5 min

Playtime for queers

A visit to Toys R Us uncovers lots of lipstick - but no penises

THE EVIDENCE. Bonte Minnema uncovers what toys are teaching kids. Credit: Paula Wilson

The parking lot is filled with mini-vans, station wagons and other family cars. I notice that the mascot of Toys R Us is Geoffrey the giraffe, an animal noted for its homoerotic behaviour; it must be safe for me to go in.

The mega stores stores are anchor tenants in malls across Canada, each one full of happy hyper kids running to look for their next favourite toy.

But what do the kids find inside? I spent some time in three of Canada’s 63 Toys R Us stores. I found it to be a very horrible experience. It’s GI Joe versus Barbie – and not much in between.

Walking into the store at Yonge and Eglington is like entering a maze. There’s the cheapie toys up front. Board games are stacked around the outside wall. In the middle are aisles and aisles of the mainstream stuff, marked by very telling signs.

Aisle four is marked Girls’ Accessories, Girl Dress-ups, Jewellery Boxes, Cosmetics And Accessories. There is no doubt who should be playing with cosmetics and who should not. The signs here are overwhelming, providing proper training for kids, who, left to their own devices, might wander into the wrong section and start wanting the wrong toys.

“We set up our stores by the category of toy, not by gender,” says Canadian Toys R Us rep Mary Zanette, who obviously hasn’t read the signs. “We set them up as categories, like silverware.”

If the signs are not enough, the girls’ section is choking in pink. Against all odds, there are boys here with their moms, dads and care-givers. They appear to be curious, though I don’t see them actually picking anything up. I wonder if they want to play with the girls’ toys and if that says anything about what they will grow up to become. I go to the video section to look for Ma Vie En Rose, about a genetic boy who likes pink and girls’ things. It’s not here.

Stuck on pink, I head to the world of Barbie. As a drag queen, I’m attracted to her because she symbolizes glamour and style. But I’m repelled by her skinny, hetero ways. All the symbolism is telling little girls what to expect in their future: Romance, prettiness and child rearing.

I can’t get beyond how white Barbie’s world is. There are a handful of dolls of colour. Similarly there are very few children of colour modeling toys in pictures on packaging.

“We are not manufacturers,” Zanette says in defence of the packaging.

Barbie fills aisles and aisles. She is to toys as Microsoft is to computers; I wonder if there is an anti-trust case on its way. I couldn’t find any construction worker Barbie, truck driver Barbie, lawyer Barbie or doctor Barbie.

I finally venture to where boys are supposed to go, the section of dark blue, green and grey. No pink. I’m in a macho zone, surrounded by war toys, mechanical toys, wrestling and other heroic “action figures.” There is more choice here than in the girls’ section. Not that this was in any way sufficient for me. I couldn’t find make-up for boys, and certainly no heels.

I have to admit that, contrary to stereotype, I enjoyed cars and building toys as a little fag. Not for the technical stuff, but for style. Growing up we played farm. I would be the mom and make clothes for our stuffed animals. They’ll be none of this in the boys’ section.

The Tonka Road Crew attracts my attention. It comes with 40 pieces, including several white male construction workers who carry signs saying “Men at Work.” I’m sure the sign is so that there is no confusion when the Barbie Jag is waiting to go through the construction zone and Ken is complaining about all those silly plastic people standing around.

The crew kit, like most toys, comes with a choking hazard which makes me think that toy manufacturers should also include an oppression warning: Playing with this toy may foster the development of sexism and racism. Silly fairy me thought that we’d reached some kind of gender equity. But we haven’t. If companies continue to be in the closet about girls playing with trucks, for example, some negative stereotypes will never go away.

In the boys’ section, there is hardly any acknowledgment of interpersonal relationships, never mind same-sex relationships. Ken is back in the girls’ section where he is part of her romance-filled lifestyle. The model which is popularly considered to be gay (with its lavender clothes, blond hair and earring) is nowhere to be found.

But there are lots of wrestling action figures. Macho muscular characters, mostly men, flex their muscles in a “mine is bigger than yours” game. Despite the homoerotic nature of wrestling – with its muscular men rolling around until one is on top of the other – I’d have to say the pre match screaming is off-putting and is probably a device used to scare gay fans away from the sport.

These action and violence themes of the boys’ section spills over into the video game section. I barely noticed the difference.

The video game section takes macho culture to an extreme – fighting, punching, kicking and killing. I did manage to find pink packaged software for girls. But it’s not like the adventure and combat software for boys. There’s Cosmopolitan makeovers and, surprise, Barbie software: Magic Hair Styler CD ROM. Barbie and friends doing hair would appeal to the drag queen in me, if it wasn’t so racist: The doll’s white friends get to be on the front of the box, but her friends of colour are on the back. (I couldn’t find a program that also did hair for boys or kids with trans or drag interests.)

Between the gendered ends of the store are the academic toys which should appeal to a parent’s higher instincts. But these toys fall prey to our culture, too.

Using the Smithsonian Anatomy Lab, kids can take apart a plastic body and look inside. The face conforms to masculine stereotypes, but the body is genderless. Certain anatomical articles deemed inappropriate for children 12 and up are missing. The chest is flat and there are no genitals – curious for a science toy meant to teach people about the body. The only toy where sexual identity should be important is the only toy that is, in fact, sexless.

This upsets me. How are children supposed to come to grips with who they are, or to understand sexuality in their lives if the manufacturers are hiding genitals on toys?

So many goofy notions are rooted in biology because people don’ t understand their bodies. Couldn’t we start by playing honestly with our toys? The Barbie creators say they gave Barbie large breasts to help girls prepare for puberty. That doesn’t apply to other organs. We shouldn’t be afraid of our genitals.

As I leave the store, I am disturbed by the gender rigidity I found inside, not just because Toys R Us obviously made many efforts to ignore feminism but also because gender is just much more complex. I like dresses, make-up, jewellery -and construction toys.

“We do not draw lines when it comes to gender,” Zanette tells me. “A child should be able to play with whatever makes a child happy. Then she adds: “We don’t have control over our vendors and how they position their product.”

For this story, I made calls to Mattel’s offices in Toronto and in California; to Irwin toys in Toronto; and to Gift Craft Toys in Toronto. I wanted to talk to them about whether they think their rigid roles and stereotypes hurt anyone.

After repeated calls and several weeks of waiting, only Zanette would talk. And she spent most of the time pointing her finger at the manufacturers.

The next time I go shopping for siblings, cousins and other kids I think I’ll pass by Toys R Us and other mainstream shops and take a look instead at some of Toronto’s independent art shops and bookstores.

I think we have enough problems without buying into the philosophy that the gender status quo is the one we should train our children in.