children's toys
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’Tis the season to say no to gendered toys

Christmas toy catalogues routinely stereotype young girls and boys, says Hattie Garlick. The cumulative effect this has on children can’t be underestimated

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By Hattie Garlick on

’Tis the season in which children across the land join together in an age-old custom and, armed with a well-chewed Biro, slump on the sofa to thumb studiously through the Argos catalogue.

So, could there be a more appropriate time for new research to highlight the many ways in which Christmas toy catalogues routinely stereotype young boys and girls?

Having reviewed catalogues from big brands including Argos, Toys R Us, Smyths Toys, Early Learning Centre and Tesco, the campaigning group Let Toys Be Toys found that the vast majority played to outmoded gender stereotypes.

Flicking through this year’s cornucopias of Christmas delights, children are twice as likely to see little girls playing with toy kitchens or cleaning equipment than little boys. They are seven times more likely to find pictures of girls playing games that revolve around caring. Boys, meanwhile, are nearly twice as likely to be depicted playing with construction toys.

“The Smyths catalogue has 16 pages devoted to dolls and not a single photo of a boy playing any one of them,” says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. “People ask us why we’re focusing on toys when there are more urgent, starker examples of gender inequality to tackle, like the gender pay gap. But where do those extreme inequalities start? Babies aren’t born thinking they should have different jobs or be worth different wages. They learn it. So, the question is: from where?”

Luckily, this year a number of studies have tried to answer just that question. In January, the Science journal published research illustrating that girls begin to see themselves as less intellectually gifted than boys at the terrifyingly tender age of six.

Flicking through this year’s cornucopias of Christmas delights, children are twice as likely to see little girls playing with toy kitchens or cleaning equipment than little boys

In July, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority published its own insights into how that happens. Its report, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm, states that “advertising is one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, alongside the role played by some parents, schools and employers, and aspects of particular cultures, communities and demographics".

“Their report makes the point that it’s not about each individual image but their cumulative effect,” says Jess. “One picture showing a little girl in a play kitchen is harmless. But the effect on a little girl who flicks through the Christmas catalogue and only sees other little girls depicted in kitchens or holding dolls… well, that’s completely different. She’s not just looking at the toys. She’s absorbing the rules about what it means to be a girl. And to a preschool child, those rules seem every bit as set in stone as the ones dictating it’s wrong to hit or bite.”

There is some more festive news afoot, however. Within 24 hours of the Let Toys Be Toys report, the BBC also made an announcement. It is refreshing the programming for its preschool network, CBeebies, in order to introduce more female lead characters, after campaigners argued that boys and men fronted too many of its shows.

CBeebies is far from the worst offender. It is, after all, the network that gave us the wonderful Katie Morag and, with it, one of my favourite feminist TV moments. In Katie Morag And The Golden Treasure, the young heroine asks her indomitable Grannie Island why she hasn’t bought herself any glittery jewellery. “Well, I thought about it,” replies Grannie thoughtfully, “but I got myself a new generator instead.”

Still, the cumulative effect of children’s media, be it TV or toy advertising, tells an oddly archaic story in which Bob builds, Sam fights fires, Mr Tumble tells jokes, Mr Bloom grows vegetables…  And the girls? Well, some get swept up in adventures – in a strictly supporting role – but most stay at home, nursing their babies and baking their cakes.

Back in July, the American not-for-profit Common Sense Media (CSM), which promotes safe technology and media for children, published a report called Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids' Development.

Across children’s films and television, they found male characters exhibit “aggression, power, dominance, status seeking, emotional restraint, heterosexuality, and risk taking”. Female characters, on the other hand, “are less active, less knowledgeable, less dominant, and more deferential” and “obsessed with their appearance”.

“Decades of research,” wrote founder James P Steyer, “demonstrate the power of media to shape how children learn about gender… telling our boys that it’s OK to use aggression to solve problems and our girls that their self-worth is tied to their appearance… [shaping] our children’s sense of self, of their and others’ value, of how relationships should work, and of career aspirations.”

Or, as Caroline Knorr, CSM’s senior parenting editor, wrote: “It's not just one movie. It's not just one TV show. It's constant exposure to the same dated concepts in the media over and over, starting before preschool and lasting a lifetime. Concepts like: Boys are smarter than girls; certain jobs are best for men and others for women…”

The eventual outcome? Well, as the report points out, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that gender discrimination costs the global economy up to $12 trillion a year in wasted potential.

This Christmas, I’m going to give my daughter and – since this is a problem for boys, too – my son the best gift I can: a home that is a haven, free of these catalogues. A boycott on those brands and shows that perpetuate them. And a lot of Grannie Island.


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