Only a couple of days ago, my colleagues and I were chatting about their struggle to find non-gendered toys for their nieces and nephews. There’s an increasing awareness of gendered advertising, led by the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, a grassroots organisation who have so far persuaded fifteen retailers to make significant changes to their marketing, stock, and signage, or pledge to do so. But, as my colleagues’ experiences attest, much more progress is needed.
Can’t Sit Still’s interactive circus theatre adventure, Plink and Boo, explores why this is a problem. Plink and Boo’s (Hobbit and Jake England-Johns) start in life is the same: they both emerge from a huge box, testing out their limbs like newborn foals learning to walk, and playing together happily. But the discovery of two boxes – one blue, covered in pictures of rockets and a boy flexing his muscles, and one pink, adorned with unicorns and a princess – changes all this. Their behaviour towards each other shifts as they pull out the boxes’ contents: dinosaurs and a blue t-shirt for him, a pram and a pink dress for her. Now, Plink and Boo look different, their interests are different, and their toys are different: they can’t play together, and they cannot share – they fiercely protect what ‘belongs’ in their respective box.
Dangerously, Plink and Boo come to believe that there are things they can and can’t do, or are, and aren’t, supposed to be: girls cannot be strong and athletic, boys cannot be graceful dancers. But when a muscular, flexing male wrestler action doll appears wearing a frilly pink dress, Plink and Boo can’t easily categorise which box it belongs to, and their understanding of gender begins to unravel…
There’s a guilelessness about Hobbit and England-Johns’ physicality, as they work out what their bodies can do and traverse the stage in unorthodox ways like a toddler shimmying up stairs, that subtly reflects the young audience around them. Later, they use movement and physical feats to dispel wrong-headed notions about what male and female bodies are capable of: Hobbit carries England-Johns standing on her shoulders with ease; England-Johns performs a beautiful balletic dance inspired by butterflies. Live music performed by Harriet Riley accompanies and punctuates the show, which is almost entirely wordless save for a few phrases – most notably “My box. Your box”. Designer Laura McEwan’s beige set cleverly introduces new toys into the mix, and ultimately reveals how the world is more colourful when toys are inclusive.
Before the boxes arrive, Plink and Boo explore the world around them together. The gendered toys divert their attention to narrow, pre-chosen interests and curtail their curiosity. As Plink and Boo reveal, gendered toys limit children’s interests, promote gender stereotypes that encourage them to behave a certain way and aspire to certain qualities, and foster division between children by suggesting there’s something innately different and incompatible about their personalities, capabilities, and enthusiasms.
Can’t Sit Still are right to pay attention to the early messages we feed children – sometimes literally, as with t-shirts targeted at boys that label them with words like ‘genius’ and ‘boss’, while those for girls call them ‘beautiful’ and ‘sweet’. These early experiences are significant causal factors in later inequality (in major arts organisations, for instance, men are more likely to have leadership positions despite women making up the majority of the workforce) and suffering (the pressure to live up to gender stereotypes can be a cause of self-harm and suicide.)
For those unconvinced by the necessity of a play like Plink and Boo, or unbelieving that gendered toys change the way children play, there’s a telling moment mid-way through the show. An opportunity for the young audience to come and play with the toys contained in the two boxes proves how pervasive this issue is in the real world. The boys quickly gravitate towards trucks and dinosaurs, the girls towards dolls, prams and a pink ironing board (though there is one little lad wandering around clutching a tutu). They’re all under 5, yet they already behave in a gender-stereotyped way. Plink and Boo is an important, thought-provoking, entertaining piece of theatre that encourages audiences to think outside the box.
Can’t Sit Still have created a resources page with further reading, activities and videos for both adults and children based on the themes in the show: http://www.cantsitstill.net/plink-and-boo-resources.html
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