The Perils of Toy Shopping With a Feminist Mom

How are our daughters supposed to grow up to be ‘Lean In’–worthy execs if most of the play mops and stoves are labeled for girls?

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Three generations of women walk into a toy shop. The older woman’s goal is simple: to find a fabulous toy for a little girl. It aligns exactly with the goals of the child, recently turned 3 and freshly aware of the thrill of buying stuff.

But alas, the woman (me) in the middle of the generational sandwich has more complex goals. The toy must be fabulous, of course, but it must also do nothing to discourage the child (my daughter) from becoming a smart, ambitious citizen who can bust through glass ceilings to become a Sheryl Sandberg–like superwoman (ahem, if that’s what she wants).

Lofty and unachievable goals for a Tuesday? Surely not.

Thus I march my family through aisles of pink plastic to find educational toys in the bowels of the warehouse. It’s dark and dingy back there. “How about a floor puzzle?” I say optimistically. My mom’s face twists in doubt. “Construction blocks? This fractions game, perhaps?”

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Luckily, intergenerational warfare is postponed by the disappearance of my daughter. A frantic search finds her in the pink toy aisle, sitting inside a miniature car. The motorcar is plastic, it is pink, and it is branded by a well-known doll whose breasts are bigger than her feet.

I’ve never seen my child so happy.

Naturally I’m horrified. This busty doll, in whose brand my daughter has taken a sudden, zesty interest, is at the epicenter of feminist critique. After all, she glorifies superficiality and the kind of oversize homes last seen before the housing crash. Worse, she touts glittery pink products named Glam Vacuum Set! and Glam Laundry!

As anyone with a mop knows, domestic duties are not Glam!

Furthermore, the pinkness of the products bolsters the lie that housework is girls’ work. A vision of Sandberg’s book, Lean In — a feminist manifesto still fueling debate about women’s internal barriers to leadership — hovers before me. Sandberg argues that progress toward gender equality has stalled when it comes to heterosexual couples sharing housework. She cites research to show that women who bear the brunt of domestic duties are less likely to have happy relationships. Tellingly, a separate 2011 survey from the Working Mother Research Institute finds that mothers — both those who work in the house and those outside — feel guilty about the cleanliness of their homes.

I’m afraid it’s true. My abiding fantasy is to have a less grimy kitchen floor.

This Tuesday suddenly got complicated. Here’s my daughter in this beastly pink car with her imaginary baby in the backseat and her pretend groceries in the trunk. Plastic stoves, brooms and shopping carts surround her. Each is gussied up in pink packaging, and all have photos of ecstatic little girls who’ve plainly reached the peak of childhood delight.

(MORE: One Girl’s Quest to Make the Easy-Bake Oven More Boy-Friendly)

I don’t see exultant, vacuuming boys on these wrappers. In fact, here in this mass-market toy store, Sandberg’s vision of a world where men run half the homes is looking a little naive. (Though we do have to thank Hasbro for coming out with an Easy Bake Oven last year that isn’t girlish pink, but it took a 13-year-old girl to suggest it.)

Just to be sure, I peek into the boys’ aisle to see what sort of fantasies they’re engaged in while my daughter scrubs the floor. It’s all blue and camo brown in there. Alongside guns, swords and wrestling belts, I see a lawnmower, a carpentry bench and a grim-looking toy that simulates bug extermination. In mimicking traditional (read: manly) roles at home, the little boys on the wrappers have clearly reached the summit of childhood delight.

These are the boys who’ll leapfrog over my daughter in the workplace, I think, sweat prickling my wretched brow.

It gets worse. Back in the girls’ aisle, I spy a pink doll stroller and even pinker microwave. My feminist heart sinks for I just know that of all the toys in this massive store, these are the ones to make my child squeal with delight. I draw closer. A vision of Sandberg’s face leans toward me, but I swat it away as I look around for gender-neutral versions of these toys. Nope, the only option is pink.

(MORE: Why Are Parents Less Likely to Take Little Girls Outside to Play?)

Sandberg’s face reappears (she is after all the emblem of tenacity). “Do you want your daughter to suffer unequal pay and a lopsided marriage?” she asks with a penetrating California smile. “You’re encouraging toys that glamorize domestic toil,” Sandberg warns. “We all know what research says about that.”

I’m seized with motherly self-doubt. Thanks to an unimaginative toy industry that continues to typecast our kids by gender, I’ve turned a family outing into an obstacle course I can’t win without being a killjoy. To make matters worse, my daughter doesn’t even like gender-neutral toys. Her happiest fantasyland is one sparked by her pink broom, her pink cookware and her pink collection of dolls. Maybe, I think hopefully, that’s because she hasn’t seen any toys more appealing? What’s a feminist mom to do?

As if party to my tortured tête-à-tête, my daughter says helpfully from within her fuchsia car: “My favorite color is pink.” With a sigh, I curse the mass-market toy industry for hindering the progress of her emerging Lean In generation. Defeated, I guide my mother and her checkbook toward the pink stroller and even pinker microwave oven.

(MORE: Kids Who Don’t Gender Conform Are at Higher Risk of Abuse)

But surely, I ask, buying toys for little girls ought not become an existential battle. As things stand, I see my daughter’s girlhood scrolling before her, spooling from pink ovens to blond dolls teetering on high heels, to neon thongs for preteen Lolitas who’ll grow up to do most of the housework. That doesn’t seem rosy at all. For Mother’s Day, perhaps the mass-market toy industry can challenge designers to get more creative about what little girls want?

After all, I bet I’m not the only parent for whom the finest gift would be the end of all this pigeonholing pink.