Tesco, gender and toys: So why is the grass always greener?

So Tesco define chemistry sets as “for boys” and dolls’ houses as “for girls”. I know this because justified outrage has flared up on twitter, but I also know this because, well, they would do, wouldn’t they? Most toy retailers divide their market segments by gender. It would be nice if they could stick to doing this in their heads and on their spreadsheets but they don’t. They translate their thoughts into webshop drop-down menus, pink and blue aisle segregation, action shots of boys wielding plastic guns while girls mop up the artificial piss of plastic babies. They do it all the time. Every single example should make us furious but of course, that would be impractical. So certain flashpoints – such as this one, and Sainsbury’s selling doctors’ outfits for boys and nurses’ outfits for girls – tend to shape the debate. I’m not sure it could be any different, but it’s interesting to see what irritates the most.

Looking at tweets sent to @uktesco it strikes me that people are far more angry at girls not having access to “boys’ toys” than vice versa. This isn’t a scientific analysis (what with me being a woman and all), but the consensus seems to be that science is ace and to assume girls lack interest in and/or aptitude for it is sexist and insulting – which it indeed is. Far less upsetting, though, is the idea that boys should be denied pink “girls’ stuff”. I find this in worrying in itself, not in a “what about teh menz?” way – my 3-year old son has and loves a pink dolls’ house, but I’m pretty sure he could live without it – but in what it says about how we value things that are artificially defined as “for men” and “for women”. This is clearly hierarchical; “men’s stuff” is better. Even so, I’d question whether this has as much to do with the thing in itself than with the association with men.

On one level, it’s nice to see Ben Goldacre get all huffy about Tesco denying girls their chemistry sets. But then Ben Goldacre is someone who thinks science is brilliant, providing it’s not being discussed by humanities graduates (who all lack critical thinking skills or something). Let’s be honest though; how good are chemistry sets really? They’re never going to let you do something that’s actually engaging i.e. dangerous. From what I remember (and yes, this is going back a bit), my brother’s set just had stuff that changed colour / made a weak “bang” that was more of a whimper / turned from a liquid solution into crystals in a totally non-impressive way. The iron filings were alright, I suppose. But that’s about it. It’s not as though we’re creating future Einsteins simply by handing boys the means to make disappointing potions. It’s more the attitude – the entitlement, the feeling that “science is for you, but not you” – that matters, but often that’s bound up in the belief that whatever is for boys is best.  

The over-valuing of what men do tends to be constant while the activity itself may shift. Teaching provides one example. The profession is now frequently described as “feminised”, with an associated drop in status. Meanwhile computer coding – once thought of as “not proper science” and hence okay for girls – is now a male-dominated field and the preserve of super-geeky clever people. Funny, that. I do wonder whether we end up wanting whatever men have because of the status their maleness bestows upon it. Then once we get it – if we get it –  the message is “fine, you girls can have this. We’ve moved onto something better”.

All of this is of course artificial. All of it lies in the belief that women and girls – whatever they think, say and do – will add less value to the world than men will. The segregation of jobs, domestic roles, social functions etc. is used to back up this belief and re-sell it as “different but equal”. We shouldn’t buy into this. That’s why even something as supposedly minor as toy marketing needs to be challenged – but surely because of the principle, not because one toys is “better” than another.

I feel sorry for whoever has to respond to tweets on behalf of Tesco. I’d assume they have very little, if any, influence over the broader decisions on how to market toys. Very few people in the firing line of customer complaints can look at an issue like that and say, on the spot, “yeah, you’re right, let’s scrap it”. But if the issue is research into what people want and/or expect, perhaps it’s worth taking into account the relative annoyance levels of customers who quite like a bit of gender stereotyping and those of us who really, really hate it. Because we hate it a lot, so much so it may be more likely to influence our purchasing decisions. Not that I’d buy the chemistry set anyhow. But another dolls’ house wouldn’t go amiss.

12 thoughts on “Tesco, gender and toys: So why is the grass always greener?

  1. I sometimes think this has more to do with homophobia than misogyny. The fear seems to be that boys who are allowed to play with dolls and like pink are, or will grow up to be gay. And even a lot of people who really ought to know better seem to fall victim to that thinking.

    1. Homophobia and misogyny are two sides of one coin anyway. Homophobia is the fear that gay men will treat men the way men treat women and lesbophobia is the fear that women will stop “allowing” men to treat us that way.

      I call this coin patriarchy.

  2. Great blog post. And yes you’re spot on regarding the low status that traditionally “feminine” careers/values/hobbies get. Depressing but true.

    One point I’d like to add though – yes most of the outrage has been about science being off limits for girls but that isn’t because parents of boys don’t feel a similar concern for their boys, in fact quite the opposite.

    I think the reason parents of boys don’t yell from the rooftops “let my son play with a kitchen set!” is simply because we feel s bit embarrassed and are scared of the reaction we’ll get.

    We feel embarrassed because society isn’t quite ready yet for boys playing with girls’ toys. Every time I mention that my son is engaging in a girly activity I brace myself for comments of the “you’re making him gay” / “he’ll be confused” variety. One guy once rolled his eyes and said he “felt sorry for my son” when I said my son liked knitting!

    So many regard girly activities as a step down for boys. For a girl it’s aspirational to do boys stuff, and let’s face it, it’s ultimately much better paid than the kind of careers wiping “artificial piss” will prepare you for. Also, judging by the number of male chefs / male primary heads there are I don’t think boys need to be given permission to do girls’ stuff because there is the idea that when they do girly stuff they do it better. Misogyny again.

    But they do need to given permission that it’s ok to be nurturing and sensitive but I don’t think society is ready to give that permission because people still equate those characteristics with a loss of manhood. It’s nuts that’s for sure cos bringing up our boys to have those qualities won’t just be better for them but better for society as a whole. Less violence, more empathy and less of the antagonistic competitiveness that pervades our world.

    Sorry for writing so much but I just wanted to give my perspective as a mum of a boy.

  3. A lot of what you say is perfectly true,


    Actually yes, I think chemistry kits “for boys” are part of a marketing effort to create girl-free spaces: I’ve blogged about how the creation of “lego for girls” isn’t about opening up the world of lego to girls but to make sure that boys and their parents know that lego is for boys.

    I confess to a bias: I do think science is important: I’ve found that learning to appreciate the world in a scientific way has been one of the sources of joy of my life. (Though the ways in which girls are turned off a scientific career are not restricted to the stereotype that “science is for boys”, it is a factor. I also think learning to cook is important and my life would also not have been as enjoyable if I hadn’t known, but in a world where Jamie Oliver and Masterchef are things boys do have role models to show them cooking is cool.

    Also, if there comes a consumer demand for a “boy’s oven” it will be manufactured in “boy’s colours” and they can sell twice as many. In theory.

    1. That article is spot on. Separate but equal never works because there is always one side that will get marginalised and ignored. If only boys and girls were encouraged to play together and realise that they’re not so different after all.

  4. I agree that so often “boys’ stuff” or “mens’ stuff” is perceived to be better than girls’/women’s stuff”. And yes, the minute men start doing something in a substantial way, it goes from being something the ladies like doing over there to being Important.

  5. I wrote this last year on the subject of girls’ toys. It wasn’t that they were gender defined, just increasingly pointless


    As the mother of boys, I have always tried very hard to make things as neutral as possible. Role playing toys are particularly interesting. Most boys today will one day live by themselves and take care of themselves, and yet giving a boy a toy hoover is still considered a bit of a political statement.

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