To Gender or Not to Gender, That’s the Question

I’m a bit of a mossback when it comes to language. Specialized usages and jargon set my teeth on edge. So when I overheard the rent-a-cop at the county fair lean into his walkie-talkie with “what’s your six?” when “where are you?” would do perfectly well, I started to grind molar enamel. But of course to close one’s mind to innovation of this sort walls one off to the creativity of the evolving language. And because we Americans give ourselves license to play with language—unlike in France, say, where an appointed group of “immortals” watch fretfully for foreign incursions and modernizations—English evolves with special speed. Take this paragraph, for example: a policy of rejecting new words categorically would have forbidden “rent-a-cop” and “walkie-talkie” as both were once jargon. As a matter of fact, purists once regarded the word “jargon” itself as jargon!

Anyhow, sometimes words also evolve as nouns and become verbs. The noun “gender” has become the verb “to gender,” for instance, and so gave us its past participle, “gendered.” I first heard the verb form more than two decades ago, and I reacted skeptically over a word that arrived through the arcana of the feminist discourse. But I was wrong then, and the word now proves remarkably useful as it calls to mind our leanings and preconceptions. When I’d hoped to hand down a sturdy, nifty, and barely-worn bike from my daughters to my nephews, I thought that peeling off a few decals (bunnies and duckies if I remember) would suffice in removing the cooties. I learned otherwise. The raked frame that denoted velocity for me made the bike look horrifyingly like a girl’s bike to my nephews. And the color, metallic purple, plainly dragster-aggressive to me, looked indelibly and unacceptably girlish to them. How could I have forgotten that purple succeeds pink as the hue of feminine fixation? And how could I have overlooked the way that boys and girls label their toys and, thereby, “gender” their play experiences and how they will so vigilantly police the gender boundary?

In a column in the New York Times Peggy Orenstein, writer and editor, described the gendering of toys (which mercifully hasn’t yet been called “genderification”). She asked, reasonably and profoundly, if the toy world should become gender-free. It’s a weighty issue for social psychology and a momentous practical matter for the toy industry. F.A.O. Schwartz, she pointed out, had de-gendered its Manhattan showroom, replacing its famously pink and blue departments with a gender-neutral red and white. But, moving in the opposite direction, the Lego Group decided that, because boys and girls play differently, gender-fairness means gender-specificity. In December of 2011, the company marketed curvy, pastel-colored blocks that enabled girls to construct a beauty salon or café—settings for the role-playing that they found girls to prefer. Ornstein notes how even primate research has confirmed that young males among our near cousins preferred cars and trucks as toys and, as she put it, the females inevitably “went ape for dolls.” LEGO banked upon the gender divide running deep.

Before we can conclude that nature has trumped nurture, once and for all, though, social and ethical questions quickly emerge: should toys simply act to reinforce the trends? What might we gain if they don’t? Possibly, quite a bit, especially in a human world that edges toward gender neutrality. Studies show that girls raised among brothers show better spatial understanding and boys who grow up among sisters show greater empathy and a talent for nurture. We’ll likely find other lifelong dividends of play experiences where girls and boys mix. But practically, does this mean that toy company executives should embark upon a program of degenderification? Should social psychology win over anthropology? Should we abandon the linguistic and stylistic conveniences of separating girls from boys? Those are questions that the market—and the market now includes children’s decision making power—will decide.