December 6th, 2012

What can Swedish parents teach us about gender, children and advertising?

From the Swedish Toys R Us catalogue

Toys R Us Sweden recently released its ad in which children were featured in a variety of gender-mixed spaces, with boys playing with blow-dryers, kitchens, babies and Barbies and girls playing with Nerf guns.  The “gender switch” is a response to changing social attitudes in Sweden when it comes to gender roles. The US version of the weekly ad featured a girl playing basketball and a boy in the kitchen, albeit playing with the phone while the girls in the photo pretended to cook. Certainly the rigid pink vs. blue gender roles that saturate our American commercials and ads become complicated when we put girls and boys in these non-traditional spaces.

Also, integrating even just a few of those spaces in the ads meant they showed boys and girls playing together in non-stereotypical ways. We don’t often see this in American commercialism and it translates to American homes where little boys and little girls often have exclusively same-sex friends. There’s a lifelong transition from “boys have cooties” and “boys only, no girls allowed” signs on bedroom doors to “you can’t play with that, you’re a girl/boy” to “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” to, of course, the overwhelming majority of (white) men in political power. When we constantly tell people of the “opposite” gender they’re not like us, they’re not supposed to be like us, and that they’re not allowed to be like us it makes for a pretty tough road for those of that gender identity who are. And it makes us feel further apart than we really are.

From the Swedish Toys R Us catalogue

Sweden’s push for gender neutrality in the past few years has been marked, at least in US media, by a story of the preschool Egalia. It’s a gender-neutral preschool where kids aren’t referred to by gendered pronouns or driven into gendered spaces, in order to foster an environment where interactions and relationships aren’t driven by gender. This preschool is part of a movement of Swedes who are challenging gender stereotypes and demanding that they are challenged in social and political spaces, including commercial ones. Yet the pages of the Toys R Us ads are as divided as ever by pinks and blues/blacks/greys. Even the Swedish version of the ad, though with “switched” kids, appears with the pink/blue divide. They’re certainly not 100% gender neutral, but the difference between the two ads definitely curbed my eye-rolls at the Swedish one.
So what is gender neutrality when it comes to commercial and social spaces? Gender neutrality doesn’t really mean that gender doesn’t exist, or that it’s neutral, per se. There are plenty of heady theorists debating whether or not gender neutrality is possible in a world where gender is so deeply embedded. I won’t get into this any further but what Egalia seems to be doing on an emphatic level, and Toys R Us on a very (read: very) minute one, is to challenge the idea that spaces are exclusive to specific sexes, and emphasize that kids should play together in different types of spaces regardless of what gender they’re socially assigned or what toys they’re playing with.

Toys R Us is just a tiny dot on a larger map of embedded gender stereotypes and discussions of gender neutrality and general respect for humanity. I’ve talked before about why gender freedom is important for kids, that they need spaces to express themselves however they want to do it. Rigid rules make for a distressing childhood, particularly for those kids who don’t comfortably fit into stereotypical gender roles. But there’s an emotional pay-off for creating this freedom even for those who do. In 2010 Jesse Ellison wrote about her parents’ pursuit for gender neutrality growing up when she actually identified with gender stereotypes. “Ultimately”, she says, “the whole point was to ensure that I had the freedom, and choice, to be whoever I wanted.”

While I won’t lie to you about the fact that I’m awaiting a NYC version of Egalia to open up before I have kids (or perhaps it’s here…), parents’ position on challenging gender stereotypes doesn’t have to be so far away from the mainstream. Look around your home. Is everything in your home blue and movable for your son? Pink for your daughter? Challenge that. Listen to the ways you talk to them, watch the ways you play with them according to their gender, and challenge that. They’ll follow your lead and then you can follow theirs. Switch from hyping up the princess costumes to hyping up something new and different and see their reaction. Switch from a material gift to a participatory one that’s about family and not commercialism. I know how easy it is to get wrapped up in the traditional holiday hype but commercials and ads are dishing out the same old story about how children should be; homogenizing children when their individual expression should be celebrated and supported. Society works hard to pigeon-hole our youth into gender categories. Homes can be spaces where a parent and child can pursue other parts of their identity together, learning from each other along the way. Kids are lots of different ways if you encourage them to be and that’s largely what the pursuit of gender neutrality in these spaces is about.

–Emily Breitkopf

Emily Breitkopf is a contributing writer to The LAMPpost. You can read more of her work on her blog, Kids and Gender and follow her on Twitter @emilybreitkopf.

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