This holiday season the Swedish feminist police are proving that nothing is sacred to them, not even Christmas. No longer simply content to advocate for gender-neutral pronouns—“hen” instead of “he” and “she,” or require men to pee sitting down—they have convinced Sweden’s equivalent of the Better Business Bureau to get Top Toys, the country’s main toy distributor, to stop publishing catalogs with “outdated stereotypes.” Thus, in the Swedish edition of the Top Toys 2012 Christmas catalog, it’s the girl peering into the sight of the giant Nerf machine gun while the boy gently caresses a doll’s face. On another page, a boy, who looks about 8, is holding some fluffy toy Pomeranians of the kind you’d normally find in Paris Hilton’s purse, at the end of a sparkly leash. All I can say about this new catalog is, thank God for the Swedes—and I say that knowing full well what that poor boy probably suffered in school the day that photo was published.
Why do I wish to sacrifice this boy? In the current battle of biological sex difference, where each side looks for proof that some trait in boys or girls is or isn’t innate, children’s toys serve as the closest we have so far to a smoking gun. Researchers over the years have shown many times, in many different countries, that young boys and girls tend to gravitate towards different toys when given the choice—cars for boys, say, and dolls for girls. To a jury of parents, who have seen with their own eyes the toddler boys who sleep surrounded by trucks and the girls who will only nap in their princess gowns, the research feels like incontrovertible proof that boys and girls must indeed be wired like opposites.
But in fact this is a false piece of evidence, or at least extremely misleading, since childhood is just about the only phase of life where differences between the genders show up so starkly. Which is why we need the Swedes to remind us that the kids are playing a trick on us. Toddlers, as anyone who has one knows, are rigid, literal-minded and wholly not be trusted. They are also intent at that age on crudely defining their identity. Most mothers of sons, for example, have had the experience of having them wake up one morning and turn into Rush Limbaugh, proclaiming bombastically about what boys and girls do and don’t do. Taking that to mean anything bigger or deeper would be the same as seeing them sneak a candy from the corner store one day and concluding that they were destined for a life of crime. It would also lead us to forget the equally solid and convincing research on the "stereotype threat”—the idea that when women are reminded in any small way of the stereotype that, say, men are better at math, it affects their performance on tests.
Which is why I’m psyched that gender-scrambling toys are having their moment outside of Sweden as well. This week Mattel unveiled the Mega Bloks Barbie line, which encourages girls to do what their brothers used to do to annoy them: take apart and rebuild the Barbie house. Lego’s surprise hit this season is a construction kit called “Friends” aimed at girls. Yes, it’s pastel colors, and the characters—Mia, Olivia, and Stephanie—are much curvier than your usual Lego figures. But their logos, printed on the boxes and online, are practical-minded construction type phrases such as: like, “Let’s get to work,” or “Let’s figure it out.” Costco, meanwhile, is selling a “Police and Fire Playset” that looks remarkably like a dollhouse, with kitchens, bathrooms and loungy sofas and chairs, all in primary colors. Other popular dollhouses this season are sending out the message of “dare I say, female independence,” writes anthropologist Lisa Wade, doing away with the “heteronormative” husband, wife, and children, instead featuring, say, several Barbies and one Ken.
A couple of weeks ago, McKenna Pope, a 13-year-old from Rhode Island started a petition against Hasbro for making the Easy Bake oven only in girlish pink and purple. Her 4-year-old brother wanted one for Christmas, but when she went to buy it she realized the packaging would turn him off. Her petition got more than 30,000 signatures in a week. In the video she made for Change.org her little brother Gavyn is in the kitchen mixing batter for cookies. She asks him why don’t they have any boys in the commercials and he says “Only girls bake,” which makes her furious. The packages, she huffs, send the message that “Men don’t cook. They work.”
Anyone my age seeing this tableau might immediately hear the Free to be You and Me record playing in our heads. We also might remember that even as children, we understood that all the Williams we knew didn’t really want dolls. But the thing is, the world has changed dramatically since we were children in the ’70s. Gender-neutral toys these days are not so much challenging gender norms as catching up to them. Only girls bake? Ever heard of Bobby Flay, or Anthony Bourdain, or David Chang? The New York Times has an entire three-year series written by a dad who cooks with his son. And a host of new sitcoms feature men wearing Baby Bjorns instead of ties. Similarly, girls with power tools are all over the web, which makes sense in an era when vastly more single women than single men are first time homeowners.