Gender is a cultural construct. It's taught. It's learned. It's performed. Cultural constructs can be hijacked and improved. The Swedes are doing the good work here by dismantling traditionally gendered toys without making them lame and neutered.
Gender-neutral toys: Can a fireman dollhouse finally prove that boys and girls aren’t so different after all?
This holiday season the Swedish feminist police are proving that nothing is sacred to them, not even Christmas. No longer simply content to advocate for gender-neutral pronouns—“hen” instead of “he” and “she,” or require men to pee sitting down—they have convinced Sweden’s equivalent of the Better Business Bureau to get Top Toys, the country’s main toy distributor, to stop publishing catalogs with “outdated stereotypes.” Thus, in the Swedish edition of the Top Toys 2012 Christmas catalog, it’s the girl peering into the sight of the giant Nerf machine gun while the boy gently caresses a doll’s face. On another page, a boy, who looks about 8, is holding some fluffy toy Pomeranians of the kind you’d normally find in Paris Hilton’s purse, at the end of a sparkly leash. All I can say about this new catalog is, thank God for the Swedes—and I say that knowing full well what that poor boy probably suffered in school the day that photo was published.
Why do I wish to sacrifice this boy? In the current battle of biological sex difference, where each side looks for proof that some trait in boys or girls is or isn’t innate, children’s toys serve as the closest we have so far to a smoking gun. Researchers over the years have shown many times, in many different countries, that young boys and girls tend to gravitate towards different toys when given the choice—cars for boys, say, and dolls for girls. To a jury of parents, who have seen with their own eyes the toddler boys who sleep surrounded by trucks and the girls who will only nap in their princess gowns, the research feels like incontrovertible proof that boys and girls must indeed be wired like opposites.
But in fact this is a false piece of evidence, or at least extremely misleading, since childhood is just about the only phase of life where differences between the genders show up so starkly. Which is why we need the Swedes to remind us that the kids are playing a trick on us. Toddlers, as anyone who has one knows, are rigid, literal-minded and wholly not be trusted. They are also intent at that age on crudely defining their identity. Most mothers of sons, for example, have had the experience of having them wake up one morning and turn into Rush Limbaugh, proclaiming bombastically about what boys and girls do and don’t do. Taking that to mean anything bigger or deeper would be the same as seeing them sneak a candy from the corner store one day and concluding that they were destined for a life of crime. It would also lead us to forget the equally solid and convincing research on the "stereotype threat”—the idea that when women are reminded in any small way of the stereotype that, say, men are better at math, it affects their performance on tests.