The Kiddy Pool: Playtime: A Neutral Zone

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

He is going to go save the world … she is going to … make him dinner?

It’s common parlance in feminist theory to say that sex is biological and gender is social, meaning that sex refers to our anatomy and gender refers to the attributes cultures attach to maleness and femaleness. I’ve already written about the arbitrariness of assigning baby colors, which says more about marketing products to parents than it does about masculinity or femininity. So, I’m intrigued by Sweden’s efforts to “neutralize” playtime. This holiday season, one Swedish toy catalog features girls aiming toy guns alongside boys, and boys playing in pretend beauty salons along with girls. Representatives from the company comment on the necessity of reflecting how children actually play—as opposed to how narrow cultural definitions prescribe their play. I think this shift toward thematic toy organization instead of gendered toy organization is a good thing.

Anyone familiar with toy stores knows about the Great Aisle of Pink, a row teeming with dress up clothes and baby dolls that look like they’re marinating inside of bottle of Pepto Bismol. My older daughter is not really into this aisle, though she does like to play dress up and dolls. She gravitates to wherever the dinosaurs are, and I’ve yet to see dinosaurs marketed to little girls. They’d have to be pink and glittery (actually, that sounds kind of awesome to me) instead of scaly and ferocious; they’d have to be marketed as action figures, which is basically the boy-marketing word for dolls that do things. You know, active boys and passive girls. Boys will be boys, right? I’m not going to lie: I’ve always seen that expression as an excuse for not really disciplining boys.

Sure, boys and girls are different. But in playtime, that manifests more in relative terms than in absolute terms. Gender expression is a spectrum, and childhood, especially, is (or ought to be) a time to play with identity, to figure out who we are in relation to the world around us—and who God made us to be. That means sometimes boys want to dress up like girls and play with dolls and sometimes girls want to shoot things and operate heavy machinery. And in this culture, that’s often easier on girls, who can be tomboys. There’s still no masculine equivalent for tomboy—only fear mongering about little boys’ sexuality if they are gentle, nurturing, quiet, reserved (many qualities that describe Christ himself), or like to wear princess costumes. I don’t think that last trait applies to Jesus.

My point is that God made us male and female, but He also made us individuals, uniquely created to manifest our Creator. Our gender expression can be a beautiful and significant part of our selves, but it is not totalizing and never subsumes the spiritual beings we are in Christ. Marketing toys based exclusively on gender is part capitalism (demographic differentiation) and part adult insecurity, because boys and girls who don’t perform their gender in culturally-sanctioned ways make us feel awkward. It’s like that grown-up experience of not knowing how to address someone because we can’t read their gender; the Swedes have an answer for that too, a gender neutral pronoun “hen” for when gender is unknown or insignificant. When it comes to playtime, I’d say gender is usually insignificant to God because He is more concerned with spiritual virtues like joy and kindness—how we play—than what we play with.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

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    While our theologies differ significantly, I can’t agree more on the need for there to be more flexibility in how kids play and what they might enjoy playing with as they do so.

    I will probably never have children myself, but I’ve been around and helped to raise many children over the years, including one of my (still/recently teenage) sisters, a niece and nephew, and three gods-children.

    One of my sisters is currently expecting, and along with my mother, we were all lamenting the lack of gender-neutral clothes and such that used to be available when all of us were born in the 70s or 80s. What ever happened to yellow? Now, because it’s de rigeur to have ultrasounds and find out the child’s sex four to five months before they’re born, all of the clothes and decor can be taken care of long before they’re born, rather than having that few weeks for the word to get out after they’re born. It’s sad that gender expectations are now being imposed before the child has even taken their first breath.

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