Beyond Pink and Blue: Gender Roles in Childhood

British toy store Harrods has recently undergone some major changes. Instead of the standard aisles  separated “pink for girls” and “blue for boys,” Harrods has broken the store into 6 “worlds” where toys are separated by categories, not genders. “Who cares?” some might ask. But this is part of a larger shift in marketing that I believe has the power to change our society’s deep-seated feelings about gender roles.

Gender non-conforming children have been a media buzz for the past few months. Willow Smith got a buzz cut, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt “wears boy clothes” – what is the world coming to?!? Parents, educators and anyone with a laptop have weighed in on the color-coding and gender segregation of childhood. Questions have been asked and dissected about gender, gender expectations, gender non-conformity and how it effects children of all ages.

Books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter illustrates how princesses, female sexualization, fashion and beauty expectations have saturated the girl children’s market with toys that are stifling girls creativity, experiences and perceived choices for their future. Along the same lines, boys are trained from birth through the media to be tough, “manly”, physically strong and muscular and are bombarded with violent toys at earlier and earlier ages.

What happens when the genders are so strictly defined from birth? One common example is that women go into STEM fields at much lower rates than men. Is this because “girls don’t like math and science” or because they are subtly steered to “girly” pursuits like fashion and princess toys while boys play with blocks, LEGOs and tools? SPARK recently protested LEGO’s new “Friends” line because of its pink saturated, gender stereotyping “girl world.” Luckily, they won and new lines featuring female mini figures are in the works. One does not have to look far to see the prevalence of male violence in childhood and beyond and wonder if there is a link between this and the hyper-masculinity modeled in the media.

Another major problem is that we as a society are teaching children not only to have strict gender roles for themselves, but for others. As Carrie Goldman writes in her book Bullied, these strict gender roles cause anyone who deviates from “the norm” to be potential targets for bullying and violence. For children that don’t fit into these roles, school can go from a place of learning to a place of fear.

Children can sometimes be very “black and white” thinkers and seeing a toy advertised for just girls or just boys can cause harmful associations. Media literacy is a powerful component to teach children of all ages and genders to sift through the thousands of messages they receive on a daily basis. Parents and teachers should be communicating acceptance for others from an early age and letting children seek out any and all age-appropriate opportunities they show an interest in.

As an educator and also someone who would like to have children someday in the far flung future, the gender segregation of childhood is very disturbing to me. I want the children that I teach each day to believe that their possibilities are endless. They can be a scientist or a construction worker or a teacher or a doctor or a dancer – no matter what gender! I believe that toy stores like Harrods are taking positive steps in gender neutral marketing and I sincerely hope other companies in the US soon follow in their footsteps.

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