I admit it, I was a toddler geek. A small nerd. I preferred books to toys, initially lining up pages of photographs from baby magazines, then moving on to print. Perhaps my ambivalence towards toys was due to having easy access to them: I spent afternoons playing in Bapuji’s toy shop, surrounded by planes and dolls, bears and balls, noisy nee-nahs and plastic tea sets. Despite the book-obsession I had a few favourite toys that made the transition from shop to home. As a baby I loved a soft, squeezable rubber cat, similar to Sophie, the French giraffe carried by almost every infant in North London. Toddler photographs picture me with a metal car and plastic rings. I remember wooden block puzzles and Meccano, rainy afternoons playing on our terrace. I remember metal wind-up zebras. Like my daughter, I had a menagerie of soft animals whom I endowed with characteristics and voices.
I wonder if you have noticed yet: in my toy world there was an absence of playthings marked as being ‘for girls’. Oh, there was a presumption that girls played with dolls and boys with cars but most toys were fair game for any child that could use their imagination and create play. To parents of both boys and girls Bapuji would point out the bright colours, the buttons that would cause lights to flash and sirens to wail. It was a far cry from the gendered toy marketing that my children face. Visits to the toy department in many stores (despite the recent campaigns against gender-specific toys) are disconcerting: aisles of pink, soft and fluffy, sparkles, bows and frills; aisles of blue and brown, hard and shiny. I see dolls with exaggerated feminine features lounging in shops and restaurants, hairdressers and ballet studios with the word ‘VAPID’ printed in invisible writing on their foreheads. So this is how marketers want girls to play. Princess culture is everywhere and Barbie is big again. It makes my heart sink.
It’s not that I’m against princesses. It’s just that I would prefer the fantasy princesses to be more rounded: not the passive princess who sings to birds and waits to be rescued, nor the feisty one that wields a sword and saves the day but one that is just a little bit more complicated. Hurray and whoop whoop for Elsa and Anna, then. Frozen is the first princess film that my five year old girl has agreed to watch: until now she has been resolutely anti-princess. I can remember her, aged three, looking cross: ‘I am NOT a princess. I am a DRAGON!’ I am certain that she loves the film because it is a musical rather than for its portrayal of the complexity of humanity; in any case, she’s hooked, and that’s great, because the leading ladies reflect real people and real emotion better than the average Disney royal. As for pink, it is welcome in our house, just as long as all the other colours are there too. We actively chose to limit the pink-my daughter has a blue bicycle and a rainbow-coloured rucksack- because I would like her, and not a toy manufacturer, to decide which colour she prefers. She operates a rotation policy when it comes to favourite colour, and so far green and orange have spent longest at the top of the list.
When we emigrated to the UK I was given the task of choosing two or three toys to take with me. I picked a metal car (one with flaws: the driver’s arms are too short to reach the steering wheel and he appears to be embedded in his seat), my horse Dobbin and, because she was very soft with eyes that code when she was tilted, a doll called Josephine. Another doll was later brought over from Bapuji’s toy shop, but has lain untouched- surely I am not the only one who finds this child mother a little creepy (when the key is wound she turns her head to look at you):
My daughter shares my doll aversion, preferring dinosaurs, Lego and all things pirate. It was not intentional but our enthusiasm for this type of toy, rather than the ones typically targeted at young girls, has resulted in our five year old developing similar preferences. In Africa there was little children’s television to influence toy selection but upon arrival here I acquired storm troopers and Skeletor, My Little Pony and Wuzzles, Smurfs and Transformers. Judging from my children’s Octonauts and Spiderman collection TV and film are also influencing their toy choices, and I am looking forward to them watching Star Wars. My children also play with tea sets and balls, fire engines and mini feather boas. I don’t want my daughter to play like a girl. I don’t want my son to play like a boy. I would like them to play like children, not limited by anything but their imagination. I would love my children to see Bapuji’s toy shop, with it’s riot of colour and textures piled into a tiny space, just to watch their eyes widen with excitement.