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Why a pink tutu can be a gender-neutral Christmas gift

Boys should get to play with girls’ toys, too

If we want to undo rigid norms, it's not enough to seek out overtly gender-neutral presents. (iStock)

“What are the best gender-neutral toy companies?” a friend recently asked me. To her, avoiding gender-coded presents meant skipping the omnipresent pink-sparkly LOL Surprise girls’ dolls and blue-hued Paw Patrol boys’ trucks.

Like many parents, she had accepted as gospel that these toys were inherently feminine or masculine. The way around those entrenched ideas, she thought, was to find new and different things: wooden toys in yellow or green; T-shirts in teal or orange; maybe a pogo stick. Any kid could like a pogo stick, right?

Right. But any kid can like a pink and sparkly doll, a ball, or a blue Tonka truck, too — if we work to change the gendered messaging around them.

The gendering of children’s toys and clothes is surprisingly recent. Until the early 20th century, kids were dressed mostly according to age, not sex, with boys and girls alike wearing frilly dresses and sporting long hair until they went to school. Research by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer of child psychology, found that as many as three-quarters of boys played with dolls.

But as the fields of psychology and sexology gained prominence at the turn of the 20th century, fears about homosexuality rose. Parents began emphasizing masculinity in boys by regulating what they wore or played with to try to ensure that they’d grow up to be straight. No more frilly dresses for boys. Meanwhile, toys became increasingly gendered too, with construction equipment for boys, and dolls and housecleaning toys for girls. (There may have been less concern about female sexuality, but plenty about girls growing up to know their place.)

The homophobic and misogynistic practice of teaching kids to be straight and perform traditional gender roles through toys and clothes continued throughout the century. Yet many boys still played with dolls, often secretly. When G.I. Joe debuted in 1964, it was, after all, a doll for boys.

‘Guys’ isn’t a gendered word anymore. It’s fine to use with everyone.

There was a brief hiatus during my childhood in the 1970s and into the mid-1980s: The rise of popular feminism, the passage of Title IX and other cultural forces opened up boys’ worlds to some girls. There were boys’-to-girls’ size conversion charts in the Sears catalogue. Many boys and girls had matching bowl haircuts and similar outfits: striped T-shirts, corduroys, Keds. Blue, yellow and red Big Wheels were for all.

But by the late 1980s, gender and sex were once again emphasized in toys and clothes because of a host of generational swings. Many parents who’d grown up with unisex clothes as kids in the 1970s now embraced hyper-gendered outfits and toys as they had children of their own. Dividing everything into pink and blue, from clothes to computer tablets — and the games, apps and shows that populate them — has since become the norm.

But we now seem poised to swing in the opposite direction again. As members of a generation reared with hyper-gendered childhoods who now have children of their own, some, like my friend, want to reject the ideas they grew up with. If we’re going to do that right, though, we can’t simply avoid all the toys, clothes and activities that we’ve saddled with gender meanings. Instead we have to ignore, defy, expose and explode those meanings, especially the message that girls’ things are inherently worse — and not appropriate for boys.

Many things that were traditionally associated with boys have long since been opened to girls, such as sports and pants. But there has never been a concerted movement to open girls’ worlds to boys. Even in the 1970s, there were no pink Big Wheels for all, no girls’-to-boys’ size conversion charts. But that’s what it’s going to take to make toys, clothes and the rest of kids’ material worlds gender-neutral.

Many parents I’ve spoken to believe that their kids’ toy and clothing preferences are unsullied by cultural messaging — that they’re rooted in biology. While there may be a biological component to some sex-typed differences, most children learn to like the toys they are expected to like because of their sex or gender identity.

Research shows that reading gender atypical storybooks and presenting kids with counter-stereotypical images can shift how and with whom they play, their preferences for toys and games, even the jobs they aspire to. It may change the possibilities they see for others and for themselves.

Toys are ditching genders for the same reason they first took them on

Why is that important? Increasingly, we’re recognizing the fallout from restrictive gender norms and hyper-gendered childhoods, including toxic masculinity in boys and eating disorders and low self-esteem in girls. And what happens when a kid is drawn to what he’s not supposed to like? Many parents of pink- and dress-loving boys have told me they have sent a son to the first day of kindergarten in his favorite tutu or sporting his sparkly backpack. By the time they picked him up, he knew never to do it again. Children learn early and effectively how to police gender and wield gender-based shame, so we have to teach them differently.

That’s one reason it’s so important to talk to children about gender stereotypes, and for schools, parents, retailers and manufacturers to stop imposing so much gender onto clothes and toys. Show boys on craft-kit packaging. Show girls playing flag football. Tell kids that no color, toy or item of clothing is just for one sex.

It’s not that the pogo stick or the green and yellow wooden toys are inherently gender-neutral; it’s that we’ve signed a cultural agreement to accept them that way. After all, once we thought pants were only for boys, and dresses were for boys and girls.

More companies are working toward this. The Toy Industry Association ended its boy and girl toy-of-the-year categories in 2016. There are purple shirts with hearts for boys and STEM toys pitched to girls. Companies like Primary and Old Navy have introduced genderless clothing in many colors, including pink.

But the truth is, we don’t need to make new or different stuff. We only need to stop gender-coding the stuff we already have — and to make children feel that they are allowed to play with any toy, to wear any item of clothing and any color, to develop any skill or personality trait. If we do that, many more kids will have a merry Christmas and happy holidays.