Over the past Christmas season, I took a job in retail. As such, I got to see what toys moved past the registers most often – got to see what parents were getting for their kids. This led to two encounters that got me thinking about gender role socialization.

The first: a man came up with a few Lego sets. As I made some small talk with him, he said that the most expensive Lego set – a passenger plane – was for his nieces. He complained that he had to go with a vaguely gender-neutral set because there are no Lego sets for girls.

Surprised by this assertion, I immediately racked my brain to try and come up with a girl-friendly Lego set. “They have castles…”

He responded, “Well, those aren’t princess castles!”

Gender-progressive that I am, I tried to come up with an argument against this. After all, couldn’t a castle still be fun to a girl even if it isn’t pink and white? The man told me that if I knew his nieces, I would understand – and I’m not going to pretend that I know a man’s family better than he does. (I’d respond the same way if he told me that I should get my nephew toys marked for his age when the little tyke’s clearly ready for 3 and up toys.)

I took two things from this encounter:

1. Lego doesn’t market to girls.

2. A toy absolutely has to be pink and girly to be accepted as a girls’ toy.

Thing 1 is rather fascinating to me. I grew up as a boy with tons and tons of Legos – and I cannot conceive a better toy for fostering creativity. With my Legos, I had knights, cops, boats, pirates, castles, space ships, robots, cyborg apes who aggressively attacked space ship piloting monkeys. (A very gender normative assortment of boys’ things, of course.) But somebody in Lego marketing decided a long way back that this kind of creative play was not for girls.

I’d love to come up with a patriarchal conspiracy theory here – that evil male executives feared that the universal compatibility of Lego sets would open up endless possibilities for gender mixture as boys and girls attached boys’ sets with girls’ sets and built up a tiny plastic utopia. More likely, they shrewdly assessed that the vast majority of parents won’t buy building and construction toys for their daughters. I find the realistic explanation far more depressing.

Let’s go to Thing 2, now. Toys have to be pink to be girls’ toys. Toys are more strongly gendered than even clothing, and they serve as an early socialization tool to separate children into girls and boys. Toy aisles are shamelessly divided into blue and pink sections. Boys’ toy manufacturers constantly pack the token female characters in ludicrously small quantities out of fear that they won’t sell. Top boys’ toy brands these days include Transformers (mostly male-gendered robot warriors) and Star Wars (the big boys of Obi-Wan and Anakin far outsell their female sidekick Ashoka). Girls’ toys? Barbie still rules the roost with a violently pink iron stiletto while the Disney Princesses giggle in a fluffy pink void of timelessness and inaction.

Just as a little look into how strongly toys are gender-segregated, check out this article: http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2010/11/have-yourself-a-very-sexist-holiday . The numbers gathered from looking through a Toys ‘R’ Us Christmas catalogue are…I hesitate to use any variation of “surprising,” because really, it’s depressing how unsurprising they are.

I really wish that it would be feasible to start raising kids with less gender socialization in their playthings. However, even allowing for the strict separation and gendering of toys, nobody wants to be the parent who bucks the system and raises a gender non-normative child. The brutally stereotypical gender roles embedded in our children’s toys are some of the earliest and most powerful tools for socializing kids into a gender binary.

Now, I promised the story of two encounters, and I just got done unpacking my thoughts about the first. The second story is much more cheerful.

Around New Year’s, a little girl and her mom walked up to my cash register with a cartful of toys. I scanned a big stack of Zhu Zhu Pets (the girly ones – they doubled their sales this year by making the “Kung Zhu” line for boys) and other girly things…as well as a Super Mario Brothers keychain and a Star Wars Lego set. The little girl wanted the latter two in her hands right away – the girly stuff could wait.

I say this with pure sincerity: Rock on, girl. Rock on.