Two years ago while creating his Christmas list, my twelve year old cousin made the fateful decision which would affect him socially in my family for years to come by requesting that Santa bring him the ever so masculine Easy-Bake Oven. Upon finding this news out, my entire family reacted as if Connor had decided he was going to wear pink and purple everyday from now on and that he was abruptly changing his name to Christina. Why such an appalling reaction when the boy just enjoys cooking? Children have been socialized into perceived gender roles based on learned concepts and value judgments through their environments most notably being within their family and school. In a society where boys must retain an emotionless exterior and be perceived as strong to be socially acceptable and girls are subject to care giving and everything pink, children’s toys wrongfully back up these stereotypes further facilitating the understanding of normative gender roles.
Several years removed from the Easy-Bake Oven crisis, I phoned Connor to inquire about four or five toys currently on his “must have” list. Without hesitation he replied the video game Call of Duty 4, Lego Airplane Set, Guitar Hero, and a new paintball gun; all being rather macho choices. Before hanging up I asked Connor if he still had an interest in cooking to which he excitedly replied that he loves the cookbook from the NBC television show “The Biggest Loser” and cannot wait to try out a new brownie recipe he recently came across. After informing my brother that our cousin was an avid fan of “The Biggest Loser” cookbook, he ignorantly called Connor a girl and asked when he was going to come out of the closet. It’s interesting how cooking is automatically perceived as a women’s job therefore if a young boy enjoys such a hobby that he deviates from the social norm. Boys are expected to find enjoyment in vicious games such as Call of Duty where violently killing “bad guys” is acceptable compared to activities wrongfully stereotyped as a female’s role.
When online shopping at ToysRUs.com, I found there to be a grey area as far as sex-neutral toys are concerned. While children are broken up according to what is deemed age appropriate toys, there is a straight line that breaks up what toys are meant for boys and girls. The toys meant for boys tended to involve some sort of violence or action taking place requiring the children to use logic and be in fact emotionless. In “Call of Duty”, the boys playing this game rarely ponder who they are shooting and if it is morally right. Instead, they get a thrill out of killing as many “bad guys” as possible ranging from the usage of guns, knives, to overhead helicopter attacks. Meanwhile, girls are subject to more nurturing toys which will elicit care giving tendencies to be applied later in life. They also tend to be calmer and focused on the body and beauty. Because of this, mixed messages are sent to children through their toys. With toys, there seems to be no in between. Newman states that through constructionism, “We have a tendency to identify people in "either/or" terms” (Newman 37). In society there tends to be very little leeway for gender neutrality. Children’s toys are very cut and dry. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys and depending on what your biological make up is results in what color toy you play with.
Toys that are created with a specific sex in mind tend to send misleading messages to children. Through the usage of sadistic video games and action figures, boys are trained that it is acceptable to resort to violence in given situations and that they must be in control at all times. Boys infer that it is not appropriate to play with dolls or show any sort of weakness while girls should take a more passive role socially. Meanwhile toys meant for girls promote an image conscious society heavily promoting the importance of beauty. The drastic differences between messages exuded by toys do not end there. Many toys produced for boys endorse that males are the decision makers and must be emotionless in order to complete the game or further succeed. While they are free to explore and build new things, girl toys encourage a lesser role where care giving is a must in order to practice the role females will play in later life. Because of these mixed messages, inaccurate views on gender roles are implemented in children at a very young age, further embedding in society.
There are many key factors that results in toys facilitating the understanding of normative gender roles and stereotypes in childhood. Newman argues that, “What it means to be male or female, how you're supposed to look, and the things you're expected to do by virtue of being labeled male or female are entirely dependent on the societal, historical, and even the familial context in which you live” (Newman 53-54). An example of this idea being evident in the sale of toys would be the usage of girl and boy colors, commercials, and other advertising tactics. Toys are created in certain colors to clearly instruct which sex they are meant for. This leads to various actions being misconstrued and labeled as a job meant for either a male or female. Dolls are adorned in pink and purple, placed in dresses, and marketed strictly for girls. This asserts that it is a female’s role to stay home and take care of children since they grew up playing “house” with dolls and toting around pretend babies. Even play kitchen sets and Easy-Bake Ovens are pink or other girl friendly colors displaying that girls are meant to do all of the cooking. Toys that convey a hand on approach to life and building such as play tool sets, building blocks, and Lego’s all come in primary colors commonly associated with boys. Also, toy fire trucks, police cars, and planes are targeted to boys facilitating the idea that those occupations are meant for men leaving no room for females in a male dominated workforce. Besides the colors that toys are produced to be, the way that such objects are marketed also facilitates the understanding of normative gender roles and stereotypes in childhood.
Advertisement for these toys, most notably being television commercials, wrongfully stereotype gender roles. The media sways children thought processes. This is supported by Newman who says, “Media images of males and females have a strong influence on children's perceptions and behaviors (Good, Porter, & Dillon, 2002). For instance, children who watch a lot of television are more likely to hold stereotypical attitudes toward gender, exhibit gender-stereotyped characteristics, and engage in gender-stereotyped activities than are children who watch little television (M. Morgan, 1987; Signorielli, 1990)” (Newman 90). Watching Miley Cyrus prance around the television screen looking anything but fifteen years old as she promotes her new CD and various Disney products, it is easy to see why children are acting older than they really are and seeking approval in the wrong places. Video games are no longer a matter of jetting around on a race track trying to have the fastest time as they now resort to violence where killing must be second nature in order to succeed. In a commercial for the video game Call of Duty 4, a soldier is shown shooting a man who is an arms length away. How is it that a twelve year old is mature enough to grasp what war is and is he fully capable of differentiating between what is real and imaginary?
In relation to gender, when toy shopping there is a concise difference between what is perceived to be a boy toy and girl toy. Ranging from colors of toys to advertisement, children are influenced by stereotypes as seen on television as well as amongst family and peers. Through these stereotypes, children make assumptions about how they should act according to gender standards and how they should treat the opposite sex. This leads to children being misconstrued and further embedding the wrong ideologies on gender roles.
Call of Duty 4. ToysRUs.Com. 20 May 2008 http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?.
Easy Bake Oven. ToysRUs.Com. 20 May 2008 http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2943442.
Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.
Wooden Kitchen and Refrigerator. ToysRUs.Com. 20 May 2008