The first time I noticed the divide between “boys” toys and “girls” toys was about seven years ago when I was looking for something with Mickey Mouse on it for my husband’s nephew. I didn’t have kids of my own yet, and I was surprised by how much toy stores had changed since I was little. One long aisle was dedicated to the famous mice, with Minnie on my left and Mickey on my right. Mickey had interesting career paths to choose from. He could be part of a crew with the Roadster Racers Pit Crew Work Bench. He could even drive the race car. Minnie, it seemed, was destined to be a vain housewife, or maybe a maid. There was a caddy with a duster, scrubbing brush, spray bottle, and sponge, all miniature and the color of lavender. Her vacuum cleaner featured lights and realistic sounds. She also had a shopping cart, and most importantly a little plastic purse with a cellphone and wallet.
Either I was no longer a Toys R Us kid, or toys had become different. I knew my Peggy Orenstein; I had read about the explosion of princess culture and its effect on the mental health of little girls. So, when I had my daughter, I instituted a ban on most dolls and anything having to do with tiaras.
The dolls I had loved also made me feel inferior. They taught me that the only way to truly be beautiful was to be blond and blue-eyed.
I was militant about the rules, confusing a few of my aunts. They remembered how dolls had delighted me when I was little. One year, all I had wanted was a Cabbage Patch Kid. My dad got up before dawn to stand in line at the store to secure one for me, his only daughter. On Christmas, I peeled back the wrapping paper on my gift box, and when I saw the signature yarn hair, I jumped up and down.
“I waited in line all night for the ugliest doll I ever seen,” my dad says each Christmas.
Another year, I wanted a Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic teddy bear that seemed to read stories, but really it just had a cassette player in its backside. Even my older brother was intrigued by its blinking eyes and moving mouth. I also loved Trolls, which were objectively hideous little dolls with jewels for belly buttons and wispy hair that stood up straight. Barbies were also a favorite, even if I lost most of their accessories.
But my favorite toys of all were my Polly Pockets. They looked like large makeup compacts that, when opened, revealed a little world for Polly and her friends. I used to imagine I had shrunken down to a miniature-me, stepping into the case to make up storylines for Polly and her friends. The one I played with the most was the Midge’s Flower Shop compact. The top of its baby blue shell housed a three-level store featuring about two dozen teeny plants, with a caged bird in the middle. The bottom of the compact featured a whimsical garden with a slide and an oversized mushroom.
I had the compact for years, but lost it at some point. My husband found a vintage one just like it, complete with Polly’s friends Midge and Titch. He gave it to me for my 35th birthday, and he also had a baker make a cake that looked exactly like the outside of Midge’s Flower Shop, but bigger, which she piped with cannoli filling. I felt like a kid again, but even happier.
I know it may seem strange that I, a doll collector who clearly married a prince charming, would bar these toys from my own child. But I couldn’t shake the fact that as a little girl, some of the dolls I loved had also made me feel inferior. They taught me that the only way to truly be beautiful was to be blond and blue-eyed. I also had the idea that success meant making a lot of money, so that I could afford a convertible and a mansion, and perhaps attract a handsome man.
I hated the princess stuff even more. I’m not going to lie — when I was younger, I watched The Little Mermaid almost every single day. I loved Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, and Pocahontas. I’ve even watched the movies with my daughter, though I provided a lot of running commentary. (Doesn’t it seem silly that she just gave her voice away like that? And she doesn’t even know that guy.) But when I was a kid, toys featuring these princesses were rare commodities, tied to movie releases. As a mom, I found princesses were everywhere, all the time — the old ones and the new ones. Why did the big-box stores carry princess costumes with matching plastic high-heels when it wasn’t even Halloween?
It was too tiring to hold the line. In every store and every gift box, a princess-themed item or doll was waiting for me.
One day when my daughter was about 4 years old, my horror hit a new high. We were shopping at an arts and crafts store, walking down an aisle filled with picture frames and mirrors.
“Mom, can I have this?” She showed me a handheld mirror with a design etched around the border of the glass. I looked into it and found my reflection had long blond hair, woven into a braid, like a certain Scandinavian princess.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “Why would you want a mirror that makes you look like someone else?”
“Because I like it,” she said.
“But you’re beautiful the way you are. And that’s not even your hair color.”
“But I wish I had hair like that,” she said.
This was exactly what I didn’t want my daughter to feel about her appearance.
My second daughter arrived a little less than three years after my first, and I confess that I became less strict about the no-dolls rule. It was too tiring to hold the line. In every store and every gift box, a princess-themed item or doll was waiting for me. I decided to just get over it, and let the girls have what they wanted — just as my parents had done for me. It helped that there was an evolution underway; even Barbie released a line of “ethnically diverse” dolls in 2016.
That Christmas, my older daughter jumped out of her seat when she tore back the wrapping paper to reveal a curvy doll with skin the color of mocha, and gorgeous, tight curls. We have a bin of dolls now, with a variety of complexions, thick and thin, boys and girls. Last year, Santa gave the girls a $219 dollhouse that was as tall as my younger daughter. But it seems my giving in has removed the mystique, and therefore the attraction, to these kinds of toys. Now, the only one who plays with the house and dolls is my son, our pandemic baby. The requests for dolls and princess-related toys and costumes have mostly faded away.
Now there’s another type of toy I’m considering banning: slime. There are no problematic gender norms attached to this stuff, but every rug and chair or sofa in my home has a slime stain on it. I’ve tried lifting them with a carpet cleaning machine and various sprays, to no avail. I guess now would be the time to take a page out of Minnie Mouse’s book. I plan to take my purse to the store, drop it into a big cart, and then fill said cart with new cleaning supplies that only I will end up using.