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Have yourself a gender-neutral Christmas

Images from TOP-TOY's 2012 Swedish Christmas catalogue. Inset picture of Batman figurine from MillionairePlayboy.com.

It's almost that time of year again. The time to show your loved ones how much you care for them (or, how much money you're willing to spend on them) with the perfect Christmas presents.

When it comes to shopping for children though, one Christmas catalogue from Swedish company TOP-TOY might make you rethink your gift plans. In their 2012 catalogue, girls take aim with Nerf guns, boys experiment with hairdressing toys, and girls and boys play with an infant doll -- together.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of conservatives the world over getting their knickers in a twist.

As TOP-TOY, parent company to the Swedish Toys 'R' Us, write on their website, "This year's catalogue is more gender neutral to reflect the values of the Swedish market. Swedish customers appreciate this new approach."

"The gender debate in Sweden has become more significant in the last couple of years. TOP-TOY has been following the debate and wants to reflect these values in our markets and mirror the modern way of children’s play."

Of course, the company's approach has been dealing with its fair share of criticism over the past few days. Thomas Pascoe stated in the Telegraph that, "No boy grows up dreaming of being a princess. [And] I find it hard to believe many little girls grow up wanting to shoot people."

With all due respect, Mr. Pascoe and TOP-TOY's other critics do not know the innermost desires of every kid on earth. As a child, I'm pretty sure I daydreamed about liquidating my perceived enemies more often than I dreamed of princess-dom. Whether that's healthy or not is fodder for a different article.

Sure, I had a Barbie collection that I treasured for probably too long a length of time, and my fair share of glimmery, plushie, and sparkly trash. However, I also loved playing make-believe with my older brother's action figures. I whined aloud when he'd force me to be the Batman to his Bane, but secretly, I didn't mind at all. Batman is awesome, and I didn't (and don't) need testicles to appreciate that.

My experiences in the girl's section of the local toy store were not always happy. As my eyes would gloss over, staring up at row upon row of plastic boxes, it sometimes felt like I was seeing myself and my friends in those boxes -- all us little girls pinned to the inside of hot pink parametres which, although flimsy and innocuous from the looks of them, are surprisingly difficult to break open once sealed. (Have you ever pried out a new Barbie? Just try doing it without almost slicing your finger on its ridiculous fuchsia casket.)

The thing is, the genderization of children doesn't feel as natural when you're a child as when you're an adult, already years beyond that initial social and cultural conditioning. It does take getting used to.

Currently being passed around Tumblr is a tweet by Illinois resident Steve Bowler. In the tweet is this photo of a school assignment his third-grader daughter had failed, as well as his caption: "Proud my 8yo girl failed this worksheet. Wish she had failed it even 'worse.' #GenderBias"

Child genderization is the narrative that girls only enjoy "feminine" activities like homemaking, child-rearing, and fashion, while boys enjoy things like violence, building, and cars. If this narrative were based on biology and not a social construct, Bowler's daughter would not have had trouble with her assignment. She would have been able to identify which activities "belonged" with which genders intuitively. Instead, her completing the assignment by drawing her own boxes speaks to the fact that gender roles are, at their core, as arbitrary as a child's fancies.

Canada can learn something from Sweden's media representation of gender. The Canadian Toys 'R' Us is miles behind Sweden's, and I get the feeling they would've aced Ms. Bowler's school assignment. On the Canadian website, you can filter their products by a "boy" gender filter or "girl" filter.


More images from TOP-TOY.

The featured categories under the boy filter are Action Figures, Role Play, Vehicles & Radio Control, Building Sets & Blocks, Military Figures, Sports Figures, Trading Cards, Video Game Characters, Superheroes, toy tools, and TV & Movie Characters. Because girls don't watch television and movies, apparently. We're too busy knitting and shit.

The featured categories for girls are Dolls & Playsets, Kitchens & Household Playsets, Dress Up, Doll Houses, Baby Dolls & Accessories, Jewellery & Keepsake Boxes, Collector Dolls (sensing a pattern here?), and Stuffed Animals.

Similarly, at LEGO.com, among categories like Buildings, Games, or Books, is the category "Girls". Well, thank lawd for that. Now all the children lucky enough to fall under that particular subsection can peruse LEGO.com without losing sight of their ABC's: animals (the adorable kind only), baking, and Cinderella castles.

It really doesn't have to be this traditional. The 1950s were sixty years ago.

Come December, as you're standing in the shopping aisles attempting to concentrate while "Jingle Bell Rock" plays for the seventieth time, perhaps decide not to fund the prevailing gender stereotypes of our day. I'm not advising anyone to buy Hello Kitty merch for their nephew, but consider that your niece might not be too keen on the idea either. Or at least, consider that she shouldn't have to be.

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