My current research focusses on looking at the broader role that videogames play (or don’t, in some cases) as informal tutors or gatekeepers to broader techno-culture, by researching people who went into IT careers, trying to find out what their earliest experiences with gaming technology were and if there’s any sort of pattern. This is rooted in a model of gender socialization which most people identifying as feminist or pro-feminist are familiar with. So as you can imagine, I’m largely supportive of the @LetToysBeToys campaign that’s been all over Twitter recently. The basic drive of this campaign is to remove gender identifiers from clothes, books, and toys. I’m not entirely sure that everyone supporting this is doing so for the same reasons, though (more on this later).
One of the most interesting pieces of recent research I’ve read on play and gender identity comes from the US; a 2011 article by Rhiannon Bury titled “She’s Geeky: The Performance of Identity among Women Working in IT“. In it, Bury conducts biographical interviews with six female ICT professionals and – despite using a small sample – finds connections between their childhood experiences. These women were all were “tomboys” during childhood – they had a masculine (or perhaps just gender-neutral) attitude to toys and weren’t discouraged from “boyish” pursuits. During adolescence, however, most of them hid this away, because we tend to conform more strongly to peer expectations as teenagers. In my own research I draw on other sociological studies of computing to argue that this social practice of hiding away interest in “geekier” activities also extends to groups like working-class boys; or any peer culture which values social interaction over individualistic, solitary hobbies. But one major point that emerges from Bury’s interviews is that – despite that adolescent period of trying to fit in (and who knows how many potential programmers that has claimed) – what really set those women on their eventual career paths was the way they played as younger children.
To me, that kind of illustrates why toy-gendering is an issue. We’re now living in a society where, by-and-large, both members of a couple are required to work (the economics of which are a whole ‘nother blog post). By categorising toys as belonging to a specific gender, we lock children out of future careers. Imagine a big web of possible paths through life, with birth at the middle, and a big pair of Mattel-branded scissors chopping away. It might not be as simple as “Meccano will teach you to be an engineer” – but it’s likely that playing with Meccano will foster positive attitudes toward engineering – marking out engineering-like activities as something “fun” in the mind of the child. Pleasure is a massive part of this. What children find pleasurable defines what they want to be when they grow up. For example, Leslie Haddon’s work on computers and gender in the early 1990s found that girls’ interactions with PCs “usually had to be justified in terms additional to any pleasure which the activity might provide”. In contrast, boys were allowed to treat computers as “toys”, leading to a generation of male IT workers who – [generalization alert!!!] – had been socialized to see their jobs as a remunerated extension of their hobbies. One possible conclusion is that, one of the reasons why IT is such a male-dominated area (1/5th of applicants to computing degrees are female) is that boys have been left to arse about on machines, consequently developing a relationship with them which they derive pleasure from, rather than seeing as a chore.
This sort of leads us onto one of the issues that I sometimes come across while watching some of the #LetToysBeToys support online;
There’s too much talk of young childrens’ “choice”.
Examples include: “my son chooses to wear pink boots so why are they labelled as being for girls!?” etc. etc. To me, this is sort of beside the point. Emphasising the agency of the children themselves seems very loaded with middle-class values (another whole ‘nother blog post). The bottom line, as I see it, is that the selection of activities which parents provide/encourage will have the effect of defining or constraining the “choices” which that child makes later in life (see Rhiannon Bury’s study). So let’s not pretend that this sort of campaign is just about supporting the choices made by our sprogs – it’s about trying to construct scenarios where they will be more likely to make choices which we hope will benefit them in later life. In my view, the frequent “my boy likes pink” examples (and my 3-yo boy does like pink) are particularly iffy because…
There’s a noticeable gender difference in how we handle this issue (which I think is problematic and which detracts from the initial [feminist?] intent of this sort of pressure group).
With daughters, most parents who complain about “sciencey” stuff being gendered male do so mainly because of the reasons outlined in early paragraphs; we know these are respected, well-paid careers and we don’t want to lock girls out of them by crushing whatever interest they have early on. When talking about how boys should be allowed to play with dolls, however, we tend to talk about fostering caring attitudes. What I’ve noticed about these comments is that they’re usually geared towards future fatherhood (rather than employment). We don’t have the same desire to send our boys into caring professions as we do to send our girls into technical ones. I’m not 100% sure whether this is because the caring professions are still underpaid (so who would actively encourage their son into them? – PS sorry really nice guy who looks after my son most of the week at nursery! You are great!). I don’t know. But it does irk me that we seem to be (unconsciously) trying to achieve different things for each gender when we intervene in gendered toy manufacture and marketing. One of the things that sociological studies show us is that, as manufacturing declines in the west, it’s working-class boys/men who lack the interpersonal skills required for careers in the growing service sector. And I’m not convinced that it’s the parents of those boys who are the most interested in giving them dollies to play with…
There’s a danger of gender-neutral parenting becoming a “class distinction”.
By “class distinction” I’m talking about the sort of symbolic markers that people of different social groups use to make themselves feel better than eachother. I don’t want to dwell for too long on this, but there are a number of examples in recent years where morally-driven interventions into markets (which LetToysBeToys is an example of) have yielded these sort of status symbols as opposed to more widespread structural changes. And we’re often quite content with these status symbols which make us (predominantly middle-class people) feel better or more conscientious. We don’t do this explicitly of course (I’m no snob!) but it’s always there (I only buy/feed my family fair trade/organic). What seems to have happened in the case of food protests is – instead of legislation to address health concerns around additives, GM , pesticides etc. most pro-organic consumers seem quite happy to settle for becoming a niche market segment for reassuringly expensive organic produce. It’s obviously a different situation to the one we’re discussing, but I think there’s some relevance here: If we’re making a moral claim about the harm/benefit of a type on consumption (whether the product is food or toys) is an approach which targets individual chains really enough? It’s worth considering the pros and cons of targeting specific manufacturers and distributors, verses more widespread legislative action.
I haven’t posted here for a while because I haven’t felt the need to. If this post read as contradictory or confused, that’s just a reflection of how complex some of the issues are. I am largely supportive of the campaign and would love for the discussion to continue on Twitter and here in the comments.