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The politics of play at Northeastern University’s Gallery 360

A new show interrogates how gender stereotypes and capitalist impulses shape children’s toys and games

Aimee Gilmore, “Insiders,” 2019 - ongoing. Reversed stuffed animals, thread.Constance Mensh/Courtesy of the artist

Toys shape who we become. In “At Play” at Northeastern University’s Gallery 360, five women artists unpack the messages today’s toys send about society’s expectations for children.

They’re loaded. These artists attune to the sheer flood of toys pouring through many playrooms and the way gender is shaped by marketing. Juliana Rowen Barton, director of Northeastern’s Center for the Arts, organized the show with Gallery 360 manager and curatorial assistant Anna Nasi.

As a child in the 1990s and early 2000s, Angela Washko played video games. Her video “Don’t Leave Me” from the “Heroines with Baggage” series — artfully installed over her wallpaper, “Heroines with Baggage: Setting the Stage” — dissects how the games amplified the gender binary.


Installation view of “At Play” at Gallery 360, Boston, 2022-2023, shows Angela Washko’s video “Don’t Leave Me!” from the series “Heroines with Baggage: Setting the Stage,” 2012-2022, with her "Heroines with Baggage: Setting the Stage," 2012-2022, wallpaper installation.Mel Taing/Courtesy of the artist

It’s horrifying. Wasp-waisted women swoon as hulking, weapon-wielding men work to save them. In the wallpaper, Washko parses the images with text: “saved by a knight,” “perpetually apologetic,” “women dying while men watch.”

Not much has changed in the 25 or so years since Washko played those games as a kid, according to Ani Liu’s “A.I. Toys (Unboxing Mania).” Liu used machine learning (algorithm-driven data mining) to fashion new toys and their descriptions based on online retailers. Toys are marketed to girls or boys, or as educational. Liu skewers capitalism’s drive to sell as sharply as she does gender stereotypes. Her playthings are not much — 3-D-printed little doohickeys — but the language screams and shouts: “AIR WARRIORS SPECIAL WARFARE TYPHOON WATER BLASTER.”

Ani Liu, “A.I. Toys (Unboxing Mania),” 2021 - ongoing. Machine learning algorithm, 3-D printed toys, holographic vinyl, collector’s case.Brad Farwell

Ellie Richards, meanwhile, considers the relationship between play and work. She outfits a found shovel with a colorful maze, highlighting eye-hand coordination that prepares a playing child to labor as an adult.

This is all cogent social commentary, but Aimee Gilmore’s “Insiders” series adds pathos. Noticing a parade of stuffed animals cycling through her child’s life, the artist started to tear the discarded ones open and stitch them back together, inside out. A sad, plucky pile of them reminds us how childhood (and, indeed, parenthood) is a time of unremitting creation, destruction, and reparation.


We don’t need over-weaning messaging or niche toys to do play. The artists’ collective Department of Play leaves things on a hopeful note. Usually, the group sets up temporary play zones in Boston public spaces. Here, visitors can have at it with “Block Party Meditation,” a collection of curvilinear foam blocks. There’s no gendered pitch, no glitzy packaging. It’s free. And it’s fun.


At Gallery 360, 102 Ryder Hall, Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Ave., through April 8.


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.