Does gender equality require gender neutrality? McKenna Pope thinks so. Pope is an eighth-grader who has petitioned Hasbro to create a gender-neutral version of the famous Easy Bake Oven toy. The toy was created in the 1960s and is a staple and bestseller in the manufacturer’s toy line. Pope was motivated by the desire to support her 4-year-old brother’s desire to be a chef.
Gender neutrality experts believe it is important to disassociate biology from social engineering. There is a fine line between the goals of gender neutrality and gender neutering. Boys and girls are biologically different and some instincts may be hard wired. But that is about sex, not role identification. Efforts across the globe are working to break down the stereotype of “boys will be boys and girls will be girls.” The effort raises the larger question of whether we should become a gender-neutral society.
Sweden believes we should. The Reklamombudsmannen, a Swedish regulatory group, has successfully pressured a licensee of Toys R’ Us to create a gender-neutral toy catalog for Christmas. The catalog has boys playing with Barbie merchandise like the Barbie Dream House and girls posing with guns and action figures. Sweden is known for aggressively pursuing gender equality. The Atlantic reports that in 2004 a “feminist political party proposed a law requiring men to sit while urinating.” Sweden recently added a gender-neutral pronoun to its national encyclopedia. Slate explains that the new pronoun, “hen”, was created by International Women's Day to replace he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]. Sweden has also introduced gender-neutral pre-schools. Egalia is a taxpayer-funded school for children aged one to six in the liberal Sodermalm district of Stockholm. CBS News reported that in Sweden “breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for preschools.”
The supporters of Egalia believe that “society gives boys an unfair edge.” At the school, gender neutrality extends to support for the LGBTQ community and non-traditional family structures. “There are no ‘Snow White,’ ‘Cinderella’ or other classic fairy tales seen as cementing stereotypes,” said CBS. Instead the books at the school “deal with homosexual couples, single parents or adopted children.” As an example, one of the school’s storybooks is about two male giraffes that are childless and discover an abandoned crocodile egg.
AdiosBarbie points out that gender neutrality does not seek to neuter boys or ignore biology, rather “modern gender theory holds that while sex is biologically based, gender is a much more complicated concept that can’t simply be assigned at birth.” Quoting Lise Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, AdiosBarbie explained, “Sex differences are real and some are probably present at birth, but then social factors magnify them.”
This is most commonly recognized in the way toys are marketed and the “pretty pink princess” syndrome. Boys are expected to play with guns, action figures, trains and trucks, while girls are steered towards dolls, and kitchens, and “dress up like mommy” grooming kits. By encouraging young girls to play with makeup kits and wigs and dress up as “pretty pink princesses” we reinforce the stereotype that they are preparing for their eventual “prince charming.”
But there are efforts underway to break these stereotypical models. PolicyMic pundit Lily O’Donnell writes that “there’s been a major push lately to encourage young girls to play with toys that help build their math and science skills.” In other words maybe we’ll see girls playing with microscopes and erector sets. More importantly we hope to see more women working in the traditional STEM fields and we are encouraged that removing the stereotypes embodied in toy manufacturing and marketing will help this effort. O’Donnell points out that Mattel has added a construction set, Mega Bloks Barbie Build ’n Style, to their iconic Barbie product line. O’Donnell also notes “GoldieBlox is working to help steer little girls toward lucrative and traditionally male fields with toys that teach engineering principle.”
Some scholars have argued for decades that gender neutrality is required to combat gender bias. Echoing the modern day concerns of the educators at Sweden’s Egalia, The Chicago Tribune in 1994 reported that Myra and David Sadker found many teachers taught by gender. In their study “Failing at Fairness”, the Sadker’s found “Boys are rewarded for being smart. Girls are rewarded for being neat, pretty, compliant, and nice.”
Evidence of growing support for gender neutrality can be found everywhere from the State Department using gender-neutral language on passports to social media site Google+ including an “other” option on a user profile (Note: this may have more to do with privacy than gender identification). According to NPR, “Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is talk of gender-neutral this and gender-free that.” NBC News reports that even the New International Version of the Bible is increasingly gender-neutral.
Miriam Perez summarized the goal of gender neutrality. Writing for feministing.com, she said, “I would never advocate for a move toward a gender-blind society. What I would advocate for, however, is an end to forcible gender categorization and policing.”
Pope’s petition for a gender neutral Easy Bake Oven has gathered almost 20,000 signatures and in her letter she showed wisdom beyond her years. Pope wrote “I have always been adamantly against anything that promotes specific roles in society for men and women.”