It All Starts with the Underpants: Toys and Gender

As a pediatrician, I get to have fun in ways that adult docs don’t. I get to ask questions like “What finger do you use to pick your nose?” and “Did you wear your favorite underpants today? Let’s see who’s on them!” So I can report out on important trends, such as the index finger is favored for extracting boogers from most little noses (followed closely by the pinkie) and that Spider-Man and other Marvel heroes still rule the world of boy’s underwear and that little girls still come in wearing underpants adorned with Disney Princesses and Dora. Lately I’ve seen hints of a Japanese invasion in the form of Hello, Kitty underwear, and the Days of the Week underpants are still a perennial favorite (usually worn on the incorrect day by the pre-literate crowd).

It’s all good fun. Yet I find myself wondering, sometimes, whether anyone makes Disney underpants for boys (maybe the Lion King? Mowgli from the Jungle Book?) or whether girls who adore Spidey can adorn themselves with everyone’s favorite web-crawler without feeling like preschool cross-dressers. Interestingly enough, SpongeBob SquarePants seems to be absolutely gender-neutral, appearing on both boys and girls with approximately equal frequency. As with many other aspects of life, gender stereotyping starts awfully young.

I cringe when I hear parents out at the reception desk (where the post-visit stickers are dispensed) saying things like, “Oh, no, you don’t want that one, dear. That’s a GIRL’S sticker,” to their sons, or steering their pink-glad darlings toward the perfect facial features and perky figures of Sleeping Beauty and Ariel. I freaked out when I learned that our well-meaning staff, in preparing files of coloring pages to entertain children while they have a tedious wait, had made up several files of ‘girl pictures’ and ‘boy pictures’. I think we made them combine them all in one file. I need to check on that to make sure we haven’t backslid.

There was a post that I remember reading on someone’s famous blog — or maybe I imagined it — talking about the increased dichotomy between girls’ toys and boys’ toys. Go to a mainstream toy store or a place like Target, and you’ll see it. Lots of pink packages for the girls, lots of action toys in packages of camo green for the boys. The difference is much less at independent toy stores that specialize in creative, unusual or scientific toys, I’m please to report. Anyway, the blog post or article, assuming I didn’t imagine it, pointed out that in the past, this wasn’t really the situation. While some percentage of toys were marketed primarily toward girls or primarily toward boys, there were LOTS of toys and games that were meant for either gender. Remember the Slinky? Its original theme music? “Slinky! Slinky! Fun for a girl and a boy!”

That’s not to say that there weren’t differences. As a little girl in the 70’s I often fumed when I received dolls, stuffed animals, books, and paint-by-number sets when my brother got the Legos, the model airplanes, the chemistry set, and the Radio Shack 101 Projects Home Electronics Kit (remember the Home Lie Detector? Oh, the memories). But like good little future liberals, we shared the toys and pooled our resources so that both of us got to experience imaginative play as well as the pleasure of building impressive Lego buildings and then having Godzilla stomp the shit out of them. I played with his GI Joe ‘action figures’ (girls get dolls, boys get action figures) and meanwhile we turned Malibu Barbie’s swimming pool into a pond water culture to look at under the microscope (mom wasn’t very happy when I informed her I was growing mosquito larvae). And while it did fulfill all of the lame gender stereotypes, I have to admit that the Easy Bake Oven totally rocked.

And you never know about those early childhood influences. As it turns out, I was the one who went on to be a chemistry major and a physician, while he went on to study political science and become a Middle East history and policy wonk who reads enough to keep up with the daily output of a major publishing house. We both grew up with an appreciate for logic and science (although I got the math gene, and he got the getting-along-with-people gene).

Neither one of us ever mastered the paint-by-numbers though.