The logistical and ethical problems with trying to make toys gender-neutral
Is it discriminatory and degrading for toy catalogs to show girls playing with tea sets and boys with Nerf guns? A Swedish regulatory group says yes. The Reklamombudsmannen (RO) has
Swedes can be remarkably thorough in their pursuit of gender parity. A few years ago, a feminist political party proposed a law requiring men to sit while urinating—less messy and more equal. In 2004, the leader of the Sweden's Left Party Feminist Council, Gudrun Schyman,proposed a "man tax"—a special tariff to be levied on men to pay for all the violence and mayhem wrought by their sex. In April 2012, following the celebration of International Women's Day, the Swedes formally introduced the genderless pronoun "hen" to be used in place of he and she (han and hon).
Egalia, a new state-sponsored pre-school in Stockholm, is dedicated to the total obliteration of the male and female distinction. There are no boys and girls at Egalia—just "friends" and "buddies." Classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White have been replaced by tales of two male giraffes who parent abandoned crocodile eggs. The Swedish Green Party would like Egalia to be the norm: It has suggested placing gender watchdogs in all of the nation's preschools. "Egalia gives [children] a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be," says one excited teacher. (It is probably necessary to add that this is not an Orwellian satire or a right-wing fantasy: This school actually exists.)
The problem with Egalia and gender-neutral toy catalogs is that boys and girls, on average, do not have identical interests, propensities, or needs. Twenty years ago, Hasbro, a major American toy manufacturing company, tested a playhouse it hoped to market to both boys and girls. It soon emerged that girls and boys did not interact with the structure in the same way. The girls dressed the dolls, kissed them, and played house. The boys catapulted the toy baby carriage from the roof. A Hasbro manager came up with a novel explanation: "Boys and girls are different."
They are different, and nothing short of radical and sustained behavior modification could significantly change their elemental play preferences. Children, with few exceptions, are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play. David Geary, a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri, told me in an email this week, "One of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children's play preferences." The female preference for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble hold cross-culturally and even cross-species (with a few exceptions—female spotted hyenas seem to be at least as aggressive as males). Among our close relatives such as vervet and rhesus monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely that the monkeys were indoctrinated by stereotypes in a Top-Toy catalog. Something else is going on.
Biology appears to play a role. Several animal studies have shown that hormonal manipulation can reverse sex-typed behavior. When researchers exposed female rhesus monkeys to male hormones prenatally, these females later displayed male-like levels of rough-and-tumble play. Similar results are found in human beings. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is a genetic condition that results when the female fetus is subjected to unusually large quantities of male hormones—adrenal androgens. Girls with CAH tend to prefer trucks, cars, and construction sets over dolls and play tea sets. As psychologist Doreen Kimura reported in Scientific American, "These findings suggest that these preferences were actually altered in some way by the early hormonal environment." They also cast doubt on the view that gender-specific play is primarily shaped by socialization.
Professor Geary does not have much hope for the new gender-blind toy catalogue: "The catalog will almost certainly disappear in a few years, once parents who buy from it realize their kids don't want these toys." Most little girls don't want to play with dump trucks, as almost any parent can attest. Including me: When my granddaughter Eliza was given a toy train, she placed it in a baby carriage and covered it with a blanket so it could get some sleep.
Androgyny advocates like our Swedish friends have heard such stories many times, and they have an answer. They acknowledge that sex differences have at least some foundation in biology, but they insist that culture can intensify or diminish their power and effect. Even if Eliza is prompted by nature to interact with a train in a stereotypical female way, that is no reason for her parents not to energetically correct her. Hunter College psychologist Virginia Valian, a strong proponent of Swedish-style re-genderization, wrote in the book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, "We do not accept biology as destiny ... We vaccinate, we inoculate, we medicate... I propose we adopt the same attitude toward biological sex differences."
Valian is absolutely right that we do not have to accept biology as destiny. But the analogy is ludicrous: We vaccinate, inoculate, and medicate children against disease. Is being a gender-typical little boy or girl a pathology in need of a cure? Failure to protect children from small pox, diphtheria, or measles places them in harm's way. I don't believe there is any such harm in allowing male/female differences to flourish in early childhood. As one Swedish mother, Tanja Bergkvist, told the Associated Press, "Different gender roles aren't problematic as long as they are equally valued." Gender neutrality is not a necessary condition for equality. Men and women can be different—but equal. And for most human beings, the differences are a vital source for meaning and happiness. Since when is uniformity a democratic ideal?