Christmas is traditionally quite a gendered holiday, especially when it comes to children. Here are some lovely dolls to buy for the girls in your life, and some toy dinosaurs for the boys. Or there's the big book of alien stories (with a dark blue cover) for the young male readers, and a sweet anthology of fairy tales (with a pink cover) for the females. And don't forget about the miniature cooking utensils and vacuum cleaners - learning how to keep house is, of course, all girls really want and need.
Going into toy shops and bookstores at Christmastime can be quite disheartening. It can seem as though we're stuck several decades, or even centuries, in the past.
But this year, a few companies are starting to change that. First there was the news from Sweden about the gender-neutral catalogue from Top Toy. Jan Nyberg, the sales director at Top Toy, was quoted as saying, "With the new way of thinking about gender there is nothing that is right or wrong. A toy is not a boy or girl thing; it's a toy for children."
While this statement might seem rather obvious, it still has to be said, because it appears to be practically revolutionary to some. The Wall Street Journal reported that the catalogue showed how "boys lend a hand with the housework". That's quite an interesting phrasing, since it suggests that men are being kind and helpful if they do some of the housework, as though they don't also live in and make messes in homes. Perhaps a more accurate sentence would have been "boys do their share of the housework". Clearly, then, some in the US aren't ready for the kind of gender equality that Sweden has long been on the frontlines of promoting.
But American company Hasbro is ready, or at least has been forced into being ready. A teenaged girl named McKenna Pope petitioned Hasbro to change the pink-and-purple Easy Bake Oven with its girl-covered packaging when her little brother expressed interest in the toy, but dismay at how it was for girls only. McKenna said, "I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work. I have always been adamantly against anything that promotes specific roles in society for men and women, and having grown up with toys produced by the Hasbro corporation, it truly saddens me that such a successful business would resort to conforming to society's views on what boys do and what girls do."
Hasbro apparently is now going to unveil a blue, silver, and black version of the oven. We can only hope that this is the first step towards creating a wide array of gender-neutral toys and marketing them in a gender-neutral way. After all, if we genuinely want to believe that men and women are equal, we need to ensure that we get that message to the young children who will one day grow up to be the adults who work and contribute to society.
While in general I think this move towards gender-neutrality is positive news, I do have to wonder about the Swedish catalogue showing that girls can be as "well armed" as boys, as the Wall Street Journal put it. In the light of all the gun-related tragedies we've seen, making toy guns and other toy weapons, whether for boys, girls, or both, just seems tasteless, as well as pointless. Why is playing with weapons fun? What is it that children are practicing for? And, of course, once could ask why so many of the toys are practical, such as the iron and the blow-dryer? Why not have toys that really engage children's imaginations instead of solely training them for the future?
Still, the main issue here is that sexism is slowly losing its steely grip on toys, at least in some parts of the world. Maybe next year there will be even more gender-neutral toys, along with gender-neutral books and gender-neutral activities, and concomitant gender-neutral marketing.
Maybe we should all ask Santa for a very merry, gender-neutral Christmas next year.