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His and Hers In Toyland

ONE of the most offbeat games in toy stores this season bears a tongue-in-cheek name: "Chauvinist Pigs." Wedged alphabetically between "Candyland" and "Clue," it bills itself as "the game that finally resolves the Battle of the Sexes.""Hey guys!" reads a breezy blurb on the box. "Do you know all that stuff that guys are supposed to know about cars, sports, and the stock market?" Without waiting for an answer, the copywriter turns to the other half of the game-playing public and asks, "Hey girls! Do you know your way around a sewing machine? Are you a queen of the culinary arts? You'll find out in Chauvinist Pigs...." Men get to answer questions on such macho topics as tools, sports, and camping. Women can test their knowledge of traditionally feminine subjects such as cooking, child rearing, and sewing. "Chauvinist Pigs" is an adult game. But in poking gentle fun at conventional male-female roles, it unwittingly satirizes many of the children's games and toys surrounding it in these kiddie emporiums. Toy stores may be the last acceptable bastion of gender-coded behavior, right down to the pink-is-for-girls, blue-is-for-boys packaging that steers parents to the right aisles. If "guys" don't know about cars and sports, and if "girls" can't find their way around a sewing machine or a kitchen, don't blame toy manufacturers. They're still doing their best to market stereotypical products. A few feet away from "Chauvinist Pigs," for example, at least three board games for girls center around a shop-'til-you-drop theme. With pink-and-purple boxes and names like "Let's Go Shopping," "Meet Me at the Mall," and "Electronic Mall Madness," the games perpetuate the image of women as crazed consumers. Others, such as "Girl Talk Secret Diary," "Perfect Match," and "Slumber Party," encourage secrets, rumors, and "chatter." All stand in sharp contrast to the action-oriented vehicles, tools, and sports equipment for boys a few aisles away. Toymakers have long found it difficult to break out of traditional molds. In 1957, Lionel introduced a pastel train set for girls in "fashion-right colors," complete with a pink locomotive, buttercup yellow boxcar, and sky blue caboose. But the idea flopped. Two years later, the train turned into the little engine that couldn't and chugged quietly off the market. Twenty years ago, feminists began envisioning a toy world free of rigid gender distinctions. Every December, editors of Ms. magazine featured a list of "toys for free children" that highlighted the best in "nonsexist, nonracist, nonageist" playthings. Playrooms filled with "gender-neutral" toys and "unisex packaging," they argued, would allow children "to express their own creativity." Today their idealism remains a distant dream. Aisles stacked high with "Housekeeping Toys" and "Girls' Accessories" still encourage girls to play house rather than play office. Shelves loaded with guns and battle sets still suggest to boys that war resolves conflicts. When tycoons in toyland do create "non-sex-specific packages picturing a boy on a cookie-bake set or a girl on a chemistry set, for instance - a shopper still senses that these are token changes. As one measure of how little has changed even in real life, a new RAND report on families finds that children's involvement in household tasks is actually diminishing. When offspring do help, the report states, "their tasks still reflect a strong gender bias. Daughters help their mothers with the traditional female tasks, while boys contribute very little beyond yard work as teenagers." Researchers note that these findings are particularly true in educated families. They speculate that highly educated parents emphasize homework, lessons, and sports, thus excusing their offspring from sharing cooking, cleaning, or lawn work. Could these be the same enlightened parents who subscribe to the brooms-for-boys, trucks-for-girls theory of politically correct play? Toys, for better and for worse, can influence taste. But real-life adults create the models. It's not the toys under the holiday tree that finally form the children, but the day-to-day lives of the parents who put them there.

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