Felicia Gutmans examines the affects of toys on our adult lives.
Looking back, most us us will have fond memories of our favourite toys. Building majestic, multicoloured Lego towers, the unique plastic smell that Play-Doh leaves on small fingers, a favourite Barbie and her tangled hair. A child’s capacity for learning is monumental, and our early years are the most significant in terms of our development.
This being the case, toys probably had a pretty big impact on the way that we think. For instance, in his 1957 essay Toys, the academic Roland Barthes suggested that, among other things, they help to reinforce gender stereotypes.
Think about your standard toy shop. A lot of the time they’re divided into boys and girls sections. I know that, in my favourite toyshop growing up, the girl’s toys and boy’s toys were on separate floors! The girl’s floor was predominantly pink and had barbies, baby dolls, and cooking sets. These, Barthes writes, are created to “prepare” girls for their role as wife and mother. The boy’s floor, on the other hand, had science kits, builder’s toy sets, monstertrucks, etc. I have to say though, I can’t really remember what was in the boy’s section, as I always bypassed it when I went straight to the one which was targeted specifically for my gender.
Gendered marketing is an issue that more and more people are beginning to recognise. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign which was launched in 2012, urges retailers to drop the gender-specific labels. It has pioneered a worldwide reconsideration of how toys are sold. According to their website, by Christmas 2013 the campaign had already prompted a 60% reduction of the boy/girl labels in UK toy retailers. Despite these changes, there is still a long way to go. For instance, the American superstore Target has pledged to unite all toys in a gender neutral isle, after receiving multiple complaints regarding the gender-specificity of lots of their toys. This pledge, however, was only made in August 2015 and will come into effect throughout the remainder of the year. Similarly, the UK branch of Toys R Us dropped gender labelling in 2013, whereas the franchise’s US branch has yet to do so.
Artist and curator Kosha Hussain recently put together a show entitled Toys (Are Us) which was held in the crypt beneath St. Pancras Church. He considers the question of toys and their influence on children to be an anthropological one, noting: “For me, the role of toys should be enhancing the imagination rather than institutionalising it. Toys should encourage children to be more rounded human beings, rather than pigeon-holing them”.
At the end of the day, toys are just one one of the elements that have helped to form who we are, and the influence they may or may not have had on that will vary enormously from one person to the next.