Toying Around With Gender


Christina Hoff Sommers believes that the "Swedes are treating gender-conforming children the way we once treated gender-variant children":

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(RO) has reprimanded Top-Toy, a licensee of Toys"R"Us and one of the largest toy companies in Northern Europe, for its "outdated" advertisements and has pressured it to mend its "narrow-minded" ways. After receiving "training and guidance" from RO equity experts, Top-Toy introduced gender neutrality in its 2012 Christmas catalogue. The catalog shows little boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with guns and gory action figures. As its marketing director explains, "For several years, we have found that the gender debate has grown so strong in the Swedish market that we have had to adjust."

Christina's bottom line:

There was a time when a boy who displayed a persistent aversion to trucks and rough play and a fixation on frilly dolls or princess paraphernalia would have been considered a candidate for behavior modification therapy. Today, most experts encourage tolerance, understanding, and acceptance: just leave him alone and let him play as he wants. The Swedes should extend the same tolerant understanding to the gender identity and preferences of the vast majority of children.

But if gender is as powerful as we think, most little boys and little girls will not change because of a marketing shift. They will play the way they want. I understand Christina's aversion to this rather creepy post-gender utopianism, but I have much more confidence that boys will be boys, whatever "Top-Toy" tries to change it. And by showing that gender non-conformism is not abhorrent, and even part of the childhood landscape, a little bit of freedom opens up for some children, and a little less stigma. I'm ok with that.

And the stigma does hurt. I remember my grandmother watching my younger brother run around the house with a toy truck at Christmas, while I was withdrawn and reading. "Well at least you have one normal son," she told my mother, who was, as I recall, speechless. And a little part of my 8-year-old self-esteem shattered.