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Toys are perhaps our first introduction to gender. There are particular toys for boys and certain others for girls. Boys are given trucks, robots and miniature cars while girls are taught to enjoy play tea sets and dolls. Every experience in the world is culturally categorised as masculine and feminine and children are nudged to take up appropriated paths from a young age.
No discussion on toys could move ahead without touching upon the Barbie doll. For ages these petite dolls have been accused of propagating looks over values. It is said that if Barbie were a real human, she would weigh around 54 kilograms with a waist smaller by 20 centimetres than that of a group of anorexic patients. Girls as young as five years have expressed concern over their food habits. Such dolls in addition to defining ‘femininity’ have set impossible and unrealistic standards for the same. Exposure to such standards instils negative body images and poor self-perception in young girls which could potentially lead to depression and eating disorders.
It is well known that toys are pivotal to gender socialisation. They educate children on various gender roles and promote stereotypes. They even go a step ahead in determining educational pathways of children. Early research showed that children are steered towards certain kinds of toys based on their gender. This provided the opportunity for girls to develop emotional skills while boys were encouraged to pursue technical skills.
Over time children learn that some toys are for boys while others are for girls. This delineation becomes even more rigid as toy companies produce gendered and sexualised toys which ultimately define one’s gender on behalf of the child. The child is therefore left with no room to observe and explore one’s own gender expression, but is streamlined into normative masculinity or femininity. This also becomes a nipping of non-binary gender expressions in the bud. A study conducted among 324 Austrian parents of three- to six-year-old children exposed a pattern in parental toy selection. Parents preferred same-gendered and gender-neutral toys over cross-gendered toys. What became apparent through the study was not a desire for the chosen toys but an aversion towards cross-gendered toys. Gender fluidity still remains a stigma in many communities worldwide. The result has parents forcing a particular gender identity on to their children.
Like light at the end of a tunnel, gender neutral parenting is gaining momentum in India. Many parents are setting precedent by not interfering with their child’s gender expression and letting them be who they are. One such parent told the Hindustan Times that her 12 year old daughter wanted tuxedos instead of dresses for school events and that she didn’t stop her. Some parents even christen their children with gender neutral names. This is a promising start towards gender inclusive society, and gender neutral toys will have a pivotal role in conducing it.