Let Toys Be Toys?

By Andy Cole, Customer Services Assistant, Discovery Museum

TWCMS: 2000.5713, a Fisher-Price train set. The box shows a young boy playing with the trains.

Andy is a Customer Services Assistant at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM), based at Discovery Museum. He welcomes visitors and prepares them for their visit, engages people with our local history and helps care for the objects, items and exhibits within the museum. Andy has worked at TWAM for 18 years.

“All toys are gender neutral, what is not neutral is the way toys are marketed.” — Christia Spears Brown, Associate Professor, University of Kentucky

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) holds almost 1000 items categorised as toys within their collections.

Boys just gravitate towards…well….boys’ toys! Guns, cars, trucks, y’know ‘action’ toys. And girls like to play with….well…girls’ toys ! Dolls, prams, and y’know the ‘pink’ stuff. Right..?

What’s the problem? Why interfere with the ‘perfectly natural’ and obvious play choices of children? We all want what’s best for our kids and what makes them happy.

TWCMS: 1999.1333, a ‘Desert Patrol’ Action Man doll, complete with guns and weapon accessories.
Image shows a boxed Bratz doll with long brown hair, wearing a yellow multi-coloured cropped top saying’ Selfie’ and a short black and blue skirt and pink heels. Plastic accessories are in the box next to the doll, including make-up, a blue mobile phone, a pink lip-shaped handbag and a green frog shaped phone case.
TWCMS: 2015.2044, a Bratz #SelfieSnaps doll, with make-up and phone accessories.

But what if it isn’t what’s best for our kids?

Research has shown that the over-emphasis on ‘action’ for boys and ‘domestication’ for girls does a disservice to both. Girls grow to under-develop spatial-awareness and problem-solving skills and boys grow with under-developed empathy and socialisation skills (boys are less likely than girls to raise their hands in classrooms and instead just shout out the answer).

A 2017 American study [1] revealed that adults are far happier for girls to play with traditionally ‘boy toys’ than for boys to play with ‘girl toys’. Older adults and men are even more likely to agree with this.

Within our own collections it doesn’t take long to find construction sets marketed exclusively towards boys and tea-sets and prams poured and pushed by little girls. How do you feel about girls playing with Lego or cars or boys playing with dolls and pushchairs?

Image shows a pink plastic woven-look toy pram with yellow wheels. The pram is on a black frame with a handle to pushed by children.
TWCMS: 1999.2513, a pink and yellow toy pram.

Dolls for boys must be called ‘action figures’. Boys are sometimes punished if they lean toward this sort of play or activity. Tomboys can be cute, cry-babies are definitely not. The subliminal messaging here is that ‘girl stuff’ is either unacceptable or inferior.

Does this lead to unhelpful behaviour like ‘toxic masculinity’ and the under-representation of women in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] subjects? Possibly.

Of course, it is difficult to conform here and bend social norms when we are desperate for our kids to ‘fit-in’.

Marketing departments and strategists know this of course and it certainly fits with capitalist and consumerist dreams of excessive consumption. If we buy separate toys for our girls and boys then potentially, we are buying twice as many.

Aisles in some toy stores distinguish building sets from girls building sets. If we automate and simplify the buying process and are spoon-fed restricted choices, there is less danger the ‘thinking’ process will get in the way of all that spending. None of this is natural or obvious; it is a deliberate and skilful strategy polished to mirror-like perfection over decades to appear transparent but actually reflects only ourselves.

TWCMS: J17258, a children’s science chemistry set. The box shows three boys and one girl playing with the set.
Image shows a boxed plastic doll of the character Elsa from the Disney film franchise Frozen. The doll has long blonde hair and is wearing a blue dress. The box highlights different features of the doll and an image of a young girl playing with the doll.
TWCMS: 2015.2043, a Disney ‘Singalong’ Elsa doll from the Frozen franchise.

However, attitudes are changing and initiatives like Let Toys Be Toys [2] are having an impact on how toy stores display and promote their stock, opposing the lazy pink aisle and blue aisle strategies of old. Recipients of their prestigious Toymark award include the Discovery Museum’s shop [3]. Discovery Museum’s Tiny Sparks initiative to introduce 2- 4-year-old children to science, engineering and design frequently highlighted the achievements of inspirational women in these and other areas [4].

Cynically, it is only when we exercise our power as consumers to withhold, or spend our money elsewhere that we see change begin to happen. Maybe, as well as voting with our feet, we should also engage our minds and more importantly those of our children, to incrementally begin shifting a status quo that is itself possibly quite toxic.

References: [1] Pew Research Center (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/19/most-americans-see-value-in-steering-children-toward-toys-activities-associated-with-opposite-gender/)

[2] lettoysbetoys.org.uk

[3] https://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/toymark/about-toymark/

[4] https://www.ilovenewcastle.com/discovery-museum-leads-the-way-with-tiny-sparks/