Barbie is no longer simply blonde and girly, Ken has a “man-bun”, and Lego has stopping marketing toys just for boys or girls
Welcome to 21st century Christmas and a new era of gender-neutral play. For parents it means pausing for thought when helping their little ones decide what to put on Santa’s wish list this year.
The days when boys got toy soldiers and cars for Christmas while Santa left dolls and prams for girls are slowly disappearing as a global move towards gender neutral play gains momentum.
Lego is the latest big brand to announce it will no longer be marketing toys specifically for girls and boys. Toymakers such as Mattel and Hasbro have already made the switch.
Retailers are also moving away from traditional blue aisles for boys and pink for girls.
Even Barbie has been given a modern makeover with a range of gender-inclusive dolls each with different hair types, skin colours and clothes.
According to Belfast children’s author, businesswoman and mum of two, Virginia Mendez Meson, it is all about helping to give children a rounded experience of play.
She says: “Things are slowing changing but it’s not easy for parents to break away from the stereotype toys because they will want to give their kids what they want to play with, and marketing plays a big part in that.
“Every toy helps a child to learn something and by allowing them to play with all types of toys it will help make for more rounded learning.
“If boys are not allowed to play with dolls and prams it might stop them from developing nurturing skills and in the same way, by not offering girls construction toys you are taking away skills from them.”
Virginia (34) runs The Feminist Shop, an online platform promoting gender debate, and is also soon to publish a new book Childhood Unlimited: Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias.
The book aims to give parents a series of actionable, practical and easy to implement strategies to fight gender stereotypes.
Originally from Spain, Virginia moved here to be with her Belfast born husband Chris McEldowney and they have two children Eric (5) and Nora (3).
She has become a renowned speaker on gender equality and has welcomed Lego’s recent change to how it markets its toys.
Virginia says: “Playing is how children learn and I believe in giving them a wide range of toys so they can find out what they like and don’t like.
“My daughter already has seven dolls so I would suggest to her that she choose something different next time, not because dolls are bad, but she might be losing out on other skills and other ways to grow.
“I also think the more variety of toys children have the more fun.
“Most boys do like a doll to play with, and they shouldn’t feel ashamed or be discouraged from doing that. My own son has his own doll and pram.
“Everything that is understood to be feminine is like a downgrade. If girls play with boys’ toys, it’s almost like a badge of honour saying my daughter it a tomboy but if boys play with girls toys it’s regarded as feminine and more shameful.
“It makes being feminine like a second-class thing which isn’t right.”
Virginia’s beliefs are backed up by extensive research carried out by toy giant Lego.
The survey of nearly 7,000 parents and children across seven countries found strong endorsement of traditional gender roles among both boys and girls, with 78% of boys and 73% of girls agreeing “it’s okay to teach boys to be boys and girls to be girls”.
However, 71% of boys were worried about being judged or made fun of for playing with toys gendered for girls and 54% of parents had the same concern, compared to only 26% of parents worrying about the reverse.
Overall, the results suggest boys feel more pressure to conform to gender roles and norms for creative activities than girls.
However, it was found that the perceptions and beliefs of others may also be holding girls back.
Virginia believes toys can teach children stereotypes and prejudices, such as seeing shopping as an activity for girls and “fixing things” and using tools as a boys’ thing.
As such stereotypes and prejudices can be carried throughout life, this makes early childhood critical for setting the foundations for lifelong attitudes and even career choices.
The Lego research found parents were more likely to encourage their daughters to engage in activities that are more cognitive, artistic and performative (dressing up, dancing, colouring, singing and arts and crafts), and more likely to encourage their sons to engage more in digital activities, science and building.
Virginia is already doing what she can to educate children through her writing.
Her first children’s book Mika and Lolo tackles gender stereotypes in childhood and she is currently crowd funding for a second children’s book, Mika and Lolo Learn Consent.
She was thrilled to have been commissioned this year by John Murray Press in London to write Childhood Unlimited: Parenting Beyond the Gender Bias for adults.
She explains: “I wrote Mika and Lolo for our family.
“It was my love letter to my kids and my way of showing them that from an early age I would always encourage them to look beyond traditional stereotypical ideas of what being a girl or a boy is about.
“I am a huge believer in the power of conversations to change the way we do things.
“I’m now making it my life’s work to write articles and books, speak in public and run workshops that challenge kids and adults to unlearn constricting stereotypes.
“I’m determined to play my part in creating childhoods where there are no limitations. The Mika and Lolo books are designed to spark family conversations, enabling them in a fun way to speak about these issues that can be slightly difficult to discuss.”
She is part of a forward-thinking community which grasps the importance of gender inequality and is determined that girls and boys grow up feeling equal.
She says: “There is a great national campaign called Let Toys Be Toys which is lobbying for neutrality in toys, and they are achieving amazing results.
“The campaign is asking toy and publishing companies to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting toys and books as only suitable for girls and others only for boys.
“You can already see it in toy shops. It is becoming very rare now to see separate boys’ sections and girls’ sections.
“Online shops are also trying to avoid marketing toys as just for boys or girls.
“Every toy should be gender neutral and every toy helps kids to learn something.”
In her own house, Virginia tries to encourage a gender-neutral approach by having toys which her children share.
As well as dolls and prams, Eric enjoys playing house in the toy kitchen while his sister Nora equally gets satisfaction from construction toys.
Virginia says: “As parents we do things automatically. If our daughter has a birthday, we go down the pink aisle to buy things which we assume she will like because they are pink instead of choosing things that would be good for everyone.
“We make assumptions which is why I believe it is something that as adults we should talk about. It is a great opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘Why do I care? why does it matter to me my son plays with that?’
“We don’t seem to be able to see the bigger picture and it’s not just nature, but nurture is very important and has a huge part to play in early childhood.
“Bias expectations play a huge part in who we become, and I want every kid to break free from that and become who they are.
“And achieving that starts in childhood with stereotypes and how we reinforce them, often without even realising it, through play.”
And when it comes to filling Santa’s sack, it’s not just gender bias that is influencing choices this year, but wooden toys are now making a comeback as parents ditch plastic to help protect the planet for their children.
Concerns about global warming and reducing our carbon footprint has become a massive influencer when it comes to what we buy, and Christmas is no exception.
For Virginia, and an increasing number of parents like her, buying second hand and recycling unwanted toys is becoming the norm.
She also favours “experiences” with tickets for family days out in favour of the latest toy.
She says: “In our house we go for less toys and focus more on experiences such as membership of the transport museum or tickets for a play that we can all go to as a family.
“I think what most kids really crave is quality time with their family and while it is a little bit less wow to open on Christmas morning, they do get really excited about having something to look forward to.
“I think as parents we are all mindful of global warming and for me it’s about trying to buy less as I believe consumption is the first problem of climate change.
“I think it’s important to teach our children not to horde stuff and appreciate having less and then give it away when they no longer want it.
“I don’t demonise plastic toys and the reality is that everyone has plastic toys, but they wouldn’t be my preferred choice.
“I think too as parents we try our best and we are always full of guilt as there is so much pressure to get it all right, but we are not perfect.
“And while we have to accept that we won’t get everything right, it is important to try and do your bit.
“That’s why I believe so strongly in having these conservations and raising awareness and hopefully get people thinking a wee bit differently.”