by Almas Virani
Posted on May 16, 2019
I recently visited a huge Toy Store in a posh mall in Mumbai, India to buy a toy for my niece’s birthday. As I was walking in, I was greeted by a staff member at the entrance. Very proactively he walked towards me and asked, “Ma’am are you looking for a toy for a boy or a girl?”.
I looked at him with curiosity, glanced through his name tag and asked, “Why do you ask, Tony?”
Surprised with my counter question, he replied, “because we have separate sections for boys and girls”.
I was intrigued and the feminist inside of me wanted to tickle his mind. Fascinated, I asked, “How do you decide which toys go into which section?”.
He was getting a little edgy by now but tried to maintain his customer service demeanor though it appeared quite involuntary by now. His hesitation was understandable; probably no one had asked him a question like that before.
He stuttered, “Ma’am, common toys that boys usually play with like cars, superheroes, sports items, etc. are in the Boys Section and since girls prefer to play with dolls, colors, art & craft, and kitchen sets, we keep those in the Girls Section. I could help you find the right toy if you tell me the gender and the age of the child you are shopping for?”.
I gave him a sarcastic smile and replied, “I am looking for a Ferrari car set for my 6-year-old niece. Which section should I go to?” Confused and intimidated, he took me to the Boys Section and quickly vanished before I could ask him any more questions.
Here I was, in the so-called ‘Boys Section’ and it was raining blue everywhere. It felt like boys were deprived of experiencing any other color besides blue. “What a colorless life boys have?”, I wondered. I looked at the walls and saw action figures staring at me from all directions. Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Captain America, Hulk and a few I couldn’t even identify with were used for aesthetic reasons and of course generated impulse buying. It felt as though they were screaming, “I am ready to fight”.
I kept walking and reached a noisy area. I saw a whole lot of kids shooting toy guns in the air. They were happily indulging in this act of play. I saw a couple buying a big rifle type of gun for their son who appeared to be a little over 3 years enjoying the thrill of shooting it. “What an age to introduce the child to violence?”, I reflected. On my right was a large sports section. Basketballs, footballs, skates, cricket kits and a whole lot of sports equipment were all available for grabs.
As I kept strolling I reached a larger than life ‘Car-Land’. Every single brand and type of luxury car was available, the type of cars that only 5% of adult men would actually end up driving when they grow up. I thought to myself, what unrealistic standards we imprint in early minds. No wonder, boys are working hard all their lives to buy that big machine someday.
I finally found the Ferrari playset I was looking for and while I was moving out I had an amusing thought. Maybe they could replace the name of this section from Boys Section to ‘Action Section’.
I decided to move towards the Girls Section. It felt like a fantasy world, drowned in pink. This section surprisingly also had a soft fragrance in the air. Inviting customers into this section was a huge Barbie doll cut out. Placed in shelves across a wall were rows of dolls neatly stacked up. They all looked picture perfect in beautiful gowns and fancy attire. I picked up a doll and looked at it. She had blemish free skin, a size zero figure, luscious hair, and impeccable royal clothing. “How far from reality?” I sighed.
I moved further along and found shelves of creative hobby sets. They ranged from beading sets, to nail art to sewing and knitting sets. The store seemed biased to have stacked all the creative right brain toys here. Every bit of this section was breathing the word – ‘Nurture’.
A little further was a vast section of kitchen play sets, utensils, and toy appliances of every kind. I walked closer to examine something on the third shelve. It looked like a toy microwave for me. As I reached out to grab it, it slipped from my hand and a few toys fell on the floor. I looked down to pick it up. There was nostalgic memory awaiting me beneath the pile of toys. I picked it up to take a closer look. What I held in my hands was my favorite toy as a child, a milk pan from a toy kitchen set.
As a 10-year-old I remember I used to make tea in it every time we role played the set up of a home. My cousins and I would play almost every day and I had the ‘tea making housewife’ character assigned to me. I would play the role of a wife making tea for my tired husband; a patriarchal character who would be back home demanding tea and biscuits. I guess my tea making skills began developing at that tender age; though I made imaginary tea at that time. Needless to say, I make excellent tea now and for a long time, I believed that was my only role in the society as I was growing up; to make tea for a tired husband returning from work!
Patriarchy has its roots covered in the depths of evolution over thousands of years built on a foundation of millions of stereotypes. These stereotypes form the basis of everything that we think, feel, say and do. Some of them are subtle, yet some of them are right in our face almost punching us to exhaustion. Some of them we see and ignore, putting them under the carpet, yet some of them we don’t even recognize. Every child is born as a clean slate and is manufactured with innumerable stereotypical settings. The clean slate is filled with lessons that are taught through signs, languages, behaviors, attitudes, and concepts and of course TOYS.
While toys for girls are primarily kitchen sets and Barbie dolls which inculcate the feelings of home keeping, nurturing and raising a family; boys usually enjoy shooting guns in the air, racing cars and playing with superheroes that save the world. One would only be blind enough to not see the noticeable stereotypes that toys alone create. That is where there the crafting of a child’s story begins. The child starts living her/his life based on these stereotypes. (Yes, I choose to write her/his instead of his/her). That is a stereotype too.
I love making tea for myself when I return home after a tiring day at work. I can work and make my own tea is something I had to learn along the way through layers of unconditioning. While I learned it the hard way, I am sure a lot of boys and girls struggle accepting it too, that tea is something anyone can make.
Barbie dolls are maintained and cared for by girls and hence growing up they are the ones primarily responsible for the grooming and caretaking activities of their kids. The lesson here is that fathers can equally enjoy grooming and nurturing their children. Driving is a skill that anyone can learn and cars as toys don’t necessarily need to be reserved for boys. And yes guns don’t serve anyone, so why play with them anyway?
A beautiful life is the one with balance. Kids need to learn both ‘Action’ and ‘Nurture’. Creativity, feelings, and logic are all very important in the development of a child’s brain. If the balance is restored humanity would see a new painting, one that is filled with happiness and freedom.
I personally have been a huge victim of stereotypical settings. My settings defined the course of my life. But my soul knew it could make its own choices. Wish all of us had the awareness to realize we are free to choose. It’s time to create new childhood stories for kids with toys they choose to play with. Stories that bring out the joy in each child’s life, that evolve them into adults who make wise choices and operate from love rather than stereotypes. Kids who will experience true freedom to be what they want to be and experience who they are full without getting restricted by stereotypes.
Pondering on these thoughts, I smilingly picked up a lovely tea set and a Ferrari car set for my niece. I decided to let her choose. Walking out of the store I smiled at Tony and told him, “Toys are for all kids, let’s not categorize them into sections.”
Let us #TurnOffTheStereo.