I have a memory of being on a talk show about toys as a child. For most of the show, a group of children and I sat at one side of the room blurting out sporadic comments while the host and her panel talked about the eye-foot coordination benefits of “liga china,” a game that involved jumping around with a rubber band, and the possible confusion that could ensue when real pets, unlike Tamagochis, could not be revived by pressing the reset button. At the end of the show, we were invited to sit on the floor and play with toys. One of the adults handed me a doll to play with, and I remembered being irritated by this. I played with dolls at home, but I was annoyed because I knew the adult had assumed that I would like the doll just because I was a girl. I liked playing with dolls, but I also liked playing video games and building with Legos, so it just seemed wrong to me that my only choice should be a doll.
I like this memory because I think it means that even as a child, I knew that the world was trying to push me into a certain mold, but I was aware that this was not the only option. Just because I happened to enjoy certain activities that fit the mold did not mean that all girls did or should, and it certainly didn’t mean that those were the only things that I liked.
This childhood memory resurfaced during the recent controversy around “Mexico Barbie.” The doll caused a stir since it came with a passport, which to some seemed like a nod towards the immigration debate in the United States. In reality, all dolls in the “Dolls of the World” collection come with a passport from their respective country, and the issue fizzled as Mexican commentators dismissed an outcry over a toy as paling in comparison with other issues Mexicans in the United States face. While it may be true that in the grand scheme of things a doll barely makes a blip on the radar, I was actually glad to see people take the time to think critically about a toy.
I am a communication scholar at heart, and I have previously written about the importance of media literacy since we learn gender from the media from an early age. In the same way, we learn about the roles that are expected from us through play and toys. The 8-year-old me sensed there was a connotation I did not like around the expectation that I would play with dolls. The adult me knows that being handed that doll meant handing me the role of caretaker, a role that was not handed to any of the boys in the room. I think that growing to be a compassionate, nurturing person is wonderful, but I don’t think we should send the message through play that it is a role reserved for women.
Last year, Hasbro agreed to make “gender-neutral” Easy Bake Ovens after a teenager, McKenna Pope, started a petition to make the toy for boys so her brother could play with one. I applaud McKenna for her effort and her recognition that there is nothing gender-specific about cooking, but it saddens me that it should take a re-branding to encourage parents to buy this toy for their children of any gender. A toy oven can be used by children of any gender, no matter how pink and purple the box is. The fact that parents would not bat an eyelash at buying this toy for their daughters but would hesitate to buy it for their sons until it was remade into a black and silver toy shows that we are still anxious about making sure our children grow up to be the “right” gender instead of growing up to just be themselves.
Just as I am sure I will not be able to police all media my future children will watch, I am sure I will not be able to stop them from being given messages about play that I will find problematic. Instead of focusing my effort into forbidding certain toys, I want to have age-appropriate conversations about the games they play. “Panama Barbie” hasn’t made an appearance in the “Dolls of the World” lineup yet, but if she did and my children expressed interest in it, I would want my children to know that a single doll can only represent one aspect of our culture. If “Panama Barbie” came into existence, I am sure they would dress her in our national dress, and I am sure it would be beautiful, but it would not encompass the Caribbean and indigenous and Asian influences that make it such a wonderfully diverse place. While the impact of a doll in the larger immigration debate may be negligible, what that doll or what any toy teaches children is significant.
How do you think play and toys influence children? Let us know in the comments below!
Written by Sully Moreno