Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blog Post #1 - Children's Toys' Effect on Gender Identity

Gender stereotypes play a large part in the toys and games we play with as children. This belief is widely shared among many societies. So you can believe me when I say I was very surprised to see that on the homepage of the Toys R Us website there is no search that you can do by gender. There is a “SHOP BY AGE”, “SHOP BY CATEGORY”, and “SHOP BY BRAND”, but nowhere on the homepage can you choose what gender you want to shop for. This lack of choice gave me hope that maybe the world does put too much of an emphasis on gender differences and maybe Toys R Us is taking the first step in reducing gender stereotypes by advertising more gender neutral toys. However, this sense of hope did not last long, for when I chose to “SHOP BY AGE” and clicked on “8 – 11 Years”, I was taken to a page that allowed me to “NARROW BY BOY/GIRL” (http://www.toysrus.com/shop/index.jsp?categoryId=2255956). These simple search categories that we usually take for granted in helping us find the perfect gift for a child are what truly help to enforce the idea that toys do send messages about gender stereotypes and normative gender roles. Children’s toys and games reinforce the gender stereotypes that the media presents and that the world has come to live by.

I chose to go shopping online at toysrus.com for a nine year old boy. His wish list is compiled of toys such as roller skates, Nintendo DS games, a remote-controlled car, LEGOS, and a bicycle. As I searched for these products I had no problem finding each one under the Boys’ category. I found Typhoon 1-4 Adjustable Skates that are navy blue, black, and silver (http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2508756). As I was searching the page
for skates I observed that all the skates for boys were blue, red, black, or silver. Curious about what, if anything, that meant that girls’ skates looked like, I went to the page for roller skates under the Girls’ category. I was surprised to see that they had as many as they did, however, I was not all that surprised to find that all of them were pink, purple, or white. There were tons of pages of video games, most of them of sports, racing, or fighting evil. For example, there is a Nintendo DS game called “Ben 10: Protector of Earth” that is perfect for a nine year old boy (http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2834120). I found it pretty interesting that included right in the title was “Protector of Earth”, thus implying that boys are the protectors and more often than not, the girls are the ones that need protection. Lacking in the videogame category were games where females are the heroes and the ones who save the world. There were less remote-controlled cars for boys ages 8 – 11 compared to the number I found in the older boys category, but the ones I did find were NASCAR cars and bulldozers (http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2305072). The results from this search indicated to me that boys are all about speed, aggression, destruction, and violence. When I searched for LEGOS for boys and then compared the results to LEGOS in the Girls’ category, I have to admit I was surprised by what I found. There were many more choices for boys than girls, including themes such as Indiana Jones and castles, but what I found surprising was that both Boys’ and Girls’ categories had Star Wars and SpongeBob sets (http://www.toysrus.com/search/index.jsp?categoryId=2274247&f=PAD%2FTRU+Age+Filter%2F8-11+Years&fbc=1&fbn=TRU+Age+ Filter%7C8-11+Years). I expected the Girls’ category to, if anything, just include pink, green, and white blocks to build houses and gardens, so to see similar sets to the boys’ LEGOS was a shock. There were also several different bikes to choose from for both boys and girls. The 20" Boy's 260SX Rallye Bicycle, for example, was described by one user as “Lightweight, Stunts are good, Versatile, Tough, Stylish” and was said to be best used for “Freestyle, Trail, Street Riding, Racing, Vert, Stunts” (http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2608197). This led me to believe that boys’ bikes are tough and durable and allow boys to be adventurous and explore the world around them. During my search for the wish list items, I found that most toys and games do enforce the gender stereotypes that our community has come to believe. However, there were a few that gave me hope that we may be breaking out of the normative gender roles that have existed for so many years.

As children go through the basic stages of development, they are also learning about themselves. It is critical that they go through the process of gender socialization, “…the way that people learn to act in accordance with the rules of a particular society” (Newman 108). During this process, they learn their identity, or “sense of self”, mainly, how to be a girl or a boy. Toys play a major role in this process. For the most part, toys are designed for a particular gender. Girls’ toys, such as dress-up clothes, and arts and crafts, are used to develop creativity and imagination. Furthermore, dolls and Barbies enforce the concept of beauty and body image as well as encourage nurturing and care giving. Boys’ toys, on the other hand, such as LEGOS and K’NEX encourage logic and thinking development. There is also an enormous emphasis on war and violence, such as in video games. In addition, in a study of the portrayal of gender in children’s books by Lenore Wietzman and her colleagues, Newman says “They found that… Boys were more likely to be portrayed in adventurous pursuits or activities that required independence and strength; girls were likely to be confined to indoor activities and portrayed as passive and dependent” (Newman 90). These toys and books send out specific messages about girls and boys. Girls tend to be more creative, but also more submissive and nurturing. Boys tend to more aggressive and forceful.

Another message toys send to children is that boys and girls can be separated into two different spheres, the public and the private. Boys’ toys have a tendency to be more associated with the public sphere, or the outside world, thus sending the message that boys are more curious and adventurous and are more likely to delve into the world. Girls’ toys tend to be on the complete opposite side of this spectrum. They are associated with the private sphere, or the indoors. Girls’ toys, like the Easy Bake Oven and dolls, reveal that girls are more domestic. Toys that are gender specific greatly affect the way children understand the normative gender roles. Those that keep girls in the house push them to stay there and become housewives and mothers and not aspire to anything more. Boys’ toys that promote outdoor play and adventure encourage them to go out and explore different aspects of the world and get jobs that are described as tough and masculine. The problem with these toys is that the impact the messages have on children may cause them to hold back their potential in the future. In a society that is breaking away from the “norm”, it is important for children to learn that while gender is a part of their identity, it should not limit them in life.

Even when we try to avoid the gender specific toys that separate girls and boys into two distinct categories by focusing on gender neutral toys, it is difficult to do so. As I was shopping for the wish list items I found that there were several toys that were designed to appeal to both boys and girls. However, the problem with these products and why they cannot be considered gender neutral is that these products come in different colors or in different themes. For example, a bicycle may be seen as a gender neutral toy, but there are blue bikes, red bikes, pink bikes, flowered bikes, and so much more. These different types of bicycles provide a way to distinguish between a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike. This same problem can be found with several other toys as well, such as LEGOS and dolls. Toys shape the way children learn their gender and consequently their gender roles. Therefore, without gender neutral toys, it becomes difficult for a girl to define herself as anything but a dependent, nurturing, domestic female and a boy to define himself as anything but a competitive, independent, strong male.

One reason toys are so popular among children is due to advertisements in media. Children are easily influenced and the more they are attracted to an advertisement, the more they want whatever it is the ad is selling. The media plays a major role in what consumers buy. Lipsitz describes commercial network television’s “important role in this merging economy, functioning as a significant new object of consumer purchases as well as an important marketing medium” (Lipsitz 42). Children spend many hours watching television, and as they see all the commercials and advertisements they become consumers. Companies know that kids make up a large audience so they appeal to these targets through television to get them to buy their product. Furthermore, schools are becoming more and more like “training grounds for educating students to define themselves as consumer…” (Giroux 172). The vast majority of a child’s day is spent in school. Therefore, through advertisements and products, like certain toys or games, in the classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias, children are influenced to buy these products. Companies that advertise their toys and products in schools and on television play into gender stereotypes through their advertisements, thus promoting the ideas of the stereotypical gender roles. Furthermore, despite attempts to neutralize gender specific toys and games, these gender stereotypes still exist. These toys that the media endorses so well, send influential messages to children about their roles in society and, whether deliberate or not, have a tremendous life-lasting effect on the gender socialization process.


15" CAT Remote-Controlled Bulldozer. Toys "R" Us. 19 May 2008 . .

20" Boy's 260SX Rallye Bicycle. Toys "R" Us. 19 May 2008 . .

Anakin's Jedi Starfighter 153 Pieces - Star Wars: the Clone Wars - LEGO - 7669. Toys "R" Us. 19 May 2008 . .

Ben 10: Protector of Earth for Nintendo DS. Toys "R" Us. 19 May 2008 . .

Dines, Gail, Humez Jean M, eds. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A text reader. London: SAGE Publications, 2003.

Giroux, Henry A. "Kids For Sale" in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A text reader , eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez (London: SAGE Publications, 2003), 172.

Lipsitz, George. "The Meaning of Memory" in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A text reader, eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez (London: SAGE Publications, 2003), 42.

Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. 90, 108.

"Toys "R" Us." 18 May 2008 .

Toys "R" Us. 2008. 20 May 2008 . .

Typhoon 1-4 Adjustable Skates - Bravo Sports. Toys "R" Us. 19 May 2008 . .


Rae Pica said...

Erin, I just wrote a post about society's/parents' roles in gender identity at my own blog: www.raepica.typepad.com. You might also be interested in hearing my interview with Dr. Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, at www.bodymindandchild.com. He discusses some interesting experiments that showed we begin treating boys and girls differently almost from birth.

Jessiebg said...

Nice work here! I thought that you did a great job explaining your expectations along with your findings and contextualizing them using quotes from the course-readings. Your post is quite analytically deep and really does a great job tackling the nuances of gendered toys and the more subtle types of gender-cues (such as the "neutral bike" but in colors that span the gendered dyad...) that are part of the landscape you surveyed.
You also made some great observations about the video games and their (lack of female) heroes, as well as with the ultimate gender divide that can be summed up by 'nurture vs destroy' in the toys marketed to children of each gender.
Well done!

Daffernia said...
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Benny Johans said...

I was not aware much that toys can have impact on this gender issues. Good blog, thanks for sharing.
Benny Johans