Tuesday, October 2, 2007

How Toys Teach Gender

Toys occupy a central role in the life of children, as everyone remembers from their childhood. What goes by unnoticed is how toys teach children to behave in a certain way and conform to certain social standards. Thus the first thing I noticed when I logged onto the Toys section of amazon.com was that I was immediately given a choice between going to the girl's section and the boy's section. Clearly there is a difference between the messages sent to boys and girls through the toys that are marketed to them. Upon further inspection I noticed a certain pattern to the types of toys that were being suggested for a nine year old girl (or 8 to 11 year old girls, as Amazon has them grouped). The ideological message sent by these toys was one that confirmed certain stereotypes about girls while leaving little room for differentiation from this trend.

The first thing I noticed about the girl's section of Amazon's toy website is that roughly 75% of what I saw was either pink or purple. I reflected on the fact that if I were to visit the boy's section of the website I would not find anything in pink or purple. These colors are used to differentiate between the two genders at a young age, often right at birth. No doubt many girls like these colors. But do girls like these colors because they have a genuine attraction to them or because everything marketed towards girls from the time they are born comes in pink and purple? Stuart Hall explains that "Ideologies tend to disappear from view into the taken-for-granted 'naturalized' world of common sense" (90). Thus, though it seems natural for everything marketed to girls to be in pink, it only appears that way because of a certain gender ideology. A study of girl's toys shows that this ideology is ingrained in children at a very young age.

Upon closer inspection of the individual toys on the page I was viewing, it became apparent that many toys were based around the concept of being able to alter the outfit or hairstyle of either a doll, computerized image, or in the case of a new Barbie product, a combination doll/MP3 player (pictured above with some of the accessories. This product came in a number of outfit colors but the basic idea was the same). By the age of nine, girls are already being taught that choosing hair and clothing styles (in other words, their appearance) is an important part of being a girl. Another series of toys that seemed to be popular are a series of hand-held electronics called Pixel Chix. Essentially a stripped-down version of The Sims, young girls control their character in a variety of different environments which are sold separately but can be combined to create a small interactive world. The scenarios offered were a house, a car, babysitting for the neighbors, and the mall (with four stores: salon, pet shop, food court and boutique). The product description for the mall even contained the phrase, "The more your Pixel Chix gal works, the more she has to spend in the mall". The work they referred to was the babysitting scenario. The stereotypes of feminine domesticity and an inherent love for shopping are thus combined.

The message sent by the majority of the toys I looked at served to reinforce many widely-held beliefs about what girls like, what they focus on, and how they interact. The third best-selling toy for this age group of girls was the "Hannah Montana Girl Talk" game, a board game version of truth or dare. There were also other games that centered on the telling of secrets and the disclosure of information about oneself. These are not necessarily bad things, but they are decidedly feminine as I can recall no male equivalent to games of this sort. As Nancy Henley and Jo Freeman note, "Female socialization encourages generally greater expression of emotion than does male socialization" (87). Thus, girls are taught at a young age that being emotionally open is part of being a girl. Girls are pitched these ideas not only as individuals but as a group. Toys are one of the main ways children interact with one another. So when young girls are interacting with one another by playing games that play up certain ideas about their role in the world as girls, they are learning that this is what will be expected of them by society at large.

Thus toys are a way for society to make sure children know exactly what their roles are in their respective gender. The age of the girl I was supposed to be shopping for illustrates the young age at which these gender roles are already being enforced. Susan Jane Gilman states that "dolls often give children their first lessons in what a society considers valuable" (74). Applying this theory to toys in general, it is easy to see how if children take their cues for what their adolescent and adult lives will be like from the toys they play with they will no doubt fit into certain gender stereotypes. An ideology is, according to Stuart Hall, "those images, concepts, and premises which provide the framework through which we represent, interpret, understand, and 'make sense' of some aspect of social existence" (89). By catering to a certain ideology, toy manufacturers teach young girls to understand the world in a certain way. Though not all the toys I encountered directly reinforced some stereotype about women, many of them did. Among the stereotypes underlying the toys being sold to girls of this age group were the idea that the color pink, shopping, domestic settings (such as the "Barbie Totally Real House Playset, pictured right), a preoccupation with appearance, and a tendency to divulge secrets are all "feminine" traits. Though many girls no doubt enjoy playing with these toys, the lack of differentiation or deviation from these general themes is evidence of an ideology that assumes that young girls only want to play with these types of toys, while at the same time teaching those same girls that this is what they're "supposed" to enjoy.


Barbie Forever Barbie Totally Real House Playset. 31 September 2007. <http://www.amazon.com/Barbie-Forever-Totally-House-%09Playset/dp/B000BCEJI6/ref=sr_1_15/103-7324622-2279828?ie=UTF8&s=toys-and-games&qid=1191293468&sr=1-15>.

Barbie Girls - Pink. 31 September 2007. <http://www.amazon.com/Mattel-L2936-Barbie-Girls-Pink/dp/B000PD73P2/ref=sr_1_2/103-7324622->.

Bratz P4F Sasha. 31 September 2007. <http://www.amazon.com/MGA-333821-Bratz-P4F-Sasha/dp/B000EPFEZW/ref=sr_1_39/103-7324622-2279828?%09ie=UTF8&s=toys-and-games&qid=1191296406&sr=1-39>.

Gilman, Susan Jane. "Klaus Barbie, and Other Dolls I'd Like to See." Women: Images and Realities. Ed. Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, Nancy Schniedewind. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. 72-75.

Hall, Stuart. "The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 89-93.

Henley, Nancy and Jo Freeman. "The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior." Women: Images and Realities. Ed. Amy Kesselman, Lily D. McNair, Nancy Schniedewind. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. 84-92.

Pixel Chix - Love 2 Shop Mall: Boutique/Foodcourt. "Product Features". 31 September 2007. <http://www.amazon.com/Pixel-Chix-Love-Boutique-%09Court/dp/B000FNNZDG/ref=pd_sim_t_shvl_title_1/103-7324622-2279828?ie=UTF8&qid=1191298467&sr=1-41>.