Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The messages conveyed by children's toys.

There is no denying that there are gender roles in our society. The source of the ascribed roles that dictate the masculine and feminine, and when they are learned, is much more debatable. When searching for the source of anything that is instilled in a person childhood is the obvious place to begin the search. A child’s thoughts can probably be divided into two categories, toys and sweets. The toys that children ‘would do anything for’ have been, continue to be, and will remain laying the groundwork for prescribed gender roles.

To examine disparities in the types of toys labeled for ‘girls’ and for ‘boys’ I browsed amazon.com. I first searched for gender neutral toys. I reasoned, to be gender neutral, a toy must not be either pink or blue, and cannot be shown in use by either a boy or girl exclusively. Using these criteria, there were few androgynous toys. Mostly everything was tagged with gender specific colors and patterns, or was photographed with either a boy girl using it. The few exceptions included scooters; however, they were found on every page of boy’s section and hardly at all in the girl’s pages. There were only a few toys that had a picture of both boys and girls playing, these included a Radio Flyer red wagon and Twister. The differences between the toys for boys and those for girls were based on much more than just pink versus blue and high heels and leggings versus combat boots and camouflage.

The toys listed for girls sent some very clear, and is some cases disheartening, messages. A new Barbie product called “Barbie Girls” is a low capacity mp3 player in shape of an adolescent version of Barbie ( despite a shorter stature she still has inhuman proportions-particularly in the waist) that can be accessorized with several hair colors and styles, outfits such as mini skirts, and alternate facial expressions such as an ‘innocent’ wink. Ken would go crazy. Amazon describes it as “an mp3 player with attitude”, something that as a three time day camp counselor, I know is not in low supply. The manufacturer boasts, “Barbie Girls allows girls to connect to their favorite things: music, fashion, and going online.” The product also includes an account for an interactive website which allows its owners to “make their [virtual] Barbie girls as unique as themselves” and design a “dressing room” where the virtual Barbie girls can interact and chat. Surely, I hope that no girl, or boy, prefers this fa├žade of socializing over true personal interaction. The Barbie Girl mp3 player seems to be aimed at encouraging the formation of cookie cutter girls just as empty headed and predictable as the subject of the 1997 Aqua song titled “Barbie Girl”. Another Barbie product, Barbie Forever Barbie Totally Real House Playset, sends a slightly different message that is just as obvious.

This collapsible play house includes three rooms, a kitchen, bed room and bathroom. In the kitchen, the manufacturer was kind enough to Barbie to include a laundry washer and dryer; we would not want to deprive Barbie of her favorite of the household chores. Toys like this do not overtly say that women ought to be at home, cleaning and homemaking. However, with out alternatives to the Barbie Forever Barbie Totally Real House Playset that display Barbie performing tasks as physically and mentally demanding janitorial work, it is reasonable that girls can come away from play time with the notion that they too should be cleaning when they are ‘grown up like Barbie’. The messages of some the ‘girls’ toys, as listed on Amazon, were intrinsically troubling. More troubling though, was the disparity between the girl’s and boy’s toys listings.

The collection defined as toys for ‘boys’ was much more broad, but can be divided into a few core elements and values. There were the toys such as a bug drawing kit that came with detailed pictures of insects and tracing paper and colored pencils. There was also a ‘rock tumbler’ that claims to polish and transform ordinary stones into shiny gems. It is toys like these that encourage thought that in some cases, including my own, leads to a scientific mind. Every page of toys in this listing has some kind of scooter or wagon which, I would think, encourages feelings of independence. Another clear difference is the number of board games in the boy’s listings. Oddly, there were far more games that required social playing. In short, the boy’s toys encouraged physical activity, inquisitive minds, and social interaction.

When the messages of the accessorized Barbie girl, and the Barbie playhouse are compared with the values behind the boy’s toys there is a clear difference. Boys are encouraged to be independent, thoughtful, and active, while the girl’s toys seem to promote trivial forms of socializing, and other equally valueless ideals such as fashion and materialism. In her piece, Klaus Barbie and other dolls I’d like to see, Susan Gilman goes as far as warning that Barbie will inevitably produce women like Pamela Lee who, via plastic surgery, strive to look like Barbie. Naomi Wolf in Brideland, her piece about how the ‘glam and glitz’ of marriage has a hypnotic effect on young women, mentions the bride to be is “treated like a very queen with her court of maids. She has perhaps a child to lift her train and another to bear her ring”. What goes on to describe sounds much like a fairytale, lofty expectations for most common folk. So, where do young women get these ideas? Wolf and Gilman would likely argue that products like Barbie and Bridal Magazine are to blame. However, it is hard to believe that a plastic doll or a bimonthly editorial are so inherently toxic to girls’ dreams and egos. Perhaps the problem behind the messages children are receiving from toys lies in the repetition of a similar messages. This repetition may be more detrimental than the message itself, and with the help of toys that send alternate and sometimes opposite messages, one may be able to convey a more wholesome, balanced message to children.

Toys such as the Fischer Price play-kitchen, can send a positive message if they are employed properly. As a boy, I loved playing with my GI Joes, hiding them from the enemy in the cracks of the sofa and building ‘secret’ lairs from pillows. However, I also loved to cook for my parents, pretend of course. So, one Christmas, my father bought me the Fischer Price play kitchen with a microwave, stove, oven, and sink. I like to think that this nurtured a side of my personality that is less oriented towards machine guns and figures in camouflage. However, if my parents thought it wise to strip me of my more ‘boyish’ toys there may have been adverse effects; perhaps, I would never have developed the competitive drive to excel as a runner in high school and college. Similarly, to limit a girl’s exposure to a domestic, materialistic, and disproportioned Barbie, could be robbing her of a necessary competitive drive, independence, and certainly other important traits which can be introduced and fostered during play time.

After examining the messages being conveyed to young, impressionable children it is a certainty that there is a gender based disparity between the types of toys and the messages those toys send to children. Whether this difference is based on innate difference between the genders or the effects of media exposure and nurturing, we may never know. What is of utmost importance though is that there are toys on the market with multimillion dollar advertising campaigns aimed at children, that left unchecked may yield a personality in a child that can limit his or development and potential.

Works Cited

Amazon.com. "Barbie Girls- Green." 28 September 2007 . Path: Toys and Games; Girl’s Toys.

Amazon.com. " Barbie Forever Barbie Totally Real House Playset." 28 September 2007 . Path: Toys and Games; Girl’s Toys.

Wolf, Naomi. 1995. Brideland. in Dominant Ideas about Women. p. 61

Gilman, Susan. Klaus Barbie and other dolls I’d like to see. p. 75.