A Hamleys revolution: letting children be children, regardless of gender

It was interesting to read in Tuesday’s Times newspaper that Hamleys, probably the most famous toy store in the country, had decided to change its long-held policy of separating out ‘girls’ toys’ from ‘boys’ toys’. Hamleys is synonymous with children’s toys and by association with much, much more: childhood, Christmas, innocence, fun … it is a veritable institution and revered worldwide; for them to take this non-gendered step is – not to put too fine a point on it – quite a revolution.

Hamleys said, of course, that this move had nothing to do with concerns about gender-stereotyping of toys, and the consequent effect on girls and boys and their perception of the world from a very early stage; they pointed to ‘customer flow’ as the main reason behind the change. In practice, though, everyone thinks that this has come about because of a concerted campaign by the blogger – and neuro-scientist – Laura Nelson. In requesting that Hamleys recategorise their toys by type of toy, not gender, she pointed out to them – and their Icelandic bank backers – that the girls’ floor had a preponderance of toys focused on ‘domestic, caring and beauty activities’, while toys on the boys’ floor were ‘geared to action and war, with little scope for creativity (arts and crafts)’. She pointed out too that ‘gender stereotypes in toys are highly influential and pervasive, and influence children’s and parents’ choices, aspirations and expectations. These different toys also promote the development of certain skills and encourage boys and girls to pursue activities that are consistent with the gender stereotypes we see in our society generally (women in passive, caring and homemaking roles; men in active, leading and aggressive roles)’.

She was making perfect sense. No-one disputes that girls and boys are different, and may be drawn to different toys and different activities, but it is debatable to what extent this is down to nature rather than nurture. By pointing children in certain gender-specific directions – literally, in the case of Hamleys – we risk reinforcing pre-existing understandings of their gendered interests, and we cannot escape the suspicion that these have been heavily influenced by our history of gender expectations. Moreover, there is something sinister about the ‘sea of pink’ described by Ms Nelson on the girls’ floor – what are we really telling our daughters about what they should like and do? Faced with such an overwhelming visual message, what else can we expect of them?

Any organisation which achieves the status of ‘institution’ has a responsibility to wider society. Hamleys should not just be making money, it should be at the forefront of the helping to make the world a better, fairer, more equitable place. It has done the right thing; perhaps now it can be yet bolder, and challenge still further, the messages girls and boys receive about ‘perfect’ bodies and appearance replicated in the male and female models scattered liberally amongst the toys they will still find on the shelves of the ‘Finest Toy Shop in the World’ …

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