's really important that boys learn to cook, just as girls should.  I think boys should be made to feel comfortable cooking as a hobby or for family, with love, just as girls are taught. What I'm not comfortable with is that men outnumber women in the Culinary Arts, particularly at the executive level. Talk to any female Chef and she will tell you how few women she works with and how hard it was for her to get into a kitchen (except, of course, as pastry Chefs; the area of Culinary Arts that women often get funneled into). There are so few female Executive Chefs and women are underrepresented in kitchens so I don't really think that boys need an Easy Bake Oven to inspire them to be Chefs. What about an industrial Easy Bake Oven for girls that isn't about making cookies for your friends but instead helps develop skills they'll eventually need to become real Chefs, as a career?
What about all the toys for boys that leave girls out? How do we make a Construction set more appealing for girls? By making it pink? No. We make it more acceptable by changing societal views about who does what. We don't tell girls that pink is for them and blue is for boys. We don't applaud aggressive behaviour in boys while reviling it as "unnatural" in girls. We don't assume that boys who play with a pink Easy Bake Oven(or any pink toy) are 'fags' or 'wusses'.  We teach children that they can play with whatever they want, be whoever they want, and they will not be judged for it. That is gender neutrality.
Gender neutrality is an important but lofty goal especially when we consider that anything labelled female or feminine is looked down upon. Gender neutrality cannot mean "for boys" just as much as it shouldn't mean "for girls." Neutral isn't always neutral and we shouldn't applaud something right away just because someone tells us it's a step forward. An Easy Bake Oven that is black and silver does not mean that we've reached some kind of gender equity, it just means that now there are black and silver Easy Bake Ovens. I guess the only real question that needs to be answered is since there are still separate toy aisle for girls and boys, which aisle will they display it in?

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