Column: Toys don't make the boy


My son has a pink toy.

And you know what? This doesn't make him any less of a boy.

But the fact that he was hesitant to express his desire for the toy — even though he clearly wanted it — leaves me perplexed and more than a little concerned about what we teach boys about gender.

A few weeks ago, my son, who is 7, saw a TV commercial for the toy. The ad — clearly targeted toward tween girls — was for the Password Journal, an electronic, locking journal made by a subsidiary of Mattel. The journal is voice-controlled, requiring a spoken password to unlock. Kids can record their own passwords, as well as alert messages, greetings and goodbye messages.

I say kids can do these things because even though the toy is meant for girls — it's part of a line called GirlTech — it has appeal to kids of either gender. Who wouldn't want to write their thoughts and ideas in a journal where a nosy older brother couldn't read them? The journal also has a special invisible-ink pen and a light that makes its writing appear. Oh, and a secret compartment at the back for storing little treasures.

My son Jack saw the commercial for this item and said to me, his voice dripping with disappointment, “I would want to have that if it wasn't just for girls.”

It broke my heart a little bit. Here was a sweet kid interested in a cool, creative toy that would encourage him to write and explore his own imagination, and he was afraid of wanting it because it was “for girls.”

What makes it for girls? For starters, I suppose, its shocking pink color. And its advertising, which features smiling young girls with bouncy pony tails and frilly skirts successfully thwarting brotherly attempts to read their secrets.

Other than those arbitrary social constructs, there is nothing “girly” about this toy. Boys write, too. Boys like having control over their secrets, too. Boys also like invisible ink and magic lights and high-tech gadgets.

That my son had interpreted the Password Journal as a toy for girls is understandable — everything about the commercial telegraphs that message, and I don't fault the company for marketing it this way. I imagine girls respond enthusiastically to such advertising, and that probably sells a lot of journals.

What really saddened me about Jack's reaction is that he saw wanting a girls' toy as something shameful.

For all the advancement in the past 40 years toward gender equality and erasing the limitations of rigid traditional gender roles, Jack still got the message that it's inappropriate for boys to like “girl” things. Girls can like traditionally boys' toys — Legos, Hot Wheels, G.I. Joes — despite the fact that they are marketed almost exclusively to boys. But put a pink Password Journal in front a little boy, and he's ashamed to want it.

Just a toy? Doesn't matter? I'd believe that, too, if not for the marketing bombarding our children with sexist messages about what it means to be a girl (Cook! Raise babies! Be beautiful!) and what it means to be a boy (Wage war! Build stuff! Be strong!). While girls can outgrow this (women have made inroads in almost every traditional male career field), boys mostly don't (just 6.6 percent of nurses nationwide are men, as are less than 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers). It's OK to be a girl who's into boy things; it's shameful to be a boy who's into girl things.

I don't want this gender-shaming to define for my sons what it means to be a boy, or a girl.

So the same day Jack told me about the Password Journal, we went to the store and I bought it for him. It's pink. Its password is the name of Jack's favorite video game character.

He loves it, and it doesn't make him any less of a boy.