In Defense of Genderless Toys

Around the time I discovered Barbie

Visiting home recently for a graduation, I was asked to swing through McDonald’s and pick up Happy Meals for two of the kids who didn’t want the catering. Not having been to a McDonald’s since about the time you could hear Alanis Morissette in constant radio rotation, I thought ordering a Happy Meal would be simple. I mean, what could possibly have changed? I found that there were some welcome additions: the choice of apple slices over fries. (Thanks, Michelle Obama!) But there was still one really antiquated holdover: the forced decision of girl toy or boy toy. When I asked about the difference, I was told that girls like Strawberry Shortcake and boys like Star Wars. In that instant, I was suddenly transported back to my Northern California grade school and the task of constantly having to explain why my Trapper Keeper had a Lisa Frank pony on it and not an Oakland A’s logo. Even more insistently though, I kept hearing my liberal mother’s voice echoing from the other room explaining to my father, “There are no such things as girl toys or boy toys, only toys that make you happy,” a sentence she would constantly defend throughout my childhood.

Let me just say upfront that I was never the most rough and tumble child. I was a fair willowy boy with straight sandy colored hair in his face and a penchant for creative distraction. One particular incident that my parents still bring up with an annoying regularity involves being benched from a T-Ball game after failing to catch the ball because I saw a cloud that looked like an elephant. Not that my parents went out of their way to toughen me up. Throughout my childhood, my wardrobe consisted entirely of alligator shirt polos and contrasting colored shorts, so that I constantly looked as if I was summering in Nantucket… not that 7-year-old me could have located or spelled that location. When the other boys would play dodge ball at recess, I would often bow out and sit on the steps of my conservative Catholic school reading The Babysitters Club book series and dreaming of a world in which boys became babysitters and had sleepovers. My kingdom for a pillow fight!

Happily, I was born at a time when the sexual ambiguousness of the 1980s had confused parents enough about the gender roles for their children to just feign ignorance if it got too complicated. When Boy George is on your radio and Pee Wee Herman is on your television, how do you dictate to your son what a man is supposed to be?

My first girl toy was innocent enough. It was one of those dolls that change characters depending on which side is up. Turn it one way and it was Little Red Ridding Hood. Turn her upside down, the skirt fell revealing the Big Bad Wolf dressed as Gramama. She entertained me for a time but it was difficult for the characters to interact. Then while shopping in our local Long’s Drugs one day, I discovered Barbie and suddenly everything changed. I had to have her. I had to live in her world.

My attempt to bring Barbie home with us was not subtle. I grabbed as many as my little arms could carry and dumped them all into our cart. When my mother asked me what was going on, I simply informed her that she could take them out of my allowance – a reasonable proposition in my opinion – but my mother had another idea. I could pick out one Barbie and one extra outfit as long as I let her explain it to my father first. Looking over the rows of different Barbies, I had no idea which one to chose. There was one in a white ballgown that temporarily caught my eye, but she seemed too formal. Next, I briefly considered one of the international Barbies, but who really wants their first Barbie dressed like a milkmaid? Eventually I decided on the Barbie from the Barbie and the Rockers collection. She was like a miniature MTV vixen. She even shook her pink tasseled wrist cuff if you pressed the right button! Mostly, I liked the idea that I could use this Barbie as leverage to gain the entire band. I mean how could my mom deny Barbie and myself access to some music-loving friends in neon outfits?

Eventually, Barbie started to overtake my room, so a second compromise was struck: I could only own as much Barbie paraphernalia as could fill a ten-gallon plastic crate. That might sound like a fair trade but you have to remember just how much stuff that bitch had. The Barbie Beauty Salon alone took up a good eighth of that space. So to make the most of my Barbie-going experience, I used to have Barbie play dates with my godmother’s daughter Katie. Our crates combined, we could enact very dramatic scenarios involving multiple costume changes and music cues played on the cream colored stereo in her bedroom. One of my favorite scenarios involved the divorce of Barbie and Ken after Ken’s affair with black Barbie. At the end of the scenario, Barbie changed into her pink and white businesswoman suit – with matching wide-brimmed hat natch – and packed up her tiny pink suitcase before saying goodbye to the Dream House. We then played Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ as Barbie drove away in her Corvette. Much to Barbie’s credit, she stayed strong and did not look at Ken once in the rearview mirror. This was all very unironic to us at the time, although looking back now the racial undertones do seem a particularly poetic Sirkian touch.

I recently had a brief stretch as a writer on the very short-lived CW drama The Beautiful Life and while on script, I couldn’t help thinking about my halcyon Barbie days with Katie in her split-level suburban home. Weren’t Mischa Barton and Elle McPherson literally just giant Barbie dolls? And weren’t the things I loved most about that writing gig the fact that I could dress them up in very pretty clothes and make them enact ridiculously obvious scenarios in an imaginary world of conspicuous consumption? In a way, playing with girl toys was the best training a boy could have had for that job, or any writing job really, because every weekend Katie and I would create an entire story using only the set pieces and costumes we owned and our imaginations. Isn’t that really the purpose of toys? To spark the imagination and foster creativity?… Now, I get paid to do the same thing on a daily basis and even have a Guild making sure I get snack time!

So when the McDonald’s attendant very pointedly asked a second time, “Girl toy or boy toy?” I defiantly responded the way my mother had proudly taught me, “There are no such things as girl toys or boy toys only what makes you happy,” quickly adding, “And isn’t this a Happy Meal?” There was silence at the end from the speaker and I think I expected applause or at least a triumphant nod when I arrived at the window to pay, but instead I overheard a conversation between the girl and her very tired sounding supervisor. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “He won’t tell me which toy he wants.” Her supervisor just sighed and said, “There’s a line. Just give him both.”

Driving away from that McDonald’s, I cued up ‘Fast Car’ on my iPod and savored my small triumph for equality. Next time, perhaps that McDonald’s worker would pause and think for a second before asking, “Girl toy or boy toy?” Every change starts somewhere, right?… And since I now had extra toys, I could totally keep one of those Strawberry Shortcake ones. I mean they are scented, after all!

  • Caroline Anderson

    I very rarely visit McDonalds, but last time I did they had Batman toys and I’m a big comic book nerd. So when my mom was getting a Happy Meal and he asked her what toy she wanted I, 21 year old Caroline, spoke up.

    “Boy toy or girl toy?”

    “Which one is Batman?”

    “Boy toy”

    “I want the Batman toy, and I don’t know why that makes me any less of a girl”

    I had a similar silent reaction. But I feel like I won something that day!

  • Jojo Pacheco

    I loved your post. Its so true why must everything be defined boy or girl. Just like pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Just like I was always a tomboy for not being girly. I also love that line “There are just toys that make you happy”. So true.

  • Rae Wallace

    I don’t often go to McDonald’s…or order happy meals, BUT, I happened to last night. I have a son, wo at the end of my order, I said “boy toy, please.” I was surprised to hear “It’s the same for a girl or a boy.” Maybe my McDonald’s is progressive (or just out of one gender’s toys)? Either way, I drove away impressed!

  • Sam Bartell

    Thanks for writing this post, I loved it. You’re lucky to have a mother who enforces the “happiness” philosophy when it comes to toys! She is so right.

    P.S. North American Bear Co. still makes the Little Red Riding Hood Topsy-Turvy doll that you described :)

  • Rachel Cantu

    Love this article! When I was little I was super offended by the boy/girl toy choice. Once I remember picking the boy toy just to make statement to some friend who didn’t think I should… even though the girl toy that week was something more awesome. Also, I love your mom’s quote! I’m totally using that one.

  • Meaghan Lanier

    The McDonald’s worker can’t help what he/she has to say. People in retail and fast food are trained to ask certain questions and, 9 times out of 10, those questions don’t get under anyone’s skin, so they are continually trained to ask them. I’m not saying that that makes the question right – I often wanted the “boy” toys when I went to McDonald’s as a child – but I’m saying that you can’t get upset with the worker, and he/she was probably very frustrated with you that you wouldn’t just let her do her job. I worked at Office Depot for over a year and a half, and there is a series of questions I had to ask. Some people got very angry with me for just doing my dang job! It’s very frustrating to the workers when you don’t let us do what we’re supposed to do.

  • Lucy Fisher

    Really enjoyed reading your article. I love your families philosophy about boy/girl toys, I couldn’t agree more!

  • Robyn RW

    When I have kids, I’m totally using your mom’s line.

  • Alexis Stanton Abell

    Beautifully said! Our house is overflowing with very gender-specific toys… only it brings me great joy that my children play with what they WANT, not what McDonald’s (or other powerful social structures) tell them to enjoy. At any given moment, my son is playing with Barbies in the doll house or my daughter is using the bug kit to find spiders. As parents who care about honest self-discovery, we fight a lot of stereotypes and well-meaning people that just want to create Princesses and Jedis. Kudos to your Mom for being your Barbie advocate!!!

    I wrote something in response to the J. Crew pink nail polish incident a few months ago.

  • Kristine Songco

    Yes! I remember having to choose between the Barbie toy and the Hot Wheels toy when I was a kid. But the only moveable part of the Barbie toy was her hair and I thought that was lame, so I picked the Hot Wheels toy. Take that, society!

  • Katie Jones

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read on Hello Giggles. Great writing style, but an even better message. I am the mother of a 4 year old girl who plays hot wheels while wearing glitter in her hair and a princess dress. She plays with her toys because that is what makes her happy!

  • Katie Zega

    this is wonderful. i love it. thank you!

  • Staci Syth-Benzon

    The McDonalds employee was just doing their job, no reason to get snotty with them or imply to others that type of behavior is acceptable. By the way…They started serving apple fries in 2005, nothing to do with Michelle Obama.

  • Shandon Bowden

    Okay, I actually work at McDonald’s (not in drive through, though, thank God, I’m just in grills). They’re supposed to ask that, no matter what. When you say stuff like that, it really just annoys everyone. It doesn’t cause change or anything, we’re just all in the back of the store calling you every name in the book. It’s not like we designated which toys were for who (In fact, when we got the Star Wars toys, EVERYONE who worked there was buying lightsabers, male and female). It’s just protocol, dude, we’re not trying to force people to think a certain way. It’s just a quick way to reference it. We’re all about times at McDonald’s. And which do you think is faster to say, “Star Wars or Strawberry Shortcake toy,” or “Boy or girl toy,”?

  • Fabiana Etcovitch

    Let’s face it, the only difference between a man and a woman now that the information society have made making a living a more similar job for each gender is becoming, more and more, the different shape of the reproductive organs. Mentally, I know I’m tougher and more “aggressive” and tech-oriented than many guys, which doesn’t make them less manly, or me more manly for that matter. All this pink and blue stuff is just mind-numbing – another civil right battle for those who see things with a little less bias.

  • Rebekka Cantrell Bess

    Barbie and the Rockers + Home and Office Barbie!! Thank you for the great reminder of some of my favorite toys. (Btw, loved that you could reverse H&O Barbie’s skirt to make a party dress!)

    One of my all-time favorites was my collection of Matchbox cars. I gave them personalities, and played with them like they were Barbies. And if their doors opened, that meant they could fly. Oh, to tap back into my childhood imagination! Thanks for such a great article!

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