Gender and Toys; the middle space

August 25, 2012




Children who are both female and male in their interests, clothing choices and demeanor are the subject of an intriguing and a little unsettling New York Times Magazine article, "What's So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?" The article considers children who inhabit what is called the "middle space." The "middle space" describing children who seem to hover between genders in their behaviors, clothing choices and interests.

Though I found the subject matter of interest, I was more intrigued by what the toy industry could learn from some of the information the article provided on gender and social standards. After all, we subscribe to the classic concept of gender and play, what if we are being short sighted in how we market, package and merchandise. What if society has changed and we are losing buisness because of it. For example, consider this paragraph:

"In the 19th century, both boys and girls often wore dresses and long hair until they were 7. Colors weren't gendered consistently. At times pink was considered a strong, and therefore masculine, color, while blue was considered delicate. Children's clothes for both sexes included lace, ruffles, flowers and kittens. That started to change in the early 20th century....By then, some psychologists were arguing that boys who identified too closely with their mothers would become homosexuals. At the same time, suffragists were pushing for women's advancement. In response to these threatening social shifts, clothes changed to differentiate boys from their mothers and from girls in general. By the 1940s, dainty trimming had been purged from boys' clothing. So had much of the color spectrum."

This may or may not surprise you but it raises two questions:

If some of our notions of gender appropriate behavior are fairly recent in history; why are we so unsettled by seeing a boy play with a doll or wear pink?
Conversely, why are we not disturbed by seeing a girl who acts like a boy? In fact, society embraces "Tomboys" and sees the behavior as a passing phase for girls. Boys who act like girls, on the other hand, are seen as on a bullet train to homosexuality.

I will consider how this information may apply to the toy industry and provide some possible answers in my next posting.