From the moment we are born, before we are given an opportunity to protest it, gender plays a huge role in our existence. The most important announcement following our birth is not that we are healthy or that we look like dead Aunt So and So; it is a simple declaration of what genitalia we possess. This is followed by a ritualistic dressing. Of course, a boy must be dressed and wrapped in blue (dress him in purple and you’re throwing all chances of heterosexuality out the window) and a girl in pink (because a blue blanket may instantly transform her into a lesbian, or even worse, a feminist). Our next task is to sleep beside either a teddy bear or a doll. We lie defenseless, already exposed to the types of toys with which our gender is associated. And this scenario is most likely to repeat for the duration of our childhoods. We all accept it as “normal” to give girls dolls or kitchen sets for their birthday and boys tool sets and action figures when in reality there is nothing normal about it. These so-called innocent relics of childhood play a profound role in the gendered socialization of children.
Let’s begin by investigating some common toy stores. Toys R Us and KB Toys, for example, offer convenient online shopping. Open their websites and an option is to either choose a brand or an age to shop for. Innocent enough. However, after opening a link for a specific age or brand, we see that there is an option to choose which gender we are shopping for. Such separation reinforces the previously ingrained idea that boys and girls should be playing with different toys. Our culture forbidding children from playing with certain types of toys is restricting enough in itself but it is not solely about separating objects of recreation; it is about embedding gender roles into the minds of children. Looking at the toys advertised toward two year old children, we see that girls are offered plastic pink purses, fully equipped with lipstick, a mirror, and a comb. There are kitchen sets, vacuums, baby dolls, strollers, even a fake market to practice grocery shopping. Boys choose from construction kits, trucks, Swing ‘n Score Baseball. Coincidence that these toys match up with those all too familiar gender stereotypes? I don’t think so. The message I’m getting is that a girl must recognize by age two that she will never get away from cleaning, cooking, and caring for her future children. And boys are to transform into handymen, car salesmen, and athletes. These toys, which we are told are merely for recreation, serve a simple purpose: to allow us to recognize our roles as compliant members of our sex.
The toys are slightly different as the age group progresses, but the overall theme is unchanging. For example, instead of simple kitchen sets, three and four year old girls can have entire housekeeping sets. Why stop at the kitchen when there’s a whole house to clean? By age seven, girls are offered a plethora of toys which suggest their inadequacy. There are wigs, dress up sets, beautiful dolls, and loads of pretend makeup. Toy manufacturers and marketers depend upon girls’ insecurities to sell these products. Author Susan Jane Gilman suggests that “…dolls often give children their first lessons in what a society considers valuable - and beautiful” (Gilman 74). They perceive dolls to be society’s image of perfection and idolize this unattainable status of perfection. Girls may not realize these effects until it is too late; advertising has already set them up to become loyal beauty product consumers in their later years. But this tactic doesn’t stop with females. Marketers bombard boys with competitive games, such as sports paraphernalia and video games. Competition and winning is rooted into their heads through these toys and they become lifetime shoppers for that particular industry. Manufacturers and marketers are catching these children at their most vulnerable age and fabricating their ideal buyers.
However, the most disturbing discovery doesn’t lie in the manipulation of toy marketers, but in the ignorance of the consumers. These marketers are partially to blame because of their deliberate gendering through toys, but the consumers are the ones allowing their message to be spread. The previous toys I have mentioned all show up under the Best Selling category on both the Toys R Us and KB Toys websites. Instead of being outraged that as children, we are pressured to play with gender specific toys, we are buying into the stereotypes, literally. Furthermore, these gender specific toys don’t only hold ideas regarding the sex of those playing with them, but can carry implications concerning the opposite sex. Video games, for example, have “attracted increasing attention for their demeaning portrayal of women” (Newman 90). These games are providing boys with the sense of competition and treatment of women that they believe society has deemed “normal.”
This form of gender socialization through toys is an important aspect of American culture. It fuels the stereotypes we all associate with, facilitates our becoming accustomed to the roles we are to assume later in life, and allows us to lose all sense of hope in our society. Who needs to practice virtue and individuality when toy manufacturers and marketers reveal all we need to know about life on store shelves and websites? There are both overt and inferential messages embedded in every toy, causing children to form ideas based upon genders and roles in society, and it is essential that we attempt to eliminate such biases from the most innocent years of children’s lives.
Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Gilman, Susan Jane. “Klaus Barbie, and Other Girls I’d Like to See.” Women Images and Realities. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
images from www.toyrus.com