The following is a research paper written by myself, while I was completing my studies of Early Childhood Care and Education at Capilano University. I am sharing this paper as a supportive to this post on gender identity in childhood, my response to the recent news of Target’s plans to stop separating “girl” and “boy” sections in their toy department. This paper has been edited only to remove the brand names of the specific toys mentioned. I would also like to mention that this paper was originally written 5 years ago, and since then I have seen some brands make an effort to promote more wholesome messages to children, such as Barbie dolls’ continual transformation to a more realistic image.
Please go back and read this post for background information on this paper and my current views on the topic. While this paper demonstrates truly deep thought into the seemingly harmless and simple design of toys and packaging, and the way that gender in the toy department of stores is displayed, I am a firm believer of balance. It would be wonderful if we could give children a truly gender neutral experience, but I think – at this point anyways – it is unrealistic and unattainable to deny children of toys that may seem traditionally masculine or feminine that are given to them, or that they choose themselves out of preference, no matter where this preference in driven from. To me, gender neutral is about giving children the freedom to feel good about making any choice, not taking away choices that represent a traditionally recognized gender role.
Yes, we as parents need to raise our children to have the confidence to feel good about making any choice regarding their preferences, but what Mom and Dad says only goes so far. What society and the media tells children, sadly, has far more hold on what children learn to think about themselves and others, so moving towards change in what we see regarding gender in the toy aisle is a huge step towards building positive and honest self-images in children.
The intent of sharing this paper is only to open awareness and thought, rather than to say “Don’t buy toys that seem gendered”. Go ahead, buy the sweetsy tea sets for your daughter or the monster truck for your son. But be aware of the messages. Have open conversations with your children and try to offer choices that encourage them to find out who they really are, rather than who the world tells them they should be based on their body parts. Let them know that just because a package implies that girls or boys should be a certain way, doesn’t make it true. Build confidence in personal choice.
I recognize that I will probably be losing out on dollars from potential sponsors because of what I’m sharing here, but this is something I feel is worth more to my children than the money I might make. At some point, we need to stand up and say “Hey, this isn’t right”, regardless of what we may lose in our efforts to make the world a more accepting place. I went into this blogging thing with the intent to make changes, however small, and so if a toy company chooses not to work with me because I’m standing up for the rights of children to be who they are, then so be it. If you agree, I would love it if you would support this by sharing, liking commenting, pinning, tweeting, following… whatever you can do to show me I’m doing the right thing.
Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of
A Toy Research Paper
Submitted to Barb Mathieson
Gender stereotypes are shockingly evident throughout society, placing restrictions and expectations on whom and how a person can be in the world according to the gender applied by the particular sex they are born as. Perhaps the most concerning place which these stereotypes are prevalent is in the toys and products intended for children since, at such a young age, children are forming concepts and internalizing every experience (Zosuls, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, Shrout, Bornstein & Greulich, 2009). A study conducted with children aged 3-5 years showed that they are actively categorizing items as “boy toys” and “girl toys” during the preschool years, as well as predicting that their parents would approve of play with toys labeled for their gender and be less accepting of play with cross-gendered toys (Freeman, 2007).
On February 4th, 2010, myself along with a few of my classmates set out to the toy department of [a popular big-box store]. As I often frequent toy departments of many stores, I had in mind some gender stereotypes to look for, but looking closely with a critical eye, the overwhelming amount of information regarding who boys are and who girls should be slapped me hard across the face. It was almost impossible to escape the gender stereotypes present.
Boys Can’t Be Girls
The separation of the genders is shockingly evident when walking through the toy department. At first glance it was easy to tell that even the different aisles were directed towards either boys or girls, with many of the aisles displaying either a hailstorm of reds and blues with eye-catching slogans and images, or a startlingly pink and purple array of cutesy items.
In the bike aisle I found two [bike honkers] hanging next to each other, made by the same company. At a passing glance it could be seen that one was intended for girls, and one for boys. But what exactly was it that spoke so clearly of the different sexes, and what was trying to be said of them? The honker that was blatantly intended for girls was a pink koala with a bow in her hair, holding a sweet treat. Her mouth was closed and she seemed to be sitting there, ever so quietly and sweetly behaving. The other honker, evidently intended for boys, consisted of a green frog wearing only red boots, sticking out his tongue and hyperactively waving his arms about. These two items stereotyped not only the material appearance of dress that boys and girls should wear, but also the particular ways of being that each gender is prompted to embrace.
On every box containing a basketball hoop, although both boys and girls were included in the images, I was disgusted to notice that the boy was shown jumping higher than the girl, and sometimes was also the one with control of the ball. It seemed that the message they were conveying was that girls can play too, but boys are expected to be better at sports.
Another troubling gender-specific idea to note was that while many of the toys clearly marketed to girls were flowery, fanciful and exchanged their real-life colours for pink or purple (ex. [a “Pink Bus”]), their boy-directed counterparts (ex. [a “School Bus”]) maintained realistic colours and features. This presents people – children and adults – with the idea that girls are frivolous and that they are not taken seriously as capable of becoming traditionally male workers such as bus drivers or construction workers.
Boys Will Be Boys
When I entered the aisles predominately of red and blue, the message being sent about boys was obvious. The words and images on the packaging, and the subject matter of the toys shouted out that boys do (or should) like playing with violent, flashy, action-packed things.
Guns, bazookas, and other weapons were everywhere. Ridiculously muscular, male action figures of famous wrestlers boasted phrases such as “Fist poundin’,” “Flip kickin’,” and “Hook throwin’” that were for age 6+. Other toy companies used language such as “blasting”, “rapid fire”, “thunderbolt”, “fast action”, “stunt psycho”, “terror”, and “rev it up” to sell their products. To me, this portrays in image of boys as aggressive, wild, showy, and hyperactive.
One toy package, a dart gun, shows a “cool” older boy in sunglasses shooting his playmate – also a boy who is dressed identically – while the playmate appears to be screaming. I was shocked to see this. What kind of message does that send out to boys? There is only one way to look cool? Friends look the same? It’s okay to hurt a friend? It’s fun to pretend to hurt people? Even if these types of toys claim to be intended for older children (which some of them do), they are as easily accessible as the other toys because they are at a low level and still in sight of the youngest children. Zosuls et al. state that “knowledge of gender categories might influence gender typing before the age of 2” (2009, p688). Whether or not the parent buys a specific toy for a child, the toy and its packaging are still provoking the same stereotypes from passing exposure.
What a Girl Wants
Heading into the next aisle I was confronted with an abundance of pink and purple. Here were the dolls, stuffed animals, and accessories. Obviously this section was for girls. Hearts, stars, music notes and delicate swirls were on many items. A series of products from the same company included a Shopping Cart, Vanity, Laundry Centre, and Desk & Easel. Predictably, the Desk & Easel package was the only one that depicted both a girl as well as a boy on it, revealing the stereotype that shopping, primping, and doing laundry are specifically feminine tasks that girls should be doing. Other products such as a Cake Designer Kit, Cup Cake Maker, and Sweets Sprinkle Art Jewelry perpetuate the stereotype that girls like to bake and spend time in the kitchen, as well as making girls seem “sweet”.
The language used on the packaging of the “girl toys” such as “little” (or lil’), “precious”, “whoopsie doo”, “tasty treats”, “sweets”, and “magical” provoke an image of girls as materialistic, frivolous, and cutesy. One toy, a “Say Please Tea Set” made the claim that, along with numbers, shapes and opposites, it would teach manners and greetings – emphasizing that girls are expected to be “nice” and polite.
The nurturing homemaker image was emphasized in many “girl toys” with many dolls and accessories such as strollers, car seats, bottles, blankets, and diapers. A popular doll “Surprise Newborn” perpetuates early gender separation by asking “Is it a boy or a girl?” on the package, stating that once it is purchased you can find out the sex of the doll by whether the diaper beneath the clothes is pink for a girl, or blue for a boy. Out of the many dolls in the toy department I found it worrisome that there were only two, hard to find, baby boy dolls. Is this concerning lack of boys teaching children that baby girls need more nurturing than boys? That mothers should wish for daughters? That boys and girls don’t interact?
The most upsetting and worrisome idea I found in the toys was the unhealthy body image that girls were presented with. Toy sets such as a Moving Runway and Mirror with two very thin, pursed-lipped models provide children with the idea that women should be slim, sexy, and traditionally beautiful objects on display. Another “Fashion Portfolio” consisted of an anorexic-looking female model with red lips pursed, long flowing blonde hair, and a cold expression to put fashion outfits on, all of which exposed her midriff. Every Barbie doll available was wearing a bikini or an impractically short skirt (with the exception of the doctor Barbie who wears pink capri pants and hot pink stilettos), and was in full makeup with her long, predominately blonde hair perfectly done. The majority of the dolls were white.
All of this seems to say that it is the most acceptable for girls to be materialistic, sweet, and unattainably thin, have long blonde hair and fair skin. I had thought that society has gone such a long way in terms of destroying stereotypes such as this, but what I found in [the toy department] proved to me that there are still very strong ideas in the world about the “right way” to be a girl. It was also evident that boys were not encouraged to engage in traditionally feminine activities, as they were absent from packaging in the aisles of pink.
A Mother’s Place
It was interesting to notice that there were very few packages that showed a parent with their child on the box. What does this say? Do the companies hope to speak to parents by showing that if they buy this toy, it will play with their children so they can live their busy lives and don’t have to be “in the picture”? Although that is quite concerning to me, it was something else about the packages with parents stuck out in relation to this assignment.
Every parent depicted on packaging was a mother (or female caregiver). These images were more often than not on the toys intentioned for little girls and showed the mother adoring her daughter while being the “ideal” woman with perfect makeup, a trim body, long gorgeous hair, and a fashionista’s sense of style. A daycare Barbie set included a female caregiver in perfect hair and make-up, sporting a frilly mini-skirt and pumps. The second is who in their right mind gets all gussied up like that to change diapers, run around a play-ground, and wipe noses all day? What mothers and caregivers have the time to make their selves up like that? What kind of a message does this send children (as well as adults) about how mothers should be? How is this pressure to be and have a “yummy mommy” affecting society and how we care for our children?
After spending nearly two hours in the toy department I was still constantly coming across new hidden (and not-so-hidden) messages about each gender that continued to shock and appall me. It is overwhelming and terrifying to look closely and see the restricting stereotypes that the toy companies are aggravating for our current and future societies.
Zosuls et al. suggest the significance of exposing children to gender labels as, according to social learning and self-socialization theories, children actively attempt to conform to the standards specified by society (2009). The toys available for children within the toy department where I conducted this field research broadcasted a very clear message of what is “normal” and expected of boys and girls. It seems like a vicious cycle. How can we ever expect the strong gender stereotypes to dissolve and open up possibilities for both genders when our children are being taught from a very young age that it is only acceptable for girls to be beautiful, polite, and nurturing and that boys are only accepted by society if they are active, aggressive, and powerful?
I believe that it is our responsibility as early childhood educators to provide gender-neutral toys and encourage children to explore all opportunities, whether male or female. This requires that we be keenly aware of our own beliefs, values, and biases, as well as that we look closely at the messages on gender being sent through the toys, images and materials we include in our classrooms. The children in our care are the future society and, if there is to be change and more opportunities for males and females both, we must do our best to break the cycle of sex-roles and gender stereotyping by allowing children to explore all possibilities.
Freeman, N. K. (2007). Preschoolers’ Perceptions of Gender Appropriate Toys and Their Parents’ Beliefs about Genderized Behaviors: Miscommunication, Mixed Messages, or Hidden Truths? Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(5), 357-366.
Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H. & Greulich, F. K. (2009). The Acquisition of Gender Labels in Infancy: Implications for Gender-Typed Play. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 688-701.