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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Selling Sexist Stereotypes to Six Year Olds

November 25th, 2010 at 8:50


(via Blue Milk)

So, this one gets me where I live. The overly gendered toy market and the advertising that goes along with it is a constant frustration for me, as a mother of two girls. We’re not just talking about pink or blue packaging here. There is a huge divide between the products created for girls and those for boys, and this vid shows something about how confronting that can be for parents who actively think about this stuff.

Boys, in Toydepartmentworld, get to be warriors or builders. Even the building toys that are mostly directed at them are often quite violent in the story that goes along with them, or the advertising associated with them. Girls, meanwhile, get to be sparkly princesses or shopping queens.

The ads targeted at children are gross parodies of the gendered advertising aimed at men and women. The whole thing seems designed to create the four wheel drive and fashion magazine purchases of the future. Which, of course, it is.

The vid quite rightly points out that pushing these kind of tight, limited gender boxes on children at such an early age can have quite awful and far-reaching consequences. At a time when they are learning how to be human and how to find their place in society, a time when everything they learn gets soaked into their consciousness like a sponge, two of the biggest messages they are internalising is that boys must be strong, violent and controlling, and that girls must be pretty, glamorous and domestic.

It’s not just advertising. Of course it’s not just advertising. Our children are absolutely complicit in this rigid stereotyping of genders. I feel at times like de-brainwashing Raeli from the ideas about gender she and her friends come up with in the playground is a full time job. It’s like they spend their entire lunch break sitting around and wilfully constructing the most limited and small minded social constructs for themselves.

Already, at three and four and five, they voice messages about what boys and girls are SUPPOSED to do, how they are SUPPOSED to behave, and what is allowed to them. I’ve had to deconstruct some ridiculous theories, and drives to and from school often contain conversations about whether boys can wear pink, whether boys can have long hair (her Dad & grandfather have long hair and she has never thought this strange, but if she sees a man in the street with a ponytail she gets confused. This makes no sense to me) but also odd things like whether girls are allowed to wear things with stars on (wtf?).

I do my best, though I tend towards moderation rather than militance. I try to respect her tastes and interests, while encouraging a wider variety of options. Not that there are many options, because there are so few gender-neutral ANYTHINGS in a child’s universe. At nearly six years old, Raeli can spot something marketed at boys a mile off, and she won’t have a bar of it. I bought a pair of Batman t-shirts yesterday because they were cool, and Raeli is crazy about Batman cartoons – one was plain black with the bat symbol on it, and I thought it would work just as well as a Batgirl shirt. The other was dark blue with the Bat-family on the front. Raeli liked the picture, but she decided no, those were boy shirts. Of course, they were, but I had been hoping she would like them anyway! No such luck.

I’m hoping by giving them to Jemima instead, Raeli will get jealous and ask for them back. Look at me, encouraging competitive female behaviour!

Mostly we work on Raeli as subversively as we can, encouraging her in a variety of interests and tastes, and jumping on any sign of ‘girlclone’ attitude when it emerges. I’m not prepared to be a those parents who forbids Barbie from the house or whatever (luckily I haven’t had to deal with Bratz because I honestly don’t think I could stomach it) but I do try to pick and choose things like Barbie quite carefully, and think about which messages the dolls send. Even if buying presents for birthday parties, I’d rather give a Barbie who has a job than one who is there to shop until she drops.

I also loathe the Barbie movies, mostly because the characters are kind of creepy looking, especially the older women (who look like Barbie with creases painted on), but I have let her take them out from the library (because she’s allowed ANYTHING from the library) I did buy Barbie and the Three Musketeers for Raeli last Christmas because I still think it’s awesome and surprisingly subversive that they told the story with an all-female cast, but this year she wants Barbie and the Nutcracker and A Mermaid’s Tale. She puts like 4 things on her Christmas list, she’s not exactly being unreasonable. The stories aren’t awful, and the girls in them are quite active. I’m going to suck it up and let her have them.

She’s also getting the Powerpuff Girls movie. And a Mister Maker book. And a trampoline. I won’t restrict her interests, but I do work really hard to make sure she has as wide a variety of influences as possible. I was delighted this year by two major wins – she started agreeing to wear trousers (possibly this coincided with me starting to do the same) and she officially went “out” of her PINK IS AWESOME phase also I’m pretty sure she is actually pretending to not like pink that much because she wants to stand out from her friends. This is a lie I am happy to support because how awesome is it that she actually wants a point of difference?

How many kids feel alienated from their peers because they don’t feel like they fit the rigidly limited definitions of gender? How many pretend to love the things they are “supposed” to love? How many beg their parents for particular toys, because they’re popular? How many hide the interests they actually have, or never even discover them because X is for boys and Y for girls? That’s without even getting into the hellish problems that must be faced by kids for whom gender isn’t an easily identifiable binary.

School programs work pretty hard to be gender neutral, as does an awful lot of culture aimed at children: TV shows, books, etc. Even those aimed squarely at boys or girls often try to ensure there is wider appeal in them, or that there are strong role models of either gender available. The toy industry, though, lags way behind. Merchandising is often far more starkly gendered than the shows or movies that inspired them.

The Harry Potter books and movies have mass appeal for girls, but you wouldn’t know it from the toys. Harry Potter Lego rarely features female characters, and when it does, they are severe minorities – might get one in a huge Lego set, but almost never can buy individual girl characters. I was outraged to see that the truly awesome Quidditch Lego set only featured male players. Where’s my Angelina Johnson mini-fig? The most common characters I see on shelves are Harry, Draco and Snape. All awesome characters, but… (the other big Harry Potter Lego set at the moment is the burning Weasley house – apparently Ginny is there to be rescued.)

There are very few male characters in the toys aimed at girls, and very few female characters in the toys aimed at boys – which not only helps to segment the genders but also limits their storytelling possibilities. It means their imaginary worlds are going to be weirdly segmented – is it any wonder so many classes end up with boys on one end of the playground and girls on the other? Is it any wonder so many teenage boys and girls have no idea how to talk to each other? Or that so many “romantic” stories aimed at adults seem predicated on the idea that men and women are different species?

We’re working on our own idea of acceptable compromises. We encourage Raeli in loving AstroBoy and Batman along with Disney princesses, and I do my best to find Lego and other building toys that are coded as neutrally as possible, so she won’t back away from them. Her Dad encourages her interest in robotics. Thanks to trock, she has got over her fear of Daleks, though I fear the Sontarans (Humpty Dumpty men!) will always be terrifying to her. She shares loads of interests with her boy friends, even as she and her girl friends play pop stars or fairies. Oh, and yes, she doesn’t watch kids shows on commercial TV – because even a three minute ad slot can aggressively undo weeks or months of good work.

The government has done a good job in restricting the junk food ads in those time slots, but they haven’t gone far enough. The gendered advertising aimed at children is quite despicable. It’s not a good enough defence to say that this is what kids want, and this is the marketing that appeals to children. Of course it is. Do you know what else appeals to children? Eating sweets until they’re utterly sick. Red cordial. Going on the jumping castle right after eating birthday cake.

I’m prepared to have my daughter play with Barbies, but I don’t want her exposed to media that tells her that the point of Barbie is the hair, the clothes, and the looking pretty. The movies, creepy as they are, don’t do that. They tell solid stories with girls as the main protagonists, which allow female characters to be active. When Barbie movies have better gender politics than the advertising of the dolls – isn’t that a problem?

Come to that, why is it that companies are allowed to market products to young children ANYWAY? If they’re going to do so, which is in itself morally dubious, shouldn’t they have the same responsibility as the makers of children’s programming to include educational content, and to actually think about the messages they are sending to young minds? Beyond ‘make them beg their parents to buy this thing.’

What I want for my girls is to have as many choices as possible. They’re going to face sexism, sure – worst of all, they’ll probably be complicit in it at various stages of their lives, no matter how hard I try to educate them. How is it that toy advertisers and manufacturers are being allowed to perpetuate incredibly old fashioned and confining social values for our kids? It feels like there are whole generations being actively trained to form a (yet another) backlash against feminism. Because, of course, institutionalised gender roles are good for business.

This is why I could never stomach Mad Men. The world it portrays never completely went away, and everything about the advertising industry seems geared to bring it back, worse than ever.

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4 Responses to “Selling Sexist Stereotypes to Six Year Olds”

  1. Alex Says:

    Did you hear about this? http://www.toplessrobot.com/2010/11/dear_nerd_girls_a_young_nerd_girl_needs_your_suppo.php
    Young girl picked out Star Wars water bottle container for school; some weeks later announced she wanted to change to a pink one, and it turns out boys at her school had been dissing her about using something that was for BOYS.
    ARGH.

  2. Tweets that mention tansyrr.com» Blog Archive » Selling Sexist Stereotypes to Six Year Olds -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Golding, Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tansy Rayner Roberts said: my annual pre-Christmas rant about over-gendered toys and advertising to children http://bit.ly/dGdTJ3 [...]

  3. Helen Says:

    It’s a very hard battle with both sexes. My daughter was always encouraged to experience as many as gender neutral toys as possible and had her brother’s toys to play with as well but her choice was always dolls and housewifely toys. I got so sick of pink. She certainly didn’t get any of that from me. I was a tomboy as a child, always much more at home with boy’s games and I was delighted when my daughter took up Aussie Rules in her teens. Not that, as I discovered when she played it, netball is all that gentle a sport. My son always turned to cars and typical boy’s toys. Still does come to think of it.
    I finally decided that the only way to deal with gender issues was to make sure that there no commercial television and the rest was highly restricted and to trust to continually undermining advertising by pointing out the techniques they used. As well I commented on the more problematic story lines in the programs they watched. It did make them think about what they saw to some extent – although the teens were more problematic -and as adults they are both still quite sceptical.

  4. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Helen! I must try to do more about analysing the media for my girls; I do it from time to time but I suspect I have been lax. Healthy scepticism for all!

    I think things are getting worse for boys toys, in that the packaging, marketing and in many ways the products themselves are emphasising violence far more greatly than ever before. Themes such as exploration, driving and building are being turned into war toys! The clothing is quite sickening too, especially in cheaper stores, which makes the whole thing a class issue.

    I think netball is one of the hardest/most damaging sports! At least something like Aussie Rules spreads its potential injuries across the whole body, whereas with netball it’s knees, knees, always knees…

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