We’ve discussed gender roles and children’s toys here at this blog (see our Lammily and GoldieBlox posts for example), and it is heartening to hear that major retailers like Target are moving away from gender-based labeling/shelving for their toy offerings.  When considering this gender-toy arena, my response has typically been, “Yes! More gender-neutral toys!  How hard could it be!?”

Well . . .

Over the past few months I’ve been teaching myself how to sew.  With a sewing machine from the 1960’s and fabric from a few of my spouse’s old work shirts, I’ve practiced the basics with a series of simple projects.  For one project, an adorable stuffed robot, my result was less robot and more baby, but I loved it so much I made three.

My plush progeny

One of my cousins has a two-year-old, so I decided to send at least one of the toys to her.  Then my feminist blogger mind thought, “I should make sure this toy imparts no gender expectations to the little female recipient.”  This seeming laudable and straightforward task immediately presented two problems.

Problem 1:  What do I call these things?

Trying to describe these toys in a gender-neutral way, I immediately ran into language hell.  While “stuffed toy” is accurate and gender neutral, it is just too generic to be meaningful.  I tried “doll,” which is also accurate, but as I wrote in an earlier post, technologies (including dolls) are social constructions as much as they are physical objects.  Girls get “dolls” and kitchen play sets, boys get “action figures” and Erector Sets.  This dynamic goes back decades, if not centuries.  If “doll” carries too much baggage, what to call them?   After I told my spouse how the dolls’ weighting reminded me of a baby sitting in a diaper, he started calling them “diaper babies.”  That’s the best I’ve come up with so far.

Problem 2: How do I ensure this toy is gender-neutral but also engaging?

I originally planned to send the toys off as they are, but then feminist blogger brain got started again.

While I will go to my grave believing that the soft, squishy, cuddly nature of these toys makes them instantly engaging, I will also admit that toys offer children a medium to role play and explore their worlds.  A doll without any features or clothes whatsoever offers unlimited possibilities, but it also fails to reflect reality.  This seems like a major shortcoming.

My first solution was to give them clothes.  My sewing skills aren’t there yet, but hey, I’m willing to learn.  However, on further reflection, the clothes solution just adds new problems.  What kind of clothes would be neutral?  Then I considered adding hair, but same problem. Are pig/pony tails gender-neutral?  If I have two dolls in overalls, one with “boy” hair and one with “girl” hair, am I perpetuating a stereotype?  What about neutral hair on two toys, one with a boy face and one with a girl face?  Wait, that just plays into the bow, boobs, and eye-lashes trope (see Ms. Male Character).

Now as I write, I’m wondering whether the blue color (associated with boys) is a problem.  The “make engaging gender-neutral toys” thing is taking a toll on my sanity.  How do we help children learn about their world through play without also teaching them our society’s preconceived notions about gender and gender roles?  Needless to say, these unbelievably complex, innocent-looking little bastards are still sitting in my house taunting me.

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