I recently chatted with Joel Riley of News Radio 610 in Columbus, Ohio about the “No Gender December” campaign. Here’s our conversation:
Joel Riley: Let’s spend a couple of minutes with Dr. Rebecca Hains. Dr. Hains, a Children’s Media Culture Expert. And, Dr. Hains, I became aware of this over the weekend, “No Gender December.” Tell me, what is the concept?
Rebecca Hains: Well the concept, Joel, is that toy marketers and toy stores have been basically telling kids who should have which toy on the basis of their sex. So, rather than assigning toys to, say, a “boys’ aisle” or a “girls’ aisle,” the concept is that instead stores should be organizing toys by kids’ interests.
Joel: Hmm…okay. So, if you’ve got a boy that, you know, gravitates towards the doll aisle, no big sweat and if you’ve got girls that want to play with slot cars and matchboxes, totally cool.
Rebecca: Right. And, you know, what’s interesting is that it’s even toys that really seem to not be for one sex or the other that are being arbitrarily categorized, like craft sets, or kitchen sets, or play foods. I think that it shames kids when they see toys that they want in the aisle that is dedicated to the opposite sex. So it’s just about having more options for everybody.
Joel: Yeah, it’s interesting. I guess, you know, the times I’ve been in toy aisles—I mean, I’ve got a 14 year old now, but back in the day, we were buying toys. I don’t really sit back and think, “Boy, there’s the boy’s aisle, there’s the girl’s aisle.” I mean, we went through a lot of the board game stuff; you know, bicycles, they’ve got boys’ and girls’ bicycles together. I mean, toy stores really line this stuff up that way, huh?
Rebecca: Yeah, you know, they’ve increased the gender segmentation in the past decade pretty significantly. And what I found in doing the research for my book, The Princess Problem, is that kids who do want a toy in the opposite sex’s aisle end up feeling ashamed about it, like there’s something wrong with them that they want the toy that’s “for” the opposite sex. And that’s a big problem. Kids shouldn’t feel badly about wanting to explore different toys! Toys are for everyone.
Joel: Yeah, do you think it’s an issue more that it’s marketed that way, or is it that parents have a hard time themselves even saying, “Hey, Johnny, it’s okay if you want that toy even though it’s kind of marketed as a girl’s toy”?
Rebecca: You know, I think it’s a combination. I think that in some cases, it really is about the marketing. In other cases, parents—even if they do their best to say, “No, honey, it’s okay; you can have the dinosaur, little girl,” or “Little boy, no really, you can have a craft set; there’s nothing wrong with that”—kids can be very literal, especially the younger kids. And seeing that the aisle is meant for someone who is so clearly not them and not what they identify with, really, it makes it a frustrating situation for parents as well, even if they are really educated on this subject and well-intended.
Joel: And how much peer pressure do you think is involved in that? Cause if, you know, you’ve got five year-olds together, it doesn’t seem like one of them is going to break away and play with the toy the other kids aren’t going to play with.
Rebecca: That’s right. Children who are at about that age often go through a phase called “appearance rigidity,” where they’re so fixated on what is obviously assigned to their gender, that there’s no way they’re going to break away from the peer group. You know, because the peer group is into things that are very stereotypical, it’s hard for the 10% of kids that a study from Harvard University found are gender non-conforming to feel comfortable just exploring interests that don’t match the stereotypes.
Joel: Yeah, and is the goal just that kids just get to do what they want, or is it that between boys and girls we become more non-descript? I mean, are we trying to make things gender-neutral? Uh, what is the ultimate goal?
Rebecca: You know, the ultimate goal is to open things up, and not to make things neutral so that everyone is some weird, like, unisex product—but so that anyone who wants any toy that’s out there feels comfortable with it. One way that I think is helpful to look at it is this, okay? Play is children’s work. Maria Montessori, who founded the Montessori Schools, said that. Right? But, when it comes to the workplace, we definitely know that there are not careers for men and careers for women, so why would we suggest that there are toys for boys and toys for girls? It’s all about flexibility and letting girls have both the dolls and the chemistry sets, and vice-versa. It’s just more for everybody, and it’s in everyone’s best interest.
Joel: I got it. Dr. Hains, I appreciate the time. Dr. Rebecca Hains, Children’s Media Culture Expert. You participate if you’d like, “No Gender December.”
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. Rebecca would like to thank Salem State University graduate student Irene Walcott for her assistance transcribing this interview.