Boys love trucks.
It’s true. My son? If “toddler” was a marrying age, he’d probably marry a truck. I don’t know what kind of truck, exactly — he can be a little fickle on that front, but if I had to put money down, I’d say he’d wanna marry a tractor trailer. Maybe, maybe, a tow truck. Though he does have a new crane he’s pretty enamored with? Shit, I dunno. We’ve started him on Transformers: Rescue Bots, and they’re like a gateway drug to other toys — they’re trucks, you see, that turn into people. This is how we get him to Batman, I figure. Or Star Wars. Whatever.
Point is: boys love trucks.
And girls also love trucks, too.
Any time my son is near to a girl around his age, the girl wants to play with his trucks. And why wouldn’t she? Trucks are kinda bad-ass. Big wheels and they make noise and they do shit and you can push them and crash them into other trucks and trucks are a fucking blast, shut up.
Girls love dolls.
Boys also love dolls.
My son sees a doll, he wants to play with that shit. And not just in a traditionally boy way — it’s not like he’s picking up the doll and getting into an MMA fight with it. He talks to dolls and plays with them almost as if they’re other children. If it’s a baby doll, he wants to take care of it.
Girls love kitchen stuff.
My son — drum roll please — also plays with kitchen stuff. He has a little kitchen area at his Mom-Mom’s house where he cooks up fake food and serves it. Just yesterday he made me some kind of invisible plate of mac-and-cheese which, tantalizingly, was too hot to eat for a long while until B-Dub cooled it down (by spluttering on it). Then for some reason he ate his like a dog? I dunno. Toddlers are basically tiny drunken chimpanzee robots trying to figure out how to be people.
See, that’s a joke, but it’s also got a deeply-embedded nail of truth in it:
Kids are trying to figure out how to be people.
Because they don’t know. All they know is that they’re barfed up into this world and they start out as these little pink-cheeked cocktails of cognitive development and physical swelling — their lurch forward from squalling poop-flavored soft-serve machine to actual human being with actual human emotions and opinions is not a slow one. In this, the accelerator is stomped to the floor.
One of things we think we know about people is gender. Boys do boy stuff! Girls do girl stuff! Ha ha ha it’s just true, people say, it’s just biology, they’ll claim, and even early on, kids are given acute signals regarding gender: flashing lights, warbling sirens, waving flags indicating societal norms.
BOYS LIKE BLUE.
GIRLS LIKE PINK.
IF I DON’T KNOW WHAT FIDDLY BITS THE CHILD HAS, GODDAMNIT, I DUNNO, DRESS THEM IN SOMETHING THE COLOR OF OLD MUSTARD AND CALL IT A DAY BLAH WHATEVER UGH.
Dress a boy in pink, every person you meet will tell you how cute she is.
Tell them “she” is a “he” and they’ll look at you like you just set fire to the kid. They’ll call Child Protective Services so fast, your kid will be on a boat to some Island of Orphans before you get to change another diaper. A boy? In pink? Abuse! Abuse!
It’s easy to fall into that trap, to think that all of this is just normal. That’s this is biology’s expression — it’s not us! It’s just the program, man. As basic as eating food and drinking water.
It’s a firehose spraying bullshit.
My wife, growing up, liked boy toys. Action figures and such.
And she bought those toys in secret. And played with them in secret. (Her mother would stealthily ask her, “What toys do you think your brother would like?” and then buy those for my wife.) This ruse was because the act of buying boy toys for a young girl just wasn’t “normal.” Because other kids already had assumptions — rules! — hammered into their tender little brain meats.
Kids aren’t programmed biologically.
They’re programmed psychologically.
By us. By their parents. By society. Not at birth. But in all the years after.
And though I think I’m burying the lede here, this societal programing is wholly on display at the local toy aisles at your nearest store. This aisle is pink, they say, winking and elbowing. This aisle is not all blue, but it’s mostly blue, and here is where you’ll find Batman, they add. The girls have the dolls. The kitchen stuff. The baby carriages. Girls are homemakers. Keepers of the domestic delights. Make me cupcakes! Curry a pony. Hug a stuffed animal. Boys are doers. Action! Aggression! Drive here! Punch that. Build this thing.
The job of the girl is compassion and support.
The job of the boy is action and violence.
Girls are princesses. Boys are kings.
Like I said: a firehose spraying bullshit.
Women can be aggressive. Men can be supporters.
Women can be scientists and builders and leaders.
Men can be homemakers and nurses and secretaries.
Gender isn’t a rigid two-party system. Gender is a spectrum.
But that’s not easy thinking. And we seem to like easy thinking.
And so you go to your toy aisle and it’s all set up in binary. It becomes clear that while women can be construction workers and men can be nurses, society doesn’t jolly well want them to be. These toxic signals, this venomous frequency, starts when they’re this young. When they’re toddlers. When they’re told about pink and blue. When they’re shown what roles are best suited for them based what they have in their diapers, not what they have in their hearts and minds.
Let’s talk for a moment about Transformers: Rescue Bots.
It’s a fun show. It’s the Playskool pre-school Transformers show. It’s not violent and you don’t have any Decepticons. The robots mostly do rescue stuff and when they do “fight” they fight like, volcanos or escaped zoo lions or out-of-control lawnmower robots. Plus, a show like this forms a tiny but significant bridge between what I liked as a kid and what my son likes now (which is why, I assume, the toy aisles are full of the same toy lines I saw as a kid — nostalgia).
The show has four robots. (Well, six if you count the occasional Optimus and Bumblebee.)
These robots are all dudes.
The robots are “piloted” by members of one family: the Burns family. One dad. Three brothers. One sister. The youngest boy, Cody, has a friend — Frankie, who is a young black girl. Daughter to Doc Greene, played by Levar Burton. The show has two female characters, then (and two African-American characters).
It’s not ideal. But, okay, let’s at least admit that Dani is a capable character — as capable as her brothers — and further, Frankie is frequently the smartest person in the room. She’s science-minded, and not-like, pink and girly science-minded (“I’m trying to science up the perfect cupcake for my dollies!”) but she knows real science. It’s pretty all right.
Now, let’s talk about the toys.
Again, four (to six) robots.
The robots are paired with their pilots.
Except for Blades, the helicopter. Blades’ pilot — Dani, the sister — is nowhere to be found as a toy. And neither is Frankie, the other girl. Which means the toy line has absolutely zero representation of women. Which, uhhh, sucks. It sucks for the girls who want to play with Rescue Bots. It sucks for my son, who should be able to enter the world seeing it as it is — where 51% of his fellow humans are women, equal and visible and capable.
Used to be you could see ads like the one at the front of this post.
But now you get ads and packaging like:
And man, that’s sad.
It’s not sad because girls shouldn’t like pink. It’s not sad because they shouldn’t be allowed to like clothes and fashion and other preconceived “girly” stuff. It’s sad because that’s all we think they should like. It’s sad not because a girl might want a pink microscope but because it’s the worst one in the bunch in terms of actual magnification. It’s sad because we assume that boys are the ones who play with bulldozers and soldiers and science, and girls aren’t shown on the boxes because they don’t like those things — or maybe it’s that we don’t want them to like those things, just as we don’t want our boys to learn to cook or raise a kid. It’s sad because we assume these gender boundaries mean so much when they only mean a little, and it’s sad because when our kids don’t stay inside the fence (the fence we basically made up), you get a little boy who likes My Little Pony so much that he gets bullied so much that he tries to kill himself.
All the awful things we believe about our genders, all the terrible expectations we place on our kids — it starts here. It starts in the toy aisle. Sure, it begins in the hearts of adults, adults who have fallen prey to this themselves, or adults who want to reinforce the norms and types that keep them in power, but for our kids, all of begins here. It begins in the pink versus blue. They see it on toy packages, in the representations of the toys themselves, in movies, cartoons, marketing.
This is where gay-bashing begins. This is where misogyny starts.
This is where a host of cruel inclinations toward folks who are different arise. A nasty, gnarly little seed — seemingly innocuous — embedded in the dirt of our children’s subconscious minds.
No great call to action, here. But if this starts in the toy aisle, it’s up to us to counterbalance the bullshit in our own homes. By trying to let our kids be who they’re going to be on the gender spectrum, and by doing our level best to protect them from a world that isn’t quite ready for that. The alternative is trying to stop them from being who they really are…
…which most would tell you, I think, is no life at all.