I never considered what it meant to be feminist when I was growing up. As a kid I didn’t really worry about girls versus boys except when it came to cooties or kicking Kenny for being a relentless bully and being told “nice girls don’t kick” which, I guess, is true but should also be true for boys. Nice people don’t kick. Gender isn’t really the point. When I consider my childhood from my perspective now, I realize I lived pretty free from gender restrictions. I just lived. Lived and played and didn’t consider what toy belonged where or what I should and shouldn’t be interested in.
I remember very badly wanting an Optimus Prime Transformer. I remember very badly wanting the pink Barbie Corvette with the same amount of passion. I didn’t get either. I played with my best friend’s brother’s Optimus Prime and got the yellow Barbie campervan which was much more badass anyway. It could roll over the damn Corvette. I was simultaneously interested in unicorns and dinosaurs. At one point my pink curtained, pink pillowed room was decorated with a giant unicorn poster and an entire shelf of dinosaur action figures complete with a hand-drawn backdrop of volcanos erupting. Because science! I read 'Sweet Valley High' and obsessively watched The A-Team. I liked She-Ra better than He-Man because she was fiercer. But I liked Battle-Cat better than Swift Wind because tigers are amazing. Boys and girls weren’t barriers, just descriptors in my world. I grew up in a cul-de-sac and all us neighborhood kids would put on plays throughout the summer. My best friend and I were the eldest so we were the bosses, the stars, the producers, and generally the HBICs. We would stage The Wizard of Oz, Snoopy’s Flashbeagle, and an original stageplay called Skateboard Superstars with equal aplomb. I liked what I liked and so did all my friends regardless of age or gender.
In my teens I was obsessed with Star Trek: the Next Generation. I hosted a Trek costume party with my friend Dave, the backing funds for which we swindled out of our church youth pastor. Dave was my partner in crime for a lot of ridiculous stunts, actually. Dave liked to answer the border guards’ questions in an anticipatory fashion: out of order.
Guard: “Where are you headed?”
Dave: “Just a couple of hours.”
Guard: *frown* “Uh, how long will you… what is the purpose of your visit?”
Guard: “What is your citizenship?”
Dave: “We’re going for pie! Maybe also some shopping.”
This was in the halcyon days pre-911 when a couple of crazy kids in their dad’s car could cross the US border without passports, answering questions at random, and not get tossed in Guantanamo. Dave and I used to play Hunter when he found an old CB antenna and flashing light at some garage sale. We’d take a call from dispatch, mount the light on the car, and peel out to answer the 419.
One memorable day Dave and I were in Toys’R’Us looking, as usual, at TNG action figures. He had an entire glove box full of them because you never knew when a TNG emergency would arise. This particular day we wandered into the Barbie aisle en route to the action figures and were blinded by the overwhelming pinkness that radiated off the shelves. Pink boxes! Pink Corvettes! Pink shoes in pink packages! Even Ken’s box is pink! Pink! PINK! Dave and I fled the aisle, looked at each other, and decided enough was enough. It was time to do a service to humanity. It was time to de-pink the Barbie aisle. Together we grabbed armfuls of camo-boxed GI Joes and raced to the Barbie aisle, hanging green-hued GI Joes overtop of every single Barbie item. We managed five armloads and had de-pinked an impressive half of the aisle before we were unceremoniously tossed by security.
Looking back, that incident sort of tidily sums up my feelings on feminism and gender equality. It isn’t that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with femininity or even pink. It isn’t that we’re trying to erase gender altogether. It’s that we don’t want to be defined solely on the basis of which gender we’re born. It’s that regardless of whether we identify as boy or girl, we are people first and we have the right to choose what talents we hone, what interests we dive into, and what careers we pursue.
Toys that are made for boys frequently include girls in their marketing but toys that seem purpose-made for girls frequently only use girls in their marketing and that marketing is often pink. It suggests a reluctant nod at equality by stating that girls can play with boy toys but that certain toys are only for girls: and indeed anything aggressively swathed in pink and surrounded by girls will instruct boys to steer clear. What does that packaging and organization do to the formation of a child’s sense of self? By degrees it instructs, wordlessly, about the child’s place in the larger world. It sets a strict and limited set of gender-based roles and potential careers out very early. It doesn’t allow for basic imagination across the board, but categorizes it. Additionally the marketing of toys in doubles - by ‘doubles‘ I mean it is now possible to buy a specific toy in a mix of colors and then locate that self-same toy in pink - means that the pink subconsciously reinforces that girls require special attention, more delicately presented purpose-made things, which categorically isn’t true.
Toys are toys. Toys are meant to be played with, to spark imagination, to fling wide the doors of the world to small minds curious about everything so they can figure out how things work and who they are in that world. How we are instructed to play with toys factors into how we view our options as we age. So toys should encompass the grandiose sweep of all the options open to us as people, not as a rote division of gender. Trucks, kitchens, guns, dolls, painting easels, skateboards, telescopes, chess sets, animatronic puppies, baking ovens, remote control planes... toys are intended for all comers.
Let’s stop making girls toys about shopping and attracting boys, swathed in pink. Let’s stop making boys toys about war and cars, swathed in blue. Let’s just make toys that spark imagination. And let’s make interests available to any comers as we collectively grow, regardless of gender.
Basically I’m asking all of you to run into the world and de-pink the Barbie aisle with me.
- Corinne Simpson