As I sit in snowless Vermont, I consider the avalanche of toy catalogues arriving in the mail daily and the choices I’ll make online and in stores for my seven nieces. It’s a particularly problematic time of year for me, having just co-written a book on marketers and girls, exposing the hard sell of pink and pretty in the early years, followed closely by anything and everything to make an 8-year-old feel like a sexy, diva pop-star. Given four years of research scouring toy stores, reading kiddy lit, watching videos, and interviewing sales clerks, shopping should be easy, right? Avoid the marketing and media hype, go to one of those educational stores and buy them all something gender neutral, like jigsaw puzzles or tinker toys. But there are three problems with that: 1. Gender neutral toys are really difficult to find these days. Even the building toys are now colored pink and focused on home decor and constructing pretty accessories; jigsaw puzzles describe scenes of angelic girls and Norman Rockwell-like mischievous boys; 2. I like to give them what they want, securing my status as “favorite aunt” through shameless bribery. But what they want is often what marketers, through glitz and glam and countless pester power commercials, have told them to want; and 3. after raising two boys, I kind of like to buy the glitzy, glam pink stuff, that is, the very stuff we’re railing against in our book. I have to confess that I’m hopelessly attracted to the fairy wands, the tutus, the sassy dolls, and even the tiaras; the make-up kits and jewelry crafting boxes, the stuff that shouts GIRL GIRL GIRL! When I’m in the store I fall into a “Isn’t that pretty?” trance, forgetting everything I’ve learned about the narrow stereotyping of girlhood into pretty in pink princesses who watch the prince get all the action, or the sexy hott divas whose only power is the power to shop or attract boys. I don’t think it’s in my DNA to like pink. I just think those marketers are good at what they do.
What draws me out of this pink fog? Remembering who my nieces are. They’re real girls with lots of interests and personality who defy type. I swear I’ll remember that this holiday season. Still, I’m haunted by my gifts of Christmas past.
Last year six-year-old Shannonwanted a Dora the Explorer Kitchen Set. I complied, calling multiple stores and chasing it down. And yet it saddened me that my feisty little niece, who is just learning to stick up for herself in playground battles and who had much more in common with the original Dora the Explorer than the new and transformed Dora who likes to cook, put on make-up, and go to her princess castle, was enticed into desiring “what every girl wanted” last Christmas. This year she wants Polly Pocket. Can I find one that isn’t engaging in a mini makeover at the “Hairstylin’ salon”, shopping at “Polly Mall”, or going on a “Jewel Hunt.” Gone are the original Pollies with little girl bodies, here to stay are the Bratz-competitive Pollies, in new teen bodies and fashion, ready to promote their new movie.
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer reads a ton. But did I get her my favorite books for Chanukah? No, I got her petite little earrings. I think they were purple and pink. The next time I saw her I noticed her taste runs international, multi-ethnic, big and bold. What was I thinking? She’s a girl? She’ll like these pretty ones? Ugh. And I’m horrified that when she was 12 I bought her Victoria’s Secret pajamas (the very decent kind they keep in the front of the store to draw in the younger girls), just so that she could feel more grown up, as if grown up means now you can shop for sexy lingerie!
What about Anna and Justine, the four-year-old twins who are mischievous, wild, and terrifying to even the most experienced babysitter? There isn’t a single female cartoon character or associated toy on Saturday mornings that captures their capacity to demand what they want when they want it and get it. I think I tried to tame them with dollhouse figures. Truth be told, if any girls needed real action toys to work out some aggression, they surely did. How about bats and balls?
And 14-year-old Sarah does not fit the stereotype of the newly teen-aged girl who supposedly has a “passion for fashion”, crushes on boys, and a love of gossip. No, she has loved lego transformers, Pokemon, Magic cards, and dragons since she was so big, and still does. Why on earth did I get her a subscription to a girls’ magazine? To my credit it was one of those educated mom kind of girl magazines that purports to be different. Yet, why did she need to read about girls when her heart was with warriors and mythical beasts?
Twelve-year-old Tama likes art, and as I learned in researching our book, art gets quickly transformed to arts and crafts. It turns girls’ genuine interest in design, observation, and problem-solving into decoration. But what did I get her? I think it was a jewelry making craft set. Why not a pair of pliers, some weird shaped beads, nuts, and blocks, a glue gun, and some wiring and just say – see what you can do with these?
This holiday season I’ll take a pledge – no more dolls. No horrific looking Bratz Babyz, Bratz rock angels, or Bling Bling Barbies. No toy limousines, hot tub accessories, or party planes to help my nieces act out the supposed teen life these dolls lead. And no more American Girls, now that Mattel bought them out and sells lip gloss and body lotion to six-year-olds along with the dolls, teaching these little girls a body consciousness they don’t need. Not even doll house dolls which frequently come gender coded with a baseball cap on the son and a bow and pretty dress on the daughter, the baby attached to the mother, the father with briefcase in hand.
My pledge will be to think of my nieces as real people with interests and challenges and skills to hone or even to develop anew. And to think of toys as sources of pleasure that confirm for them who they are and who they can be. For some of them, I’m sure a little pink will slip in, but I’ll try to remember the other colors of the rainbow that marketers so want me to forget. It’s so much easier to sell to a “type” of girl, than to the real and wonderfully complex person she is. But I’m no longer buying it.