There's been a lot of talk lately in the UK, and everywhere on the internet, about the gender division of toys. Hamleys recently re-organised their toys according to interest, rather than gender. This was shortly after their headquarters were contacted by feminist blogger Delilah, who pointed out that their 'girl' and 'boy' floors smacked of gender apartheid. Of course, the change wasn't received everywhere with enthusiasm: still quite a few people appear to believe that girls are 'hard-wired' to prefer anatomically impossible dolls and pink tea-sets, whereas boys, if left to themselves, will choose cars and soldiers. This, in spite of all the hard work people like Cordelia Fine have been doing in recent years to explain why this isn't so in words of two syllables or less. Some people's brains are 'hard-wired' it seems, not to understand. But for those who do understand how hard it is to see what a child, no matter how young, prefers 'by nature', because their preferences are formed by their environment from the time they are babies, and because it's impossible for even the best, gender equal parents, to control more than a tiny part of that environment, it is time to take the debate further.
What toys you buy at the shop represents only part of a child's play activities, we all know that. A child is as likely, more likely maybe, to play successfully with a cardboard box and a bit of string than with the latest Christmas presents. This is good, of course, it helps their imagination and our finances. But it has a darker side. Many parents will say that although they would never dream of buying their sons toy guns, the boys still found ways of playing at killing each other, with sticks, with their fingers. Boys will be boys will be warriors. Girls will be girls will be mothers. With teddy bears, paper dolls, pets or small siblings.
I have nothing against playing mother. It is a fine occupation, and one which I would encourage more in little boys. Too often I have seen boys laughed at or chastised for pretending to perform domestic tasks, pushing a pram, wearing an apron, etc. It seems that little girls are 'by nature' designed to play these games, where nature means the approval of parents, peers, teachers and everyone else they might encounter, not to mention that all powerful influence, the little girl on the advert, looking at you from the tv screen, posters on bus shelters and the boxes in the toy shops. It is clear that if you want to succeed in life, you should do as she does.
But what of the boys who would play war? What of their parents who are 'powerless' to do anything about it, because, after all, they don't buy toy guns? Warring is a very powerful experience, they say - it's you and your team against the rest, it grabs all your instincts and emotions, magnifies them, focuses them - it's part of the human experience. I think I know what they mean. When on a couple of occasions, as a child, I have been at war, against indians, extra terrestrials, etc., I have felt the exhilaration, the sense of belonging, of being out of myself. Mostly, the excitement comes from the sense that you're out to kill, that you're unbound, that you can really hurt someone, even if it's only pretence.
So, great, you think it's harmless and enjoyable to let your kids pretend they're killing other human beings. How about letting them play rape, or torture? These are, after all, real things that go on in wars just like the fighting. And if you want your play to be more unisex, and to include kids who're not so good at running, say, then you can let them play the rape or torture victims. That way it's more realistic and more inclusive. It can be quite varied and imaginative as well. If you're in quiet surroundings and there's just a couple kids, they can play date rape. If there's one girl and a bunch of boys, they can play gang rape, with a couple of boys holding down the girl while the others take it in turns to pretend to rape and beat her. Sure, it's disgusting. I'm not happy with myself for writing it down, even. But is it really that much worse than letting kids pretend to shoot each other with the kind of weapons that will cause major destruction to the human body, and to re-enact horror scenes that take place daily in not so distant parts of the world, involving children not much older than themselves?
Can't we just say no?