Wanna read something that’s not about COVID-19? I’m happy to oblige.
For March, Women’s History Month — yes, it’s every year! — I have a new exhibit in the Centennial Room at the Pasadena Central Library. On display is a tiny portion of my sizable decades-spanning toy collection. The presentation is called “Baskets, Barbies and Bad-Asses,” which is a look at childhood, playtime, and children’s toys through a gendered perspective.
In some cultures and countries where children must work, our notion of childhood is a romantic one and not realistic. Think of the tiny tots that were routinely sent into coal mines because their
bodies were small. Think of the tiny shepherds and childsoldiers. Think of the little girls around the world today who don’t get to attend school — but their brothers do — because their mothers
need the girls to stay home to help with house work. These kids usually don’t have toys in their lives, and they rarely, if ever, have time to play.
This is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and approved by the United Nations in 1948, has Article 24, which states: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.”
I start the exhibit with baskets because they represent “practical” non-gendered play.
Throughout the centuries, there have been many toys and games playable by anyone, regardless of gender. They are fun for the sake of fun; no practical purpose. Slinky, Pick-Up-Sticks, and playing cards are examples.
When I was little, girl’s toys were extremely gender reinforcing. I had a “Tiny Tears” doll: basically, a simulated baby that cried and wet her diapers simultaneously. When I gave her a bottle of water, she watered me!
When I was around five years old, my parents got me a child-sized play ironing board and an iron. Woo-hoo! That’s some scintillating play right there: heat this thing up and go back and forth on wrinkled fabric until it’s smooth. No thanks. I threw that iron at the wall and saw it could also be used as another type of toy, er, tool — a weapon. So please don’t ask me to iron something for you, and if you do… duck!
Then the Barbie Doll craze hit, big time! I was not all that interested, although I can trace becoming a theater director back to the scenes I had Barbie and Ken act out. My folks didn’t push dolls down my throat, but television certainly did.
Growing up on a farm, my parents were not rigid about gender roles. I got to hang around animals! I was never told, “girls can’t climb trees.” I’d proved otherwise before my parents could tell me I shouldn’t, which I see is the source of another kid-embedded attitude I maintain today: I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission.
I’m shocked at how little boys who want to play with dolls (now called “action figures”) are seen as taboo in most cultures; they are shamed into playing with “boy” toys instead. Every child needs to give and receive love, even if that dolly wets on you! When toys are the source of adult norms, isn’t it logical that we encourage boys to grow into men who know how to relate to babies because they “rehearsed” with a doll? Why is that so controversial? Farm boys are required to bottle-feed infant domestic animals, which is not considered “sissy” behavior. Instead, it is basic nurturing and doing what needs to be done.
And now, we’re in the Bad-Ass phase of toys and play. My female action figures range from Captain Marvel, a Barbie version of Frida Kahlo, and Lego versions of famous women at NASA. And not one of them is ironing! I also have action figures of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, all political and public servant Bad-Asses.
I like to think that all of my toys — my Baskets, Barbies, and Bad-Asses — have helped me become the domestic and professional woman I am, the stylish person I sometimes am and continue to be, and a Bad-Ass when I need to.
Hey, folks with kids: we need more scientists and all-around Bad Ass Brainiacs! You know, the people who will grow up and save us because — regardless of gender — they had their kid-sized chemistry or engineering sets and physicians playtime gear when they were young. Take my blood pressure… please!
Please consider the kind of toys and playtime you provide for our youngest people. They really make a difference.
Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a long time. Contact her at beautybitesbeast.com