Dolls for All: Why Children Should Be Given Gender-Neutral Toys

Social Commentary

Dolls for All: Why Children Should Be Given Gender-Neutral Toys

Illustration: Akshita Monga

When babies are just an hour old, they are incredibly difficult to tell apart. With their diapers on, forget figuring whether it’s a boy or a girl, it’s impossible to even tell whether they’re human. I realised this when my niece Gullu was born, a year and a half ago.

My parents skipped the usual baby talk and conversations about the size of her nose and tiny feet and went straight to, “Will we be alive to see Gullu get married?” Luckily for Gullu, her parents – my sister and brother-in-law – have different plans, that do not include reminding her all the time that she is a girl.  

For instance, they don’t correct her when she sometime addresses elders with “Tui” instead of the respectful “Tumi” (think of the difference between the Hindi “Tu” and “Tum”) – something even one-year-old girls are urgently taught. Or pull her shorts down each time they ride up when she is playing. They’re yet to impose their beliefs, likes, and dislikes about acceptable “feminine behaviour” on their daughter. This affords Gullu the luxury of being raised as gender-neutral.

In my own way, I consciously seek out presents for her that are not gender-specific. It isn’t just taking advantage of my sister and brother-in-law’s refreshing lack of interference but also an attempt to test my theory of gender-neutrality among children. (Who else can I experiment on, if not my niece?) I’m of the opinion that infants – irrespective of what a birth certificate claims – should be allowed to explore and own any gender role that they deem fit. Children should get to decide what they’re comfortable with before society imposes restrictions on what they can and cannot be.

In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby addresses this precise thought. “Why are we bringing our children up as men or women instead of basic human beings,” she asks. “I don’t assume bald babies are boys. I assume they’re angry feminists, and I treat them with respect,”

Maybe, this will reduce the stigma of being “too effeminate” or “too manly” because the weight of an air-tight identity will be greatly lessened. And isn’t it high time we placed more emphasis on identity than gender?

So, I continue to shower Gullu with gender-neutral toys, hoping to examine whether there was any difference in her response between those and the typical feminine ones that my relatives bring her. To my surprise, the only toys that Gullu constantly reaches out for are the ones I get her. The translucent ball that is always bouncing around the house, the toy truck that has a permanent baby butt dent now, the mini-bat that finds its way to the unassuming heads of all the guests.

And to our amusement, Gullu doesn’t only take to toys that aren’t textbook “feminine”, but also treats the overtly feminine ones with utter disdain. Blonde strands of doll hair are littered all across the bedroom. Follow the trail far enough, and you’ll end up finding a plastic bald head lolling in the corner; the kitchen set pieces are used to practice perfect marksmanship with the target being walls and family members. It’s the same with clothes – there is no “dress up”. Instead, Gullu lounges in oversized tees, shorts, and thin cotton vests.

I recently read an article on the advent of gender-neutral parenting and thought about my niece. The piece mentions one Toronto couple who still hadn’t revealed the gender of their three-year-old Storm. According to the Toronto Star, Storm’s parents wrote in an email to family and friends, explaining that their decision was “a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place?).”

Maybe, this will reduce the stigma of being “too effeminate” or “too manly” because the weight of an air-tight identity will be greatly lessened. And isn’t it high time we placed more emphasis on identity than gender?

I’m aware that it might take my middle-class Bengali family a hundred more years to openly admit or acknowledge the need for gender fluidity, but I am glad that my sister and brother-in-law are taking small yet significant steps. Their measures might not be as public, or well-researched, but it makes some headway when it comes to making choices. They may not speak at length about the importance of identity, but I am content knowing that one child in my family has been spared the horror of gender stereotypes.

In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby addresses this precise thought. “Why are we bringing our children up as men or women instead of basic human beings,” she asks. “I don’t assume bald babies are boys. I assume they’re angry feminists, and I treat them with respect,” Gadsby reiterates. This is exactly how any child deserves to be treated. Not as a boy or a girl, but as a bundle of organs with fundamental rights. This way, girls will be spared being told right from childhood to be more accomodating, soft-spoken, and fully clothed. And boys won’t be mocked for being attracted to their mama’s lipstick, playing with dolls, or showing the slightest hint of emotion.

After all, imposing a pre-decided gender on a child, is like a stranger giving you a presentation about the personality that you should embrace for the rest of your life. When you raise a child like a child, s/he gets to have the best of both the worlds, choosing from the buffet of feminine and manly traits, balancing their identity as they go. Gullu gets to play with a car without it being forcefully replaced by a Barbie and her clothes are not all pink. None of the choices her parents make for her now get to define her identity. That choice is hers to make when she grows up a little.

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