As child, I recall running around , either on foot, or on my bike when I got older. My Brother and I had Lego's and Matchbox cars. We used to pretend to be other people: star ship fighter pilots, cops, or adventurers of some sort. However I don't recall ever saying the words "let's pretend" every five seconds while we were doing it. I don't recall pretending to be a specific television or movie character or even our own characters in the "world" of a specific movie. We weren't Klingons, or Rebels from Star Wars. We sometimes made up names to use for the play session, but I was never Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, or any sort of GI Joe. The names I came up with were generally simple but most of the time I think I was just me with a title.
Maybe my child-hood experience is not the norm or perhaps I've simply just forgotten that I ever said the word "pretend", but, when I watch my kids and other kids playing, They spend about 90% of the time telling all the other kids what their going to pretend their names are. The word "Pretend" pops up throughout as they act out their role.
During mixed (co-ed) play sessions though I notice that the play goes both ways. Sometimes they play house, other times it's a star battle or a magical adventure with unicorns and fairies.
Every once in a while, another parent will comment about the "feminizing" of toys, clothes, advertising, etc. They worry that Advertisers are affecting the development of their children (usually daughters) To a certain extent I think they're right, but on other levels the advertisers are just using natural inclinations to behave a certain way and I think it's important to target the correct parts of both.
Girls want to be princesses... boys want to be strong. Courageous. A protector. Not a prince, but a knight. Somehow it's genetically coded and to expect different is just silly, no matter how your standing in the feminist movement is. The princess phenomenon is not new, it's been around way longer than advertising has, and what it IS, I think, is that deep down everyone yearns to be head of the pack. All of this comes out in playing. it's what they do with the toys that drives the design and marketing of them, not some hidden agenda to turn little girls into stuck-up women who think the world owes them everything or turn little boys into muscle bound jerks who beat thier wives.
I think that daytime soap operas, romance novels, and music videos do much more to damage our children's behavioral growth than toys ever will. Think of those coworkers you know (or perhaps your self) where it seems that every action they take is designed to generate drama... talking behind peoples backs, arguing with their spouse all the time...it's well just like a soap only without the rich people and someone only dies occasionally, and if they do, they never come back in a plot twist later on. So you think, yeah so what? a lot of people are like that... well yeah but doesn't it seem counter-productive? Could you imagine living like that back in colonial days, your neighbors are miles away! You can dislike the way Barbara-jean (up the road) looked at your apple cobbler all you want, but if you piss her off, she won't trade you those apples that you need to make one for your yarn and if she stops visiting you won't have anyone else to talk to for MONTHS because your knight in coverall armor spends all day in the field keeping your behind fed and warm. You probably even can't stand him by now, but if you argue with him, you're stuck with each other. Back then, if folks had behaved the way people do now, we wouldn't have survived as a human race.
Because it's dumb!