Two weeks ago, I had a glorious opportunity. I got to go into "the city" all by myself. No two year old in tow. No time limit. No errands to run. So since Christmas is approaching, I decided to check out the Toys R Us and see what they had.
I entered the store, and was quite pleasantly surprised to be greeted by an imagination section. There was a shelf of wooden toys and puzzles, some easels and a ton of Crayola crafty products. I though, "Hey, maybe this won't be so bad. And now I know where to get some of these cool chunky puzzles for Andrew".
Right next to it was a book section. I sauntered over and looked at the first book I saw -- a Curious George collection. Hey, wait a minute, I thought, this says "H.A Rey's Curious George" not "Curious George by H.A. Rey". I opened the book to discover that these were not the classic Curious George tales I had been reading to my son. They were not even the much inferior books - based-on-a-cartoon-series- from the 80's. Instead they were . . . new stories that tied in with the movie and cartoon. As I looked around the book section I discovered that aside from some Dr. Seuss books, all I saw was Maisy, Dora, Bob the Builder, Harry Potter, Little People . . . all series that have followed Disney's lead in creating small movie / tv show / toy / book / play sets / backpacks / clothing /website tie in empires. I frowned a bit, but thought maybe I had just hit a rough patch in the store. After all, I was sure I saw play kitchen stuff just past the battery opereated-flashing-lights-with-25-sound-effect push cars.
I went to check out the pretend food and kitchen stuff. I really want to get Andrew a tea set or a little juice pitcher and glasses, since he is realy into pouring right now, and I'm tired of him raiding the apple juice in my fridge and pouring it into every plastic container he can easily access in the house. So here I was in pretend kitchen heaven -- blenders, coffee makers, pizza, picnic sets, mini-rolling pins and cookie cutters, tea sets, 50 piece imaginary food sets and entire broom-dustpan and mop ensembles when I noticed something. All the dishes were pink. All the tea sets had lovely floral designs on them. All the children happily playing with the toys on the boxes were girls. Wearing pink. With ribbons in their hair. I moved on, thinking I would have to order the stuff from Ikea that comes in the plain, unexciting white boxes and is cream ceramic.
I skipped the next few aisles' outright, as they were all babies and bratz and etc and I have no use for plastic reproductions of Cosmo cover models. But before I left what was, ostensibly, the "girls'" section of the toy store, I found an aisle of realistic babies. This interested me, since I am sort of thinking of getting Andrew a baby of some kind to have when the real baby comes. Again, as I started looking at the boxes, I was less than impressed. First of all, there was the general pinkness . . . pink boxes, pink clothes, pink accessories, pink bows to put on the poor little newborns' heads. They all came with such newborn essentials as bottles and bouncy seats. Then there was the proliferation of bottles and pictures of little girls happily bottle feeding their babies (I am not a breast nazi, Kris, but really). And most of them seemed to have some sort of battery operated something or another. So, if I do get my son a doll, it will not be from ToysRUs.
After this came the kids' furniture. I was momentarily excited, because I would like to get Andrew a table to go with the two chairs I picked up at the flea market last fall. But apparently I can buy a plastic one with a bumpy finish (great for colouring on), or a wooden one with a "Stars and Stripes" theme (great for Canadians), or one with Thomas, Dora or the Princesses on it. Same with the chairs. And the step stools. And plastic baskets. And collapsable storage bins. And . . . well, you get the idea.
I don't think I even want to get into the multitudinous Little People tie-in products (it is almost impossible to find anyting without lights / sound / music, or to get enough people to play with (2 tops in a play set) without buying extra expansion packs). Or the leggo which no longer seems to contain small pieces (yes, this is not a choking hazard, but it also tends to impede creativity). Or the numerous trucks, tractors, action figures, ninjas, knights, pirates and GI joes, all with their matching co-ordinating accessories, none of which are interchangable with each other in any way. Or the lack of dress up clothes (lots of weapons), non- Baby Einsten music, or non-tv-tie-in books on cd. Or the cheap, disney themed party section. Or . . . . well, do I really need to go on?
I was quite surprised at my outrage. I don't consider myself to be THAT crunchy or anti-consumerist. We read Thomas books and take the videos out of the library. We have Little People and Weebles and will soon get Mega Blocks and Leggo in our house. I'm sure I will buy my son ninja / GI joe / pirate / knight action figures. Should I have a daughter I will probably buy her Strawberry Shortcake or My Little Ponies or whatever the equivalent is. I don't mind the fact that we have a little tigger, pooh bear and kanga floating around our house, and I bought my son a plastic effigy to Bob the Builder containing bubble bath that gets regularly fed and slept with.
Nor do I consider myself a radical feminist. I'm fine with the fact that my son prefers trucks to dolls, and turns everything into a tractor or train or power tool. I don't dress him in pink. I expect him to be more active and aggressive than female friends his age (although I realize these generalizations don't always hold true).
But I was really angry. As a mother, and a teacher, and someone concerned for the future of our civilization in genreal I was furious for a few reasons. First, I was angry that there was so few toys that lent themselves to open ended imaginative play. Next, I was angry at the blatant sexism contained in the packaging and processing of the toys -- some of which are totally gender neutral (think food or blocks). Third, I was furious that marketers use childrens' natural and healthy tendency towards obsession with various characters and ideas to become a ploy for hocking cheap, disposable, badly produced merchandise.