Please Keep Kids’ Toys Away from Gender Norms

A friend and I were once shopping for gifts in a dainty little store in Mumbai, when a woman walked in with her young son, no older than five. They had to buy a gift for a kid’s birthday party, and the store manager, a middle-aged woman, was really keen on helping her select the perfect gift. The young inquisitive lad, on the contrary, was busy walking around the store, stopping near shelves that caught his attention. His gaze finally settled on a tiara and he insisted that his mother purchase it for him. It was far for me to eavesdrop, but this scenario was pretty interesting and I wanted to see how an affluent upper-class mother from one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities was going to handle her son’s peculiar request. And much to my dismay and satisfaction, she said what any other traditional Indian parent would say, “Are you a girl? No na? Then you don’t need a tiara.” I immediately looked at the kid whose face just reflected betrayal. In one single sweep, his mother denied him the right to be a child on his own terms. He didn’t retaliate, didn’t whimper, but just sadly went back to staring at the tiara, now beyond his reach.

At this point, my friend and I just stared blankly at each other, both wondering if we should intervene. It wasn’t any of our business but it broke my heart to see a kid having to learn societal gender branding from his very own mother. So I summed up the courage and turned towards the mother and said, “I feel you should let the kid decide what he wants to play with.” She was seemingly taken aback by the fact that a stranger was schooling her on how to raise her kid. And before she could say anything in retaliation, the store manager also joined me and said, “Yes I agree, my kids are constantly on about the whole gender stereotyping issue.” The mother now found herself helpless and bought her son the tiara, who by this point was grinning beyond control. His infectious smile spread across the tiny store and the mother finally gave in and hugged her little one.

I felt super proud for having spoken out that evening, but imagine how many parents in this nation enforce such stereotypes on a far more severe level – Blue is for boys, pink is for girls; Boys wear jeans, girls wear skirts; Boys can’t have long hair, girls are supposed to grow their hair out; Boys can’t play with a kitchen set, girls can’t play with Hot Wheels. At every juncture, kids are molded into these twisted gender-driven robots by their parents and those around them, that by the time they reach adulthood, they turn into the same cardboard cutouts of the generation that went before them, ready to dole out the same bullshit about gender norms. It is truly terrible because this stigmatization of gender extends beyond one’s childhood and youth. As a grown-up, a man is supposed to find a suitable wife and be the breadwinner. A woman can work if she wants, but she still has to take care of the child and cook food. A man cannot lay with another man because God created man and woman to reproduce. The cycle of shit is never-ending.

I did not know I’d grow up to be gay when I was five. I do, however, remember having two Barbie Dolls and I loved them to bits. I still have photos of me talking to them and pulling one closer to listen to what she had to say. But as I grew older, I showed some of these pictures to my friends, all of whom quickly commented on how freaky it was to see a young boy playing with dolls meant for girls. I never understood this reaction. Thankfully for me, my parents couldn’t afford a lot of the fancy toys and never bothered. But they now connect the dots and wonder if playing with dolls and wearing lipstick and my mom’s mangalsutra was the beginning to all of this. Back then, it was all in good fun. Today it has become a bone of contention. Who decides these conventions? When did we turn into a megalomaniac society that finds the need to control everything that a kid is exposed to? We are the smartest race we know, yet we have devolved into a cynical community that looks at the world through gender binaries.

Today morning I woke up to this beautiful advert by Smyths, an Irish toy retail chain, which covers Beyoncé’s ‘If I were a boy’, and gives it a magical twist, showcasing the range of toys young kids can play with, irrespective of their gender.

Slowly but surely, this world is opening up to banishing the gender norms we grew up with. Millennials who now have kids allow them to wear whatever they want. If a boy wants to wear nail polish and wear a princess gown, let him be. If a girl wants to wear a denim jacket and get a crew cut, let her be. These things won’t turn your child into a freak of any sort. It will make them better, balanced individuals who are assured that irrespective of what goes on in the world, their family has their back. Tomorrow they might not want to dress in a gown, but they might want to bring their same-sex partner home. And on that day I hope you do not look down on them and say, “Are you a girl? No na? Then you don’t need to get married to a boy.”

Navin Noronha