Imagine a little cousin’s birthday party. You might have to buy a gift. Now that is something you might not really have an expertise in. You will go to a local toyshop anyway, hoping for some help from the shopkeeper. He will ask you if the child is a boy or a girl. He will make his obvious suggestions of cars and barbies and will ask you to pick one which will fit your pocket. All that is well and good, but try not to get into the temptation of buying a toy gun for the boy or a kitchen set or a Barbie for a girl. The gendered social coding will eventually get to them, but you can always try not to be a part of reinstating the already existing gender stereotype of creating violent reckless boys and girlie girl girls. You might now think if a simple toy could do all that. But trust me, that is where it all begins!
A couple of decades earlier when there was not too many toys available for the children in India, kids played with whatever they found lying around in the house. They were keen to observe their families in which the father was the ultimate breadwinner and the mother was the ultimate roti maker. When they playacted, the girl children immediately took charge of the kitchen. The boys went out to work, became policemen or pilots or shopkeepers or whatever fancy jobs that were fashionable among children back then.
Shift the scene to a contemporary day India. In most Indian families, both the parents go out and work and earn for the family. Kids grow up seeing their mothers as earning members along with their fathers. Fathers are increasingly taking charge of the household chores along with the mothers and I take a moment here to share my absolute happiness in this welcome change in the Indian gendered social order. These same families also spend a lot of money, time and energy to design the rooms of the children and filling those rooms with gender stereotyped toys. Princesses, glitter, and sparkle in the girl rooms! Sporty and adventurous action hero spaces for the boys! When they are out shopping, they buy colour coded ‘kinderjoy’, the pink one with the assemble yourself mannequin for the girl and the blue one with assemble yourself racecar for the boy. When they go to sleep, you read out adventurous stories for the boy from the book called “365 stories for Boys” book unmistakably boyish with its blue cover and the damsel in distress-kissed by a prince stories for your girl from the book aptly coloured pink and titled “365 stories for girls”. I have even saw a gendered bible somewhere, the blue covered bible with the title “God’s warrior” and the pink covered “God’s princess”. Remember the popular saying “Boys don’t cry!” Boys have no such emotional shortcomings. They will cry too if they feel like crying. It is a very healthy way of purging your emotions. Crying is not girly. Holding it in is not manly either. Isn’t all this ‘normal’ things we do with children a way of injecting gender consciousness in every waking moment of their tiny childhood brains?
These kids who grow up in this essentially gendered space will then grow up to become women with low self esteem or men who think that it is ok to be rough and violent with other fellow human beings. Imagine the plight of a boy who wants to play with a kitchen set. These stereotypes will ostracize the child; terrorize him from expressing what he likes to do in life because it is considered to be a ‘feminine’ thing to do. There is nothing feminine or masculine in any work or any toy. If a man wants to become a hairstylist, there is nothing gay about it. If a girl wants to be a space scientist, there is nothing manly about it either.
So you dear friend, who is standing in a gift shop wondering what to buy as a gift for the little girl whose birthday party you have been invited to, put down that Barbie right on the shelf. With the Barbie, or with a kitchen play set, you are also telling her that the most important things in ‘her’ life is adhering to a particular idea of beauty and body image and staying where she should ‘ideally’ be, the kitchen. Buy her colours to paint, buy her a bucket of lego to make whatever she wants. A castle, a spacecraft, or even a dolls house if she wants.