12/14/2012 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Princess Butterfly Sparkle Pants: What Toys Are Telling You About the Girl on Your Holiday List


For a currently child-free woman, buying gifts for young ones can be an overwhelming and exhausting process when the occasion is a typical Birthday or Bar mitzvah. Add a pressure cooker holiday season to the mix and the toddler won't be the only one having a meltdown in the game aisle. Lucky for me, the mother of the kids in question, perhaps using her mommy spidey-sense to suss out my rising anxiety level (kids like Starbucks, right?), armed me with a helpful list of items her daughter and son would happily rip open with the kind of glee saved for Vegas slot winners and Taylor Swift at every awards show. Imagine my further relief when I saw that both children wanted "craft items," thus saving me a much-dreaded trip to the store that sounds like an arcade and smells like a basement, Game Stop. This will be easy, I thought, fun even. As a kid I remember coveting new markers, painting kits, and clay molds.

Like everything else, kid crafts have evolved into a slick enterprise and have not been immune to the marketing and consumer trends driving the gendered aspects of toy culture. My eyes started to sting from the shock of day-glow pinks, yellows and greens pulsing from the shiny boxes that lined the shelf of the crafts for girls aisle. Images of happy multi-ethnic girls leered back at me, rocking their pop-cap jewelry, flashing their cute, felt barrettes and headbands, laughing with their DIY messenger bag covered in pink camouflage decals and guitar-shaped stencils that proclaim "Girls Rule!" These artsy girls were decorating your own jewelry, creating sorry "keepsake" boxes and growing paper maché gardens -- there were even kits to make your own lipstick and perfume -- all items that, if you believed the copy and images on the boxes, were guaranteed to send that little girl on your holiday list into spasms of DIY ecstasy. The message seemed clear: While Jenny is busy making herself pretty by acceptable heteronormative cultural standards, her little dude friends will be yucking it up with Dr. Gross-Outs Slime Lab that turns packets of powered sugar into disgusting edibles like "boogers" and "toe fungus." I believe the boys on the kits; Dr. Gross-Out is their new hero, bigger than Jordan or the Biebs.

The gendering of toy culture is as old as the first pink slinky. Many critics and academics have argued credibly for more scrutiny on the political, social and economic impacts of toys on the construction of gender identity. Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter, for example, or Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins study on gender and video games, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. The holidays throw the relationship between gender and toys into stark relief by virtue of the sheer saturation of ads, products and promotional gimmicks meant to capitalize on the fact that during this time of year, many consumers are more focused on fulfilling the child's "want" than making critical decisions around identity politics. It is during this time of year that we see the arguments about the proscriptive ideas about femininity offered up to girls through toys writ large: That femininity is tied to the color pink, to characters such as the Disney Princesses; that jewelry, make-up, and other products of the beauty industry are desirable and necessary to transform the little girl into that magical princess or popular starlet. This is certainly a problem in as far as it constrains the representations of gender offered to girls, but another, troubling facet that often goes unobserved is the way these toys present equally proscriptive notions about how girls are meant to engage with these products. That is to ask, is there only one way to wear a tiara? Might the little girl on your list love to keep her bug collection in that heart-shaped keepsake box?

The LEGOS Friends debacle is a prime example. In an effort to answer what the LEGO corporation saw as a need to meet the consumer demand of girls, the company released block sets featuring tree houses, magic shops, city pools and a LEGO princess line. The backlash was swift and predictable, with consumer and mom groups bemoaning another manufacturer bent on enforcing traditional gender stereotypes. But the beauty of the LEGO block is its mutability. Start with a magic shop and add pieces to make it the secret lair of an international super spy. Maybe the LEGO princess is also a firefighter who plays in a rock band when she's not putting out fires and sailing around on her pirate ship. The Swedish Toys "R" Us company made a smart and welcome move to intervene on this front in its European catalogue that depicted boys and girls interacting with their toys in a gender open way: boys playing with kitchen sets, girls beaning one another with Nerf guns. These images are less about calling for the end to gendered toy marketing than they are about making the case for the infinite possibilities of play, which children find regardless of what it says on the box, and where much of the important work of gender discovery for girls and boys occurs. Wouldn't it be refreshing and satisfying for toy manufacturers to participate in changing the conversation about gender rather than trying to control it based on the bottom-line?

Until that happens, I guess girls will just have to be content dressing their Barbies in combat fatigues, sending Tonka trucks barreling through their fairy bowers, and brewing up dishes of unmentionable items in their Dr. Gross-Out kitchen sets.