Hamleys, a British store, has eliminated grouping toys according to those for boys and those for girls. Blogger Laura Nelson, who writes under the name Delilah, had written about how the central London toy store was promoting gender apartheid by segregating toys for boys and girls on different floors as this photo indicates. Indeed the sign for the girls’ floor was pink and that for the boys, blue. I’m sure I’m reading too much into this but is it any surprise that the boys’ floor was the top one?
Nelson wrote to Hamleys and also to Gudjon Reynisson, the chief executive of Icelandic bank Landsbanki, which owns the toy store; in her letter, she pointed out a notable difference in the toys on the separate floors. Those for the girls were “domestic, caring and beauty activities” — let me guess, there were dolls — while the boys’ were rather “geared to action and war, with little scope for creativity,” with none of that “arts and craft” sort of stuff. On December 12, Nelson wrote that her campaign was a success, with Hamleys changing its signs to red and white ones that list the types of toys. Jezebel quotes her announcing the victory on Twitter:
Congratulations everyone! We still have work to do on the nature of the toys themselves, and the gender stereotyping of their marketing [...] but we have come to a milestone. Great work!
But not so fast, Hamleys tell the Mirror. The store only moved things around as part of a “complete refit” to the store layout, following feedback from consultants and customer surveys according to which the “store directional signage was confusing.” Hamleys moved things around in the name of commerce, to “improve customer flow.”
Also seeking to fritter away at the success of Nelson’s campaign, Toby Young in the Telegraph writes that changing the store layout and signs to eliminate floors specifically for boys and girls makes no difference. Boys will be boys and seek out the toys their inner maleness calls for (weaponry, sports equipment) while girls will go for the infamous Barbie, the kitchen set, the bead kit. “Nature will always trump nurture and any attempt to re-educate children so they grow up to be model citizens in some socialist utopia is bound to fail,” writes Young.
I do remember my aunt and uncle purchasing their first daughter a Tonka truck, which she proceeded to use as a carriage for her dolls. Another cousin who has both a daughter and son, and who has sought not to impose pre-determined expectations about gender in raising them, notes that they are gravitating towards the toys society pre-assigns to their genders. Is Nelson’s campaign all in vein?
I think not, not at all. Rather, my relatives’ experiences are a reminder of how deeply set our preconceptions of gender norms and roles are, to the point that we might unconsciously reinforce gender expectations even when we are trying our best not to.
I grew up with only a sister and we had no trucks to speak of in our household. We did have Barbies and while I played with them and dressed them and all that, I really found them a bit eerie (plus, in the 1970s, Barbies with black hair and Asian features had yet to be created; I favored a red-haired one, Kelly, because she was not a blond). Personally, I preferred playlets with lots of little plastic pieces, stuffed animals and books. I have one son, Charlie, who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. With every one of his toys, we have had to teach him how to do more than line the pieces up. Often, Charlie would just ignore the toys in favor of opening and closing the door to the CD player a couple hundred times. I can quite assure you that we have never bought Charlie a water gun (yes, we are quite the peaceniks). Charlie does not pick up on many social cues, norms and expectations.
It has at times been rather wearying to have to teach Charlie how to play with all those toys but, on the other hand, it has been fascinating to see him play with things based on what he wishes to do with them, rather than on what is intuited from cultural standards. Charlie’s first response to any toy, whether stuffed animal, ball or blocks, is to note the color and then set it down in a straight line.
The change in signage at Hamleys is a small thing and, fine, let why the store did so be open to debate. But why not see what happens when we don’t tell boys and girls what they should play with and what they should like?
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Photo by Tony Crider