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Pirates versus fairies

January 3, 2012

Although we’re a family of grinches and don’t celebrate much in the way of any winter holiday, our extended families send a ton of crap to our children in the mail.  It’s nice to have a tradition of getting new stuff for the dreary winter months and the kids certainly enjoy opening the packages and seeing what’s inside, with a joy that is perhaps especially intense when the contents make me cringe.

Our kids received a pink fairy princess and a blue pirate ship paper-doll and sticker set, made by the same company in identical boxes marketed to the same age group.  Given the packaging, you’d think the contents would be fairly comparable.  I expected things to be different but was surprised at just how much more sophisticated the blue toy was than the pink one.

First let me tell you about the fairies.  A set of three, with the the blond in a pink gown, a brunette in light blue and the dark-skinned one in yellow.  There were two pages of glitter stickers to embellish their outfits with flowers, crowns, wands and hearts.  There were some wings to stick on the back and little stands to stand them up.  I did my best to make fairy decoration not (just) about objectification-of-fairies; I inquired into the magic properties of each of the wands and crowns and we decided which would be best suited to the interests or activities of each fairy.  There was a good faith effort with making a pattern at the hem of one of the dresses.  Honestly though, the message is clear; fairy-worth is driven by appearance, which can be improved by their possessions.  When finished, I was presented with the three fairies and asked which was the most beautiful.  When I wouldn’t chose, the blond with the pink dress (why is the blond one always in pink?) was crowned winner.

The pirate ship?  Simple instructions to put together a three dimensional ship with sails (four pieces), four little paper stands to put mirror image pirate stickers on the front and back.  A collection of pirate themed stickers – portholes and cannons for the boat, skulls and crossbones for the sails, treasure maps, treasure chests, parrots, swords, other pirate stuff.  For a kid, putting this thing together presents a reasonable challenge – a little folding, a little getting tabs in the correct slot and since we were on the young end of the age range, a touch of parental involvement.  Making the pirates also required a bit of spatial reasoning – finding the mirror image pirates and putting them back to back on the same tab.  The rest of the stickers – whatever – this ship set sail with a jolly roger, a parrot, four cannons and a treasure chest on the poop.  Unlike the fairy kit, which presented no technical challenge, these bits of glossy cardboard required a bit of thought and once constructed, presented many obvious narratives to explore.

Right.  So these are toys for kids and all kids can play with all toys.  But the pink/blue marketing is clear and our kids are not idiots.  They know how this is supposed to go down and honestly want to comply.  Girls decorate and make things beautiful and boys build.  Gender expectations are so different from such an early age and are manifest everywhere.  It amazes me just how different three sheets of glossy cardboard and two sheets of stickers can be.

The fairies?  Disappeared, forgotten – poof!  The boat is still on our coffee table, slightly akern.

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