Gender stereotyping continues to impact all aspects of the society, and the society gradually imposes a tyranny of gender-specificity on children from a young age. The latest victim is the toy manufacturing and marketing sector with most stores dedicating aisles and even entire floors to specific gender toys, and this exposes children to gender stereotypes at a young age. Toys play a vital role in the lives of young children since they stimulate role play, social play, and the development of cognitive skills. However, toys stereotypically target each gender, nurture entirely different social and cognitive skills, which results in generalization of specific groups later in life. The following research aims to show how toy manufacturers, retailers, and the society promote gender stereotypes and influence the development of socially-constructed gender roles in young children.
Data Collection Methods
To complete this project, I visited Toys-R-Us store over the weekend (24/9/2016) at around 2 pm. I tool my four-year-old neighbor with me since I wanted to appear as if I was getting something for her. It was a busy weekend as shoppers thronged the store in multitudes. There were around 300 girls and 400 boys and around 250 adults accompanying the children. The girls and boys in the store were mostly 2-12 years old.
The most noticeable peculiarity of the store is the separation of the toys based on gender. The majority of the children came with same-sex parents, which means that boys mostly came with their fathers while the girls were in the company of their mothers. On this particular day, it was rare to see a child(ren) accompanied by both parents. Most of the children seemed interested in their respective toys, and it was very rare to see them wandering to the opposite gender’s side.
The toys that they had stocked for the boys were the typical toys that they have been playing with for generations. They included action figures such as Batman, Spiderman, Star Wars and Power Rangers, remote controlled toy cars, trucks, weapons, legos, male Disneyland character stuffed animals, toy airplanes, footballs and various building sets. The toys of dark colors such as blue, black, red, gray, dark green became fashionable. The packaging depicted lots of active play emphasized by words like adventure, force, power, speed, action, and build.
In comparison with the boys’ side, the girls’ side appeared to be more colorful. Some of the girls’ toys included Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, cleaning equipment, easy bake ovens, kitchen sets, little makeup kits and some girl action figures such as the Powerpuff Girls. Moreover, there were some accompaniments and items used with dolls such as Barbie clothes, doll clothes, Barbie cars, and furniture. The girls’ side looked colorful since the toys were mostly pink, purple, and lots of glitters. The packaging of the girls’ toys emphasized words such as house, best friends, fashionista, and princess.
Moreover, there were some gender-neutral toys located in the middle section of the store. The toys in this section included instruments like pianos, guitars, board games, doctor kits, crafts kits, Magna-Tiles, walkie talkies, geo dome climbers, beach sets, swing sets, trampolines, soccer balls, basketballs, board games and play sets. There were also various brands of bicycles and tricycles targeting children from 9 months to around 16 years. The gender-neutral toys of different colors including black, green, white, yellow, orange and brown became fashionable. One could not help but notice that girls were mostly the ones who showed more interest in the gender-neutral toys.
Analysis and Discussion
What messages do the gendered toys send? The gendered toys advance some stereotypes about the roles of both the boys and girls in later life. For example, the toys and accompaniments in the girls' section based on fashion, shopping and housework reinforce the stereotypical notion that girls like nurturing and someday will play some motherly roles as primary caregivers for their families as cooks and cleaners. Moreover, the toys especially Barbie dolls emphasize the importance of physical beauty and appearance, and it teaches the girls that the society judges them according to their appearance and they should not only focus on nurturing, but also on looking pretty.
In contrast, the toys meant for the boys send a different message about their roles. For example, the violent toys portray men as protectors, fighters, and bad guys. The toys teach the boys soldier like responsibilities such as being competitive, active, determined, and assertive. The boys learn that brutal activities and violence equate to self-confidence. The gender specific toys seem to send the message that boys should create things and solve problems. The toys send the message that boys should have the harmonization of risk-taking and problem-solving skills required to survive in the external world.
Boys and girls should not play with the same toys. As bad as it sounds that is the message that the society seems to send when it comes to acceptable playtime behavior. The community seems to be keen on dictating what toys the children should play with, and the children have no choice but to conform regardless of their imagination and love for certain toys. The stereotypes advanced by gender-specific toys may seem harmless, but they may prevent the children from being all-round to enable them to deal with real-life situations appropriately.
One happened to witness firsthand how parents help to advance gender stereotypes towards their children. A little girl who was around five asked her mother to buy her a Captain America costume. The girl began walking past the rows of pink Barbie dolls and dresses towards the superhero outfits. However, her mother pushed her away from the direction she was heading and told her that they should go to the “girlie side” since she would get something better there. The girl sullenly obeyed , but one could tell that she was unhappy. From that scenario, it emerges that the society sends the message that every gender should conform to certain roles. The mother wants her daughter to conform to the societal expectations because she is a girl and she should only play with girl stuff.
Observation shows that the film “Divide of the sexes: Gender roles in childhood” and gender-linked toys seem to send the same message. From the two it emerges that the children’s notion of their gender relies on how others treat them and what they encounter in their environment. For example, toy gendering sends the message that children of a certain gender can only play with specific toys while the film reiterates the same. From the documentary, the children try to adjust to their gender roles and expectations. The film reveals that they learn about gender stereotypes from a young age and those that do not conform like Megan who is a tomboy appear as rebellious. In the same way, just like Megan must reach the society’s expectations, the woman in the store wants her daughter to conform to “girl stuff” as expected by the society, and failure to comply would mean that she is rebellious and disrespectful. Moreover, just as the toys in the toy store depict the boys as aggressive, Tyrese seems to conform to that stereotype: since he displays male aggression yet he does not face criticism as far as the society views that as normal. Therefore, the film and the gender-linked toys seem to reinforce the gendered stereotypes that boys and girls are different and should behave as such.
Social theories best explain the idea of gender conformity advanced by gender-specific toys. They suggest that individuals would likely behave in a particular way if they know that they will be rewarded and will avoid the same actions if they undergo some form of punishment. The concept explains the advancement of gender-specific toys and why children continually play with the toys reserved for them. Research shows that the rise of gender specific toys arises from different gender socialization experiences. For example, the situation when the girl in the store wanted a Captain America uniform but her mother urged her that she would get something better in the girls’ aisle is a clear indication of the way the society socializes girls to avoid masculine behaviors and boys to avoid feminine ones. In this case, the girl had no option but to follow her mother to the girls’ side of the store since she did not want her mother to punish her by not buying her anything after all.
Just like any other social aspects children tend to learn gender segregation. The preoperational stage in Piaget’s cognitive theory explains why children hold “rigidly stereotyped ideas about gender” like the preference of gender-linked toys. During this age (2-6 years) children are very good at following the social expectations such that girls as well as boys believe that they should only play with toys designated for them . At this point, the parents’ stereotypical gender attitudes significantly influence the young children and can encourage or discourage them to experiment with different gender-neutral toys.
Observation shows that by means of gendering toys the manufacturers, retailers, and the society significantly influence the development of socially constructed gender roles. Gendering toys prepare the children for stereotyped future roles with girls being taught such values as dependence, passivity, and domesticity while the boys acquire such values as independence, problem-solving abilities, assertiveness, and curiosity. By teaching children to conform the society denies them the chance to exploit their full potential. Playtime should be a fun time without restrictions of imagination, and both boys and girls should be free to explore their interests without scrutiny. However, that seems like a far away dream as far as stores like Toys R Us continue to segregate toys, the manufacturers continue to package them in suggested colors like pink and blue, and the parents continue to dictate what children should play with.