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of the Better Business Bureau to get Top Toys, the country’s main toy distributor, to stop publishing catalogs with “outdated stereotypes.”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.
This season’s influx of gender-neutral toys has provoked the usual backlash. In her Atlantic story, Christina Hoff Sommers lays out the counterattack best. Gender-neutral toys fail, she argues, because boys and girls do not have “identical interests, propensities, or needs.” She reminds us of that time when Hasbro tried to market a dollhouse to boys and those boys generally spent their time catapulting a baby carriage from the roof. She quotes developmental psychologist David Geary saying that “one of the largest and most persistent differences between the sexes are children's play preferences." And she reminds us of the famous vervet monkey study, where the female monkeys preferred playing with cooking pots while the males preferred balls and toy cars. “It seems unlikely that the monkeys were indoctrinated by stereotypes in a Top-Toy catalog” she writes. “Something else is going on.”
Sommers is largely right about the research. Toy preference among young children is one of the most enduring gender differences ever found. It’s been replicated by researchers in Africa, Japan, Mexico, India, Switzerland, and across social classes. A well known study in—yes, Sweden—found that 97 percent of boys were more likely than the average girl to spend their time playing with cars, balls or weapons, which, as Lise Eliot points out in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, is a vastly larger measure than any cognitive or personality differences found between the sexes.
But what does that actually mean, and what conclusions can we draw from it? For one thing, the toy preferences may be universal but they don’t really run all that deep. In the vervet study, for example, the males may have liked the cars more than the females did but their favorite toy overall was a stuffed dog. And the females liked the cooking pot best, but the doll only third. (And as Rebecca Jordan Young points out in Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, why is it significant that they liked the cooking pot? Female vervets can’t cook, so maybe they just wanted to whack a fellow monkey over the head with it.) Another well-known Swedish observational study showed that girls with CAH, a hormone abnormality that makes them behave more like boys, did in fact like the boy toys more than the hormonally typical set of girls. But the most popular toy among both sets of girls were the Lincoln Logs, which were a novelty in Sweden. And the second most popular toy for both was a garage with four cars.
Monkeys aside, it’s possible that toy preferences are just as much a result of peer pressure as any innate differences. About midway through their preschool years, girls start to open up their preferences and play with lots of different toys while boys get more adamant about their boy toys, Eliot points out. One logical explanation for this is that boys pay a higher penalty for diversifying. No one looks twice when a girl plays hoops or drives a toy race car; in fact it’s probably considered pretty cool. But a boy with a doll is still almost as alarming to many parents as it was in 1970. One classic study on peer pressure at SUNY Binghamton, for example, showed that boys were twice as likely to avoid exploring the typically girl toys if another child was sitting in the room.
Outside of Sweden, the new kinds of popular toys allow children to express themselves a little more expansively without shoving gender engineering up their noses. (The Lego “Friends” line is mostly pink, and the Barbie construction set emphasizes that girls can also “decorate.”) The most interesting research shows, for example, that when boys rough house, they are not merely being aggressive but developing crucial social and negotiation skills. And girls, when they are hiding in the doll corner, are not being sweet and docile but actually practicing how to dominate one another and start conflicts. A Barbie construction set or a fire station dollhouse recognizes that both boys and girls may want to express many sides of themselves—they may want to knock things down and also play house.
In her Atlantic story, Sommers quotes one expert saying that those Swedish toy catalogs will surely disappear because parents will realize their kids do not want to play with those toys. That might be true, although not long ago it was true that girls did not want soccer cleats for Christmas—and that your husband did not cook the Christmas meal.