The Gender Thing

I’m hoping that this is the year we can all start having an honest conversation about toys, gender identity and socialization. It’s certainly a topic that can get people all worked up, but is it real? I don’t think so. Like so much in the media in the “age of outrage,” this is often something that’s cooked up so that people can a) pontificate on talk shows and b) sell books or consulting services. Either way, some people are getting rich making you think that a color (pink) has the mystical power to form the personality of the girls in your life.

This, of course, is total hogwash. Still it’s very popular right now, and there’s even a YouTube video of a little girl decrying pink as some kind of evil force. Have you watched this? (Go find it yourself if you like; I’m not giving the link.) Anyone with any understanding of child development will see this for the patent fraud that it is. This little girl has clearly been coached to voice concepts that would be beyond her normal comprehension at the age, and you can hear her dad or some male in the backgorund. But it’s achieved its end: she’s been on TV talking about this. This more speaks to the trend to substitute flashy video for substantive discussion.

But, to co-opt a line from the NRA (something I thought I’d never do in a million years), toys don’t create gender identity, people create gender identity.

And, as I’m fond of saying, plastic has no gender identity. It is the projection onto the plastic of people’s beliefs and, sadly, unresolved issues that makes this an easy and sensational target. We have to look to the culture as a whole and not to the plastic playthings to understand both our values and what we’re teaching children. I’m willing to bet that more people know celebrities who became famous for sex tapes than for being Secretary of State, for instance. To paraphrase from Shakespeare (something I am often likely to do), the fault is not in our toys but in ourselves.

Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about what the toy industry should and should not do. But, as I’ve said for years, the toy industry does not lead the culture, it reflects it. And girls like pink. What’s wrong with that? I’ve been in Hong Kong this week, and I’ve heard from many toy manufacturers that retailers are requesting versions of toys in pink precisely because it will appeal to girls. One representative of a toy company told me that when they make a pink version of a popular product, they can guarantee a double-digit lift in sales.

This all comes back to a very basic premise of our economy. You can’t have both a free market and seek to limit it. You can’t try to relate two inherently different arguments. There are the facts that girls like pink and pink sells. And then there are the emotional arguments of what we “should” be teaching our children. Of course the irony is that even as we are saying what we “should” do, we are doing the diametric opposite. Face it: Girls like pink and pink sells. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. When enough people don’t buy something it disappears.

Oh, and here in Hong Kong, one person I engaged in this conversation actually tried to say, “We should be talking about the controversy.” Where have I heard that before? That’s the kind of argument one hears when fact collides with opinion, and unfortunately we live in a culture where the two are often given equal weight. That’s nonsense, naturally, but it can make good TV.

As the philosopher and author Sam Harris says, things that can be asserted without proof can be rejected without proof. No one has yet to prove that a toy can shape any part of a child’s character, so let’s stop blaming the toys and take the more considerable challenge of modeling for our children who we want them to be—and bring into our homes and our lives the toys that will allow children to explore and express these values through play as they learn them.

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