Feminism versus Dolls: A Nanny’s Thoughts on Pink Toys
by savanna fox
One of the underappreciated skills a nanny possesses is being able to adapt to different parenting styles. A nanny, at some point in her career, will enter into a household unrecognizable from the one in which she herself was raised. It could be a house with same-sex parents or opposite-sex parents, one with processed foods or an in-home chef. The girls we care for may not be allowed to play with girl-gendered toys, or only girl-gendered toys, where pink and all things female are shooting out from every crevice in her bedroom.
While some of the choices a parent makes may seem baffling, the exposure to these different styles and methods can encourage us to grow and think constructively. Let’s, for instance, think about the gendered-toys I just mentioned. In recent years there has been a cultural backlash against the hypergendered-toy market, especially in the “pink aisle”. This backlash has stimulated a gender-neutral movement in general, from gender-neutral toys to gender-neutral colors and names. However, for some people, gender-neutral isn’t always good enough.
When “It” Started
The first time I heard a mother say “I never want my daughter to play with dolls; I only want her to play with trucks,” I was flooded with memories from gender studies classes in college, classes in which we discussed the potential evils of Barbie, baby dolls, and both the colors blue and pink. We theorized that these gendered toys and colors were upholding patriarchal structures and the harmful subversion of women.
I immediately felt a sense of camaraderie with the mother, thinking she too was aware of the social and feminist issues that take root in our young. By removing female-gendered toys, she was attempting to push back against outside gendering the world would inflict, both socially and professionally, on her daughter. I presumed this mother knew that statistically her daughter would likely earn less money than her male counterparts, be overlooked for promotions, feel pressure to have kids, and to look a certain way, just to name a few of the feminist issues children are still too young to have to struggle with. At the time, I believed that this mother, myself, and others like us were invoking positive feminist theory by engaging in and enforcing gendered-toy monitoring, but were we?
As a nanny in a progressive Brooklyn neighborhood, I continued to hear similar parenting qualms with specifically girl-gendered toys and I found myself questioning this “no dolls” logic. Weren’t we oversimplifying the source of gender separation, especially because the idea and practice consistently excluded boys from the same toy monitoring?
I believe the “no dolls” parenting fad, while masked with claims of relief from gender, patriarchy, and sexism, is severely flawed. How did we transition from believing that we are a gendered society and that some toys are gendered to removing specifically girl-gendered toys from biologically female girls and introducing opposite-gendered toys (e.g., trucks)? Does the removal of one gendered toy and the introduction of another equally gendered toy break down gender barriers? Or do we simply reinforce gender differences by acknowledging the legitimacy of gendered toys?
The driving force behind the ban on dolls practice seems to be the fear that providing young girls with girl-gendered toys will pressure our daughters or female charges into subservient roles, both socially and professionally. Are we worried that toys that appear to typify stereotypical female characteristics of image over substance, nurturer over logician, will lead girls to only want to become stay-at-home moms, caregivers, cooks, and wives? Are these fears valid? And are these career and lifestyle choices inherently bad or digressive to the feminist movement?
While the fear of a gender-coercive world is real, girls’ choices to inhabit these roles are not bad or harmful to the feminist movement. People should be aware, though, that their children will have outside pressure to embody the ideals of “male” and “female”. But I do not think the knowledge of a hyper and yet unattainable embodiment of male and female warrants actions that disembody girls from all things female. Aren’t we just limiting our daughter’s options in the name of feminism?
The fundamental misstep occurs when the parent substitutes boy-gendered toys for their daughter’s girl-gendered toy collection. This action contradicts the feminist movement instead of upholding it by taking away choice and associating feminism with women’s likening to male, to becoming more male rather than being equal. The core of feminism is choice; limiting it is precisely what we are fighting against.
Male vs. Female
Substituting male playthings for female ones also devalues classical female roles. While on the one hand we are saying “no” to dolls, we are confusingly and simultaneously saying “yes” to typically male-gendered toys. In this scenario, not only are gender dichotomies upheld, sexism is amplified by highlighting the perceived differences between male and female gender norms.
The embedded message in the “no dolls, only trucks” practice is that classical female roles are less important than male roles. It appears as though sexism can be avoided so long as women don’t enter into the hyper-female roles that girl toys may represent (e.g., motherhood, the housewife, caregiver, and cook). By practicing gendered-toy monitoring, parents instill in their daughters and sons the idea that sexism only exists when a woman chooses a classically female, or not male, role in society.
Stigma in Childcare
This reasoning places feminism in conflict with the stay-at-home-mom and all classically female roles. I myself have been subject to the stay-at-home-mom stigma because I’ve chosen to be a nanny. The stigma surrounding my career choice is clearly in conflict with my peers’ original image of me as a “strong, educated, feminist female.” When I tell my peers that I’m a professional nanny, I am greeted with awkward silences followed by statements like, “I need to really work and use my brain to be stimulated.” These comments directly demonstrate that classically female roles are not considered “real work” unless performed by a man. Men are often rewarded and praised if they choose to dedicate any portion of their lives to “female” work. Stay-at-home-dads are all the rage these days, or so it seems.
Is this what we aspire to teach future generations, that one can only be a feminist or a radical if she engages in what has been culturally determined to be “male” work? Don’t our very acts of toy monitoring only further set up a world where male and female continue at odds, where “female” maintains its subversion through the praise and likening to “male”?
The Real Problem
Baby dolls, Barbie, the colors blue and pink are just things. They are symptoms of our errors in thinking, not the cause. I believe it’s important to remember that toys only carry as much cultural weight as we put on them. Toy dolls are not responsible for sexism, people are. When we blame objects for sexism and negative gender dichotomies, what we do, by accident, is push aside the real issue, which is our way of thinking, making it harder for us to find the real source of the problem, and thus, the problem persists.
The reality of the “no dolls, only trucks” practice does not instill feminist values. It does not teach you or the children you care for how to effectively address issues of gender coercion or sexism. Instead of addressing, teaching, and educating on issues of equality, feminism, and gender difference, toy monitoring only reinforces gender differences and women’s subversion. There is no gender neutrality when parents substitute one gendered toy for an equally gendered toy.
What to Do
If toy monitoring isn’t an effective tool against gendering and patriarchal structures, then how do we address these issues? How do we effectively as individuals and caregivers continue to pursue this topic for our children and ourselves?
I believe the best way to address these issues is to constantly maintain a dialogue with our peers and the children in our care. We should question both the short-term and long-term effects of our chosen parenting and coparenting, styles, not just turn a blind eye to the inconsistencies in logic. As long as caregivers and parents create and maintain an environment that stimulates conversations and encourages creative play of all kinds, the dangers of gendered-toy play should be limited.
Caregivers, unfortunately, will be limited in addressing some of these issues, unless specifically asked their opinion, in which case it’s good to be informed. Issues of feminism, gender, and sexism should be a topic for all.
If the family you work for is against baby dolls but their daughter is obsessed with them, point out that baby dolls can be a useful social tool. Children can learn how to relate to themselves and how to become a big sister or brother, for starters. Role playing is important and will likely happen with or without a baby doll. Gender divides, while they exist, are not concrete. Children learn how to gender themselves from the adults in their lives. You can remind the parents that inanimate objects don’t speak, they can’t have real back and forth dialogue with them, but you can.