Anger in Australia as PM defends sexist toys

Toys and ploys: One example of how retailers market their products based on gender.

Tony Abbott has courted controversy by dismissing a campaign against gender-specific toys. ‘Let boys be boys and girls be girls’, he argues. But is the issue more complex than that?

As Christmas draws near, new toys are on many children’s minds. They appear to be on the Australian prime minister’s, too, after he urged campaigners and parents to ‘let boys be boys and girls be girls’ when it comes to choosing gifts this Christmas.

Tony Abbott’s comment was in response to the ‘No Gender December’ campaign that is gaining traction in Australia. Politician Larissa Waters has joined the chorus arguing that ‘no child’s imagination should be limited’. Trucks and trains are not just for boys, she argues, while pink kitchen utensils and Barbies should not be marketed exclusively for girls.

The war on gender-specific toys has gathered momentum in recent years. Campaigners argue that these toys enforce gender stereotypes that segregate boys and girls into rigidly defined roles in later life. This can lead to inequality in the workplace and domestic violence.

They have had some notable successes. Britain’s ‘let toys be toys’ campaign has forced several major retailers to remove ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ signs on toy displays. The issue reached the House of Commons earlier this year, when MP Chi Onwurah called a parliamentary debate, concerned that some toys were resulting in girls shying away from careers perceived to be more masculine, like engineering.

Surprisingly, history shows that it is only in the last couple of decades that the schism between boys' and girls’ toys has become so glaring.

Cunning retailers have cottoned on to the idea that they can boost their profits by marketing with gender in mind, making it difficult for a parent to pass down heavily gendered toys to siblings of a different sex, and forcing them to buy something new.

Yet science could be as much to blame, with a spate of studies showing that monkeys choose their toys based on gender. This suggests girls and boys too are biologically predisposed when it comes to toys.

Wired differently, or warped?

Abbott’s tired slogan is offensive, some argue, and shows just how little the problem of gender inequality is understood. Children are very sensitive to gender stereotypes, and pressuring a child into playing with a particular toy can result in social stigmas and much worse. This is nothing to do with biology; it is society that is limiting children’s attitudes and options.

This is being blown out of all proportion, others respond. It's ludicrous to say that hosting a doll’s tea party will doom a girl to a life of domestic drudgery, and it’s deeply misguided to suggest that playing with Barbies can lead to something as heinous as domestic violence. Toys are just a small piece of the cultural context; there are far more insidious forces at work that determine inequality.

You Decide

  1. Do the toys we play with as children affect us as adults?
  2. Do comments like Abbott’s suggest gender inequality is getting worse?

Activities

  1. In groups, come up with a concept for a toy that appeals equally to both genders.
  2. Choose an example of gender inequality and write a speech that explains why it is a problem and what should be done to address it.

Some People Say...

“You cannot make women and men equal; this is against nature.’Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”

What do you think?

Q & A

Aren’t I a bit too old for toys?
We tend to think of toys as innocent, fun objects that have little bearing on the adults we become. But different toys provide children with certain skill sets that can influence our interests and attitudes. Playing with toys is also only the first stage in exploring and building our character and our identity. All sorts of things in later life, like advertising and popular culture, can also affect how men and women relate to each other.
So if I played with dolls as a child, is my life over?
Not at all. Playing with dolls fosters social and caring skills, but there’s nothing to suggest you won’t be good at lots of other things too. It’s more important to be aware of how marketing, advertising and popular culture try to influence us based on our sex.

Word Watch

Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott’s conservative Liberal-National coalition came to office in 2013. Abbott has reversed the Labor Party’s carbon emissions tax, curbed foreign aid spending and reduced assistance for asylum seekers.
Australia
A survey of 1,000 girls and women aged between 14 and 25 by children’s rights organisation Plan International Australia this year found that fewer than 1% wanted a job in politics and almost half said sexist attitudes were increasing.
Larissa Waters
Waters, Lead Spokesperson for the Queensland Greens, has faced criticism from Australia’s right-wing press, including the accusation of trying to ‘ruin Christmas’.
History
The first half of the 20th century was when rules emerged about which colours belong to girls and boys. Blue was often chosen for girls because it is associated with the Virgin Mary, and blue-eyed girls were often given gifts in blue. It was not uncommon for brown-eyed boys to be given pink gifts.
Studies
In the original experiment, male monkeys played with toys like trucks twice as long as they played with toys perceived to be more feminine, like dolls.

Subjects

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