Toys Will Be Toys: Barbie vs. LEGO
Blue or Pink, It’s All an Art Form
Nowadays, toys are a scapegoat for unimaginative adults to use while attempting to validate their own political agendas. According to these adults, toy manufacturers affirm outdated gender stereotypes via oppressive marketing labels. Despite implications that most boys and girls have natural inclinations for toys typical of their sex, Elizabeth Sweet argues that this position “does not fundamentally challenge gender stereotypes; it merely repackages them to make them more palatable in a ‘post-feminist’ era.”
This may be the case, but what do children think? While bickering parents determine the fate of tyrannical blue and pink labels, children continue to play without caring about the cultural hysteria surrounding their toys.
Children fully appreciate the amazing art of the toy–an art that has long been forgotten. And labels seem problematic when applied to art. Categorizing a piece of art shouldn’t limit the meaning of that artwork, nor should a label limit the significance of a toy. Blue and pink signs can still exist without inducing an abstract fear of gender oppression.
As a matter of fact, contrary to popular opinion, a defense for the use of blue and pink labels arises from studies of evolutionary psychology. In a 2008 article, Psychology Today draws distinctions between the male and female brain. The male brain is marked by a pattern of “systemizing tendencies.” It is essentially a “drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system…[determining] how things work, or extract[ing] the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system.” That might explain why many boys play with building blocks more than dolls.
Girls, on the other hand, predominately exhibit “empathizing tendencies.” They are more likely to “identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion…[in order] to understand another person, to predict his or her behavior, and to connect or resonate with him or her emotionally.” Perhaps this explains the popularity of dolls among most girls.
In fact, this study welcomes the idea that boys and girls prefer certain toys based on how their brains function—thereby challenging a wide-held belief that boys and girls are the victims of gender-stereotyping product placement.
While there are certainly boys and girls who psychologically operate in a fashion unique to the majority of their sex, most boys and girls prefer the toys assigned to their “label.” A recent study at the City University in London confirms this. Based on the study, which analyzed 101 girls and boys ages 9 to 32 months, Dr. Brenda Todd suggests that: “although there was variability between individual children, we found that, in general, boys played with male-typed toys more than female-typed toys and girls played with female-typed toys more than male-typed toys.”
Further evidence suggests there is a hormonal basis for toy preference, found in both primates and humans. Experiments that used male and female monkeys suggest that the “level of exposure to the hormone androgen during gestation …correlate[s] with their visual interest in male-typical toys.” These studies, conducted between 2002 and 2008, show that boy toddlers preferred playing with balls and trucks more than playing with dolls. Experts claim that this preference is based on the male tendency to “develop spatial navigation abilities” or what psychologist Kim Wallen describes as “taking an object and rotating it in the mind.”
Girls, on the other hand, “have evolved to perceive social stimuli, such as people, as very important.” This trait, which is said to be weaker in boys, validates the claim that most girls prefer female-typical toys (dolls, in particular). Again, observations confirm the “systemizing” and “empathizing” tendencies of boys and girls, suggesting that the blue and pink labels are simply guides to indicate what toys children are more likely to prefer, based on their gender.
Granted, the previously mentioned research is circumstantial evidence. These studies are fairly recent, and will continue to be challenged and further examined. That being said, people who fight for gender-neutral toys should take this evidence into consideration. It is possible that, based on their psychological makeup( during the “pre-socialization stage of their cognitive development”), most boys prefer boy toys and most girls prefer girl toys.
And that’s not a terrible thing! It simply means that there are better causes to fight for (debates over gender-assigned colors and toys seem frivolous outside of Western civilization). Many children won’t follow the same behavioral patterns as their peers, and those children should be encouraged to “shop around,” so to speak. So relax helicopter parents, your offspring will be fine if you allow them some freedom of toy choice; be it blue, pink, or anything in between.
In the meantime, let’s appreciate the art of toys…
A 2014 Time magazine article lists LEGOs and Barbie as the top two most influential toys of all time. While these two toys are vastly different from each other, they represent the various ways in which a child’s mind develops. Barbie defines the development of persona, while LEGOs exemplify the miraculous process of innovative design.
It is a dichotomy seen through the likes of the male and female brain; the Apollonian and Dionysian mind; the “systemizing” and “empathizing” tendencies of the male and female psyche. Whether gender stereotypical or not, Barbie and LEGOs teach children of the ability to self-create (develop a personality, understand social conventions, etc.) and the ability to externally create, all while developing a greater sense of self-awareness–they have stood the test of time and will continue to do so.
This article aims to prove that Barbie and LEGOs are objets d’art, containing a rich history, while inspiring awe and originality. They represent the miracle of the male and female brain, and should be used and admired by boys and girls of all ages. Barbie and LEGOs, being so much more than blue or pink purchases, are magnificent symbols of our daunting yet beautiful consumer culture.
Barbie: Vapid Bitch or Feminist?
Despite debates over her size zero waist (recent efforts have been made to create more realistic body proportions) and Mattel’s representation of cultural diversity (often viewed as outright stereotyping), Barbie signals a shift in femininity. Arguably, she may be a figure of feminist progression, as she continues to transcend the definitional limitations of femininity.
Barbie is fashionable, career driven, and equally attuned to a sense of maternity and domesticity. She is both above and within the patriarchy—an idea which some feminists may scoff at, but femininity does not always validate feministic or misogynistic definitions and misinterpretations. Barbie’s clichéd prettiness continues to spark up fiery debates. She is frequently suspect of imposing impossible beauty standards upon a younger audience. On the other hand, many people are quite fond of her larger-than-life glamour—just look at the recent hoopla over casting Amy Schumer as Barbie in the upcoming Mattel film.
Upon her release in 1959, Barbie—though nowadays perceived as an antiquated and artificial “It” girl—signified a cultural shift; an indicator of the progression of femininity. Despite seeming campy (in both dress and disposition) while taking on various occupations, Barbie dismantled the housewife archetype—not by belittling housewives, but rather by displaying alternative possibilities for womankind.
As a figure of fashion and philosophy, Barbie still maintains her status as a worldly beauty queen. While many abhor the social hierarchy she supposedly embodies, Barbie is not just a bimbo with an unrealistic waist and inflated bosoms. Mainstream and sub-cultural perspectives of femininity are seen throughout both Barbie’s cultural advancements and the advancements of her proceeding foils.
Why Build a Bear When You Can Build a City?
LEGOs are a starter kit for the younger audience who are drawn to the phenomenon of construction. One block marks the beginning of a multi-colored, multi-layered universe. While this amazing toy suits the “systemizing tendencies” of the male brain, LEGOs appear to be loved equally by both girls and boys.
That is because creation is inspiring. Learning how to build at an early age activates a child’s artistic eye. They begin to understand how houses, buildings, and cities function—how the human mind has built society through something as simple as a block or a cube.
LEGOs are a testament to the genius of architecture. Children and adults alike can observe this while visiting LEGOLAND, or a handful of other LEGO exhibits across the country. Gargantuan monsters, colossal towers, and life-size superheroes are frequently recreated by innovators who maintain their child-like astonishment and youthful imagination.
True to its name (in Danish “leg godt” meaning “play well”), LEGOs are always put to good use. That is to say, children always play well when they are playing with LEGOs. As a builder, the user has full power over their creation—it’s as if the blocks speak to the children saying, “here are the keys to LEGOLAND: imagine all you want, build all you can.” It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure scenario in its finest form. The adventure is reality.
A New Hope
In the previously mentioned Time article, author Tim Walsh anecdotally suggests that in comparison to Barbie, LEGOs have a stronger impact on career choice, “I hear more stories about people who have become architects and engineers because they had a love for building with LEGOs than I have heard people say, ‘I became a lawyer because I had a lawyer Barbie.’” Such results are highly plausible, but consider the effects of each toy.
Barbie, as stated before, indicates the concept of social design, while LEGOs signify the art of design through physical construction. Both serve a purpose in the development of a child’s understanding of social and physical complexities. So while lawyer Barbie may not seem to inspire lawyers in real life, the vast portrayals of Barbie dolls inform both boys and girls of the varied forms of socialization and careerism in our society.The appeal of Barbie and LEGOs indicates the ways in which early minds develop, and the ways in which many children mentally mature by using both blue and pink labelled toys.
While many may argue that these toys aren’t gender specific, advocates for gender-neutral toys should acknowledge the possibility that most boys and girls prefer toys that are based on their gender. In doing so, this debate may finally be put to rest.
Despite the defense for gender-preferred toys and colored labels based on predominate preferences, some still find the labels to be unnecessary and, above all else, harmful. Such is the case in an interview with professor Christia Spears Brown in The Guardian. Brown makes the tentative claim that: “all toys are gender neutral…what is not neutral is the way toys are marketed.” Many researchers disagree with her, but that’s beside the point. Even if Brown’s claim were undoubtedly true, the solution should not be to remove the label, but rather to let the child choose their own toy.
Rather than engaging in silly arguments about gender conformity, and its potential impact on a child, let the kid be a kid and have fun. Show a girl to the boy’s toy aisle. Introduce a boy to the girl’s toy section. If they like something, buy it. If not, then so be it. Let them explore and learn.
Who cares what the label is!
People are as obligated to follow these labels as they are obligated to follow a specific recipe while cooking. Maybe it is true that, for the most part, boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Of course, there’s variation and that’s a wonderful thing as well. In fact, children who don’t “conform” to these standards should be encouraged to think for themselves—rather than be tossed into the hullabaloo of the gender war debate, in an attempt to problematize something that could simply be based on a child’s innocent whim.
Toys are a magnificent art form, serving as a wonderful guide to the development of a child’s mind. It is a symbol of the mind’s expansive capacity to imagine and create. A child’s first toy is their first step towards understanding the true beauty of art and culture. Toymaking is an art form, as is the child’s interaction with that toy. The toy transcends reality by representing limitless possibilities.
Consider the Barbie doll who can be anything based on a child’s (boy or girl) interpretation of what she represents—not just a plastic body, but a metaphor; an idea; something far beyond her alleged cuteness. LEGOs can be the building blocks of a basilica, or a skyscraper—anything that the child wants it to be.
Toys must be celebrated!
Sure, they are evidence of consumerism, but toys are also so much more than that. They represent the virtues of both the creator and the consumer. Toymakers and children truly breathe life into the toy.
Carr, Mark. “How Lego supports Child Development.” welovebricks.com. We Love Bricks, 3 May 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Himka, Cristina. “Culture Fail: Barbies of the World—Just Racism?” corvallisadvocate.com. Corvallis Advocate, 29 August 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Hunt, Elle. “Amy Schumer says trolls’ backlash over Barbie casting shows she’s right for the role.” theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 6 December 2016. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.
Kanazawa, Satoshi. “Male Brain vs. Female Brain I.” psychologytoday.com. Sussex Publishing, LLC., 17 March 2008. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Mortensen, Tine Froberg. “The LEGO Group History.” lego.com. the Lego Group, 9 January 2015. Web. 20 December 2016.
Oksman, Olga. “Are Gendered Toys Harming Childhood Development?” theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 28 May 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Saad, Gad, Ph. D. “Sex-Specific Toy Preferences: Learned or Innate? The biological bases of toy preferences.” psychologytoday.com. Sussex Publishing, LLC., 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Sweet, Elizabeth. “Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago.” theatlantic.com. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 9 December 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Thompson, Michael, Ph. D. “Understanding and Raising Boys:What We Can Do.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 07 Jan. 2017. <http://www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys/aggression04.html>.
An interview with Michael Thompson based on his research found in: “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. and Michael Thompson, PhD. Copyright 1999, 2000 by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. and Michael Thompson, Ph.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Todd, Brenda K., John A. Barry, and Sara A. O. Thommessen. “Infants Prefer Toys Typed to Their Gender, Says Study.” scientificdaily.com. ScienceDaily, 15 July 2016. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.
Waxman, Olivia B. “The 13 Most Influential Toys of All Time.” time.com. Time Inc., 29 Oct. 2014. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
Wolchover, Natalie. “Gender & Toys: Monkey Study Suggests Hormonal Basis For Children’s Toy Preferences.” Huffingtonpost.com. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 24 August 2012. Web. 3 February 2017.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Thank you so much for this article. We as adults have gotten so involved with gender stereotyping and protecting our kids from it, that we’ve forgotten the toy is an art form. It’s there to help kids play, and learn as they play, not to be a deciding factor in their ideology. Just put the blocks, the Barbies, the Tonka trucks, and the dress-up trunk in the middle of the floor and let the kids play with whatever the heck they want!
I think you would enjoy this article from Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: https://www.aei.org/publication/those-who-push-for-toy-neutrality-dont-get-little-girls-at-all/
I love Christina Hoff Sommers! In fact, I recently applied to be her research assistant over the summer. Thanks for sharing!
I’m a fan of her work as well. Being her research assistant would be a great opportunity!
Girls toys are dominated by themes of ‘love and magic,’ which reinforce gender stereotypes.
Barbie’s getting slammed by a ton of bricks!
Traditionally, girls play with dolls and boys with guns, and toy makers have been happy to play along with that notion for years.
Great article! I always loved riding with my Big Wheel and was encouraged to do so. But then I also loved playing in a sandbox.
Thank you! Although I’m discussing the “norm” with toy preference, I was a boy who played with Sky Dancers frequently. Does anyone remember those? They were the coolest toys, but they may have been considered hazardous and consequentially recalled 🙁
I do remember those; in fact, I owned one. From what I hear, they caused a lot of injuries back in the day. 🙂
I feel like Sky Dancers and the TMNT Pizza Shooters must be the most historically dangerous toys I remember playing with…
Toys as art is a very intriguing topic but I felt as though the delivery could have been significantly streamlined. Your introductory paragraph is very aggressive and makes it fairly confusing if the issue of gendered toys is the issue you’re discussing or if you’re dismissing other people’s concern. Your actual thesis statement didn’t come until around the 13th paragraph which at that point made all the previous ones feel wholly unnecessary. And when you finally focused on Barbie and Lego, you only wrote about four paragraphs summarizing the rich history and originality you claim these toys have in the previous paragraph. And then you return to speaking about how they are gendered. If your argument is that gendering toys doesn’t matter because most of the time children prefer the toy that ‘corresponds’ to their gender, you don’t need to keep repeating it because you have good support in the findings of your cited psychologists. Say it once and be done so it doesn’t feel so much like I, the reader, am being scolded for something. Instead I would have loved to maybe get a history of toy making, benefits of playing with toys since you brought in psychology, and how toys have changed over time.
Thank you LC. Honestly, I felt that the info on toys and gender correspondence was repetitive, but I expanded on these issues based upon recommendations. It just goes to show: sometimes you’re your own best critic. I’m sorry you felt scolded, but I like to taunt my readers a bit 😉 There’s so much to say on this topic, and I fully encourage people to upstage this article!!
I agree. For the amount of time you spend discussing gendered toy preference and marketing, you also fail to discuss those children who are not biologically “male” or “female”. There are MANY children who do not fall into either of those categories (and I’m not specifically talking about preference, I’m talking about physically and genetically.) I take issue specifically with the study you site that discusses hormones during gestation. It’s difficult to dig thru the entire first half of the article with the actual subject being buried so deep in the second half. I’m much more interested in the idea of these toys being timeless objets d’art and praised for what they are, than exploring the assigned gender bias at repetitive length.
I have to say I disagree with the criticisms of the article as repetitive and taking a scolding tone. I am a helicopter parent, proud of it, but found the tone lightehearted. I did not feel scolded at all. Also, I think that the article has a sensitive tone about a topic people can sometimes get intense about ironically enough when it if about toys and playing. I love the great pictures and expecting an article to cover everything including transgender and intersex children is beyond the scope of the article. BUT it would be a great topic to leverage out of this article. I would love to see someone write on that, maybe a follow up article on this one.
Thank you Munjeera! As a writer, I only scold when necessary. My objective here aligns with the integrity of The Artifice: to enlighten and entertain.
The first half of the article was lengthy because I wanted to focus on the war of toys. My goal was to discuss both the war on toys and the art of toys, and I hope I expressed a balance of ideas.
I think it’s important that people understand that many people subvert gender norms and many other don’t. I feel that recent coverage over gender stereotyping often implies that gender norms are oppressive. In fact, they are in many cases. But other times they are simply norms that a general population inhabit. Let’s celebrate those who naturally follow this script as well as those who subvert it.
Also, I am fascinated by the concept of toy preference among transgender and intersex children. But, as Munjeera confirms, this is a topic for another article. There is so much that can be examined here, and the research in that area seems scant (based on my recent investigations). If anyone has articles they like to share on this topic, I’d love to hear it!
A topic for another article is how race and gender come into play here. Remember the famous Clark study that compared how children see race through whether they wanted to play with a doll that looked like Barbie or a dark skinned doll. Definitely worth watching on Youtube, if interested.
I’ll have to look into this fascinating study. Thank you for the suggestion.
I would be interested to know how much of the success of toys has to do with how much it actually appeals to children, and how much of it has to do with how well it appeals to their parents and other gift givers, who actually buy those toys. I hated Barbie, but I had the largest collection of Barbies in my neighborhood. Nobody bothered to ask me. Due to the fact that I was a female child, it was assumed that I wanted MOAR BARBIE. I rarely got what I wanted and most of my room represented my parents and other family members than it did my own identity or desires. If I had been given my own toy budget to manage, my room would have had a lot less pink and a lot fewer stuffed animals and dolls in it. Perhaps it’s different for other families, I can’t say without evidence, but it’s a fair question to wonder if the success of various toys actually reveals anything about kids or if it says more about parents, and what combination of factors is involved in the increase in sales of toys like these.
Same here. I never asked for a Barbie. EVER. Still, I had ten of them. Ten dolls I never asked for, and only played with when my friends wanted to play Barbies.
My daughter has never asked for a Barbie, and my mother was stunned that I wouldn’t buy her a toy she hadn’t asked her for. It’s not like she had nothing but sling shots and He-Mans laying around the house: we have a herd of My Little Ponies constantly underfoot, and a bin full of baby dolls. She just doesn’t want a damn Barbie.
Oh wow, a toy budget is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time. How wonderful for a child to be educated in choice and financial savvy in such a creative way. Thanks for the inspiration.
I have to agree with all your points, nice piece!
Young girls who look at Barbie reportedly have lower body esteem.
Barbie isn’t the only glamorized figure. Children are bombarded with images of beautiful skinny models and actors on a daily basis.
I absolutely agree. Having struggled with an eating disorder in the past, as well as knowing several female friends with anorexia, I know how the Hollywood image of sexiness impacts one’s perception of their own body. Research does confirm this as well.
That being said, and I’m very sorry if this sounds crass, I find it nice to look up to sexy Hollywood stars. Camille Paglia, my personal muse as a writer, regards Classic Hollywood stars as pagan idols. She suggests they should be revered; not necessarily emulated.
It would be nice to see a balance where we can admire the beauty of celebrities and other glamour idols, without trying to mimic their oft-unhealthy habits. Can this ever be achieved? I do wonder that often…
Parents have gotten more open minded when it comes to how children play and what kind of toys are appropriate for their kids.
As a girl, I preferred girly things not because they were pink (bleck, said my 7-year-old self) but because they were more interesting to me, regarding detail and because I liked to create stories about dysfunctional families. Couldn’t do that with a Hot Wheels set or a T-Rex Lego set. Sure, part of that was probably due to society, but it’s okay for girls to to want to play with dolls. Just make sure to show girls that it’s okay if they want trucks, and that it’s okay boys want to make up stories with stuffed animals. But parents don’t see it as okay, society doesn’t see it as okay, and young kids don’t always have the capability to express themselves without those influences.
Why can’t you use hot wheels or a T-Rex Lego set to tell a story about dysfunctional families? I used the pieces from a Pokemon board game (with pictures of the Pokemon on them). If I wanted detail, I just wrote a story in a notebook. Pretty sure I filled at least one notebook full of stories before kindergarten started. Do most kids really wait until school to start reading and writing on their own? It seems weird to me. I found one of the notebooks recently. The first story was about the tentative friendship between a shark and a cleaner fish.
Quite a thought-provoking piece you have here. Good job!
Great article! The value of toys isn’t what they are labeled as, but what children do with them. Children do have natural inclinations toward specific toys. The dichotomy becomes problematic when children who don’t express that inclination are told to go play with something that is “suited” to them.
A growing body of research show that girls who don’t get exposure to construction play at a young age start could back away from science and math by the time they reach middle school. Yet toys that offer such skills have typically been marketed to boys for decades.
This is a very good topic. However i do not believe children are to intact with the idea of toys being used in a feminist standpoint. A child knows girls play with dolls and boys play with balls and blocks but now and days they play with what they feel. even though i think they have and understand of the social norm to them toys are toys. the packaging will not make a difference and will not deter a little girl from playing with blue blocks or a little boy from playing with pink blocks. they just see blocks and want to play together. I think its kind of a stereotypic route this article is going even though its made very good points of how labels are supposed to be used for
Give the kids the room to be how they want to be and you’ll probably not have anything to worry about.
I would say the most important thing is raising a daughter who is not internalizing these gender norms. She might go through a phase where all she wants to play with are barbies and all she wants to wear is pink. She might then decide that she hates her barbies and never touch them again, and pink may go out the window. Raise her to make her own decisions based on what she likes, and she’ll be fine
This is an age-old debate over how children should be raised.
Interesting. I always thought toys were gender-stereotyped by marketers. I never knew the toys themselves catered to the male and female minds. It definitely gives a new angle to the age-old debate.
As a girl I always played with all kinds of toys and I don’t think their is a problem with the kind of toys kids play with. It is stereotypical by the marketers. kids can play with whatever toys they want.
Lego is good for children, it’s educational toy.
Check out this spoof:
I liked the image you had of the male and female brain!
You like to dig deeper into this topic with the following journal articles.
Todd, Brenda K. (2016). “Preferences for ‘Gender-typed’ Toys in Boys and Girls Aged 9 to 32Months”. Infant and child development
Martin, H L (30/09/1995). “Children’s gender-based reasoning about toys.”. Child development (0009-3920), 66 (5), p. 1453.
Francis, Becky (2010). “Gender, toys and learning”. Oxford review of education (0305-4985), 36 (3), p. 325
“Nowadays, toys are a scapegoat for unimaginative adults to use while attempting to validate their own political agendas.” This is by far the best and most eye-catching opening line of an article of read in a while! Thank you so much for this beautifully dissected piece. Growing up with a younger brother, we often shared (stole) each others toys, so I was always more of lego kid. However, I still had a massive obsession with plush toys although I never knew exactly where this stemmed from. Definitely an interesting topic to consider further.
Barbies are scary
Some dolls are obviously frightening or at the very least disturbing, like “Chucky” or the “Snuggles” teddy bear. But then there are real dolls that could be in your house, on store shelves, or easily available via eBay right now that you should be very, very afraid of…
Great points made, toys shouldn’t be gendered or stereotyped
My nephew also like barbie doll, Because i don’t have niece so he consider, a barbie doll as his sister.
This article is a refreshing approach to how toys should be viewed. I feel today most people are wanting to incite some kind of deeper understanding of things rather than enjoy something for its purest form. Toys is a subject that pretty much everyone has encountered and with these encounters helps us to learn.
Appreciate the take on toys that is gender free.