In a society in which most people believe that gender stereotypes are a thing of the past, a simple trip to the toy store solidifies the fact that the public still categorizes children in a disturbingly overt way. These stereotypes are instilled in children, and they often grow up believing that they must adhere to the expectations that society has created. While it would be ridiculous to expect young boys to begin playing with Malibu Barbie or for girls to avidly collect wrestler action figures, the fact that toy stores are arranged by gender reveals a very telling fact. To a large degree, children are not encouraged to be themselves; rather, they are brainwashed by the media and by their peers to conform to societal norms that have seemingly existed forever. Boys should like sports and violence, and girls should like cooking and playing with dolls. These preconceived notions continue to be reinforced, creating a vicious cycle that is all but impossible to escape.
In shopping for an imaginary 9-year-old girl, I stumbled upon the KBtoys website, only to find that the gender classifications were obvious. The toy search feature attempts to help the shopper by providing links for boys and girls. After clicking on the link for boys, the website took me to a page of best sellers of toys and games that were the most popular among consumers. Included in the most popular items for boys were Transformers action figures, WWE wrestling toys, Power Ranger toys, collectible NFL player statues, and something called “Forces of Valor: U.S. 82nd Airborne Division - Normandy 1944”. Although these toys don’t seem out of the ordinary, they reveal underlying messages that are continually sent to young boys. The expectation is that boys will be interested in fighting and playing sports, and anyone who strays from these preconceived assumptions will be looked upon as a social outcast.
The webpage for girls was no less disturbing in its rampant categorization of gender. The best selling items for girls were somewhat predictable, but still revealed a very important truth about society’s expectations of girls’ interests. The top-sellers included a Hannah Montana costume wig, a doll high chair, the Girl Crush Jewelry Maker, and my personal favorite, 2007 Holiday Barbie – Caucasian. The implications were simple: from an early age, society encourages girls to believe that beauty is their most important feature. Concerning themselves with sports and action figures is not ladylike, and it is not proper behavior. Instead, learning how to make jewelry and play with Kate Moss-lookalike dolls is the norm. The overt nature of these marketing techniques makes little attempt to abandon gender stereotypes.
Through these toys, important and destructive messages are being sent to children throughout the country. For boys, this message dictates that being sensitive or engaging in activities that are considered strictly for girls makes you sexually questionable, and thus susceptible to criticism and ridiculing. From a very early age, young boys have a strong sense of what is acceptable and normal and what is “girly”, a term that has developed such a stigma that boys avoid it like the plague. Sports, cars, and violence reign supreme, and anything outside of these categories is generally looked upon as being weird and unusual. For girls, the message is all too clear. Being pretty and playing with dolls is the first priority, and concerning themselves with sports and toys meant for boys will only garner them the tomboy label. Despite any advancements made in society, young girls are still to a great degree expected to look like Barbie dolls. This expectation is apparent in the blond Hannah Montana wigs that are sold, as well as the constant best-seller: caucasion, blond, fake, disturbingly skinny Barbie dolls that create unreasonable expectations. “If you didn’t look like Barbie, you didn’t fit in. Your status was diminished. You were less beautiful, less valuable, less worthy” (Gilman 73). Toys facilitate the understanding of normative gender roles and stereotypes by bombarding children with a barrage of amorphously constructed expectations and values on which they should base their behavior. Of course, they have the choice to break away from these social constraints, but they must do so at the peril of being derided and emotionally abused for the duration of their childhood years. Different is bad, and toy companies do nothing to help change this assumption. If anything, they define what is considered to be “normal”. “Terms like ‘diversity’ and ‘variation’ imply that there is a standard way of being from which others deviate” (Newman 16). Deviating from these norms is a dangerous and challenging undertaking for a child.
When attempting to find a gender-neutral toy for any age group, one becomes immediately frustrated by this seemingly impossible task. Until a person tries to find a completely neutral toy, he often does not realize how categorized most toys truly are. Aside from board games, yo-yos, and bicycles, which are only nominally “toys”, there is little on the market that is truly gender-neutral. Based on the 9-12 age range that I searched, it seems that the messages further instill various ideologies that determine what is acceptable and unacceptable in society. The same values that are taught to children at this age continue to be reinforced as they move into adulthood. The only difference is that they are portrayed in more subtle ways. Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that the marketing of toys for children is a microcosm of society as a whole. There are certain expectations we use to classify people based solely on their gender, with no real consideration for the person’s actual identity.
Gilman, Susan Jane. "Klaus Barbie, and Other Dolls I'd Like to See." (2000): 73.
Newman, David M.. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, & Sexuality. (2005): 16.