Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Gender, Consumption and Toys: does it matter?

The following is a blog post by undergraduate students from UoP’s Geographies of Children and Young People module.

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“Girls wear pink, boys wear blue”

Source: Martin Schaefer (reproduced with permission)

Children’s gender socialisation is being altered through today’s consumerism and consumer culture. Parents are just as conscious with the toys their children play with, as the clothes they wear when it comes to their gender roles. Various products and companies aimed at children are showing gendered bias. Products are typically either over feminine, labelled “pink, glittery and frilly” or over masculine by being “powerful and macho”. Being a female does not necessarily mean to aspire to be a princess, this millennial society appears to accept that girls can grow up to do what they wish. So why are toy companies’ products still enforcing old fashioned gender stereotypes? The worry is that if these gender stereotypes are applied at a young age it is not something the young child will know, it is something they learn as a result of their upbringing. This is where problems can arise in the future, where young males and females reject the generalised norm, an idea that is explored throughout this blog post.

‘Girly Girl’

The ‘girly’ culture is defined in the ‘gender appropriate’ items girls are buying. Shops like Claire’s Accessories or Girls Heaven “epitomize the commercial appropriation of childhood”  and are targeted towards young girls. This is creating an idealisation of femininity, installing the idea that to be a girl means to want to be a princess and to aspire to be pretty. Girls who do not feel that they fit into this ideal are therefore left out and unaccommodated. However not all children assume this norm, with some clearly breaking this stereotype. Children are humans in their own right and have their own agency to form individual opinions as to what appeals to them. Moorhead writes about this argument, discussing her own experiences with her daughter being a “tomboy”, She comments that not all girls are

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21sugar and spice and all things nice…but some little girls are made of different stuff

reiterating that some children simply do not  relate to their gender stereotype.

Academics have studied gender stereotypes among infants, concluding that as the primary purchaser of toys tends to be a female, this influences the type of product purchased for a child. It was found that pink and yellow tones were used to decorate young girls’ rooms, whereas colours such as blue and white were predominantly used in boys’ rooms. This shows that even from a young age before a time where it is perceived for a child to have any social agency, they are being assigned a gender regardless of their own opinions.

Stereotypes in Consumption

The video below represents an opinion from Daisy Edmonds, an 8-year-old girl who was filmed by her mother talking about some stereotypical clothes seen in the chain supermarket Tesco. This shows that young girls are becoming aware of this gender appropriation seen in consumer goods. It shows that the typical stereotyping seen in products, like clothes shown in the video, are being challenged not only by academics but the children concerned themselves.

 

Some try to argue that the reason for having gendered toys is because it is seen as natural or in some way innate, however this assumption is a fairly new ideal created purely by marketing departments. In a 1927 Time article, the writer was informing parents on how boys should wear pink and girls should wear blue. It is thought that this was encouraged so parents would have to buy a whole new wardrobe that was colour appropriate. This furthers the idea that consumerism is a key influencer in the gender stereotypes that have been created. The whole social construct that surrounds gender and consumerism is largely supported by the colours of the products, which is why companies deem it so important to brand certain products in a certain way depending on the gender of their target audience.

 

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“Blue for a boy, pink for a girl”

Source: Own. Taken at Fratton Tesco store, December 2016

As the awareness grows towards gender stereotypes, so is the desire for more gender neutral toys, or toys which represent both females and males in equal terms. The toy manufacturers ‘LEGO’ have generated criticism in recent years for stereotyping how girls should play. The launch of ‘Lego friends’, aimed at young girls, featured five characters who all partook in a leisure led lifestyle such as a salon environment, a swimming pool, and a convertible car. The lack of an educational element for these characters is what sparked criticism towards this range.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and had no jobs,” while the boy figures “went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs,” adding they “even swam with sharks

Extract from letter from seven year old Charlotte Benjamin in January 2014

Since its release, further products have been launched with the aim of counteracting the backlash from the ‘Friends’ range. The ‘Research Institute’ features three female scientists in their laboratories, aimed to promote the message that girls can aspire to be whatever they wish to be.

 

Public criticism of gender stereotypes has seen the likes of GoldieBlox and Wendy Tsao emerge, to expose children to diverse role models. Debbie Sterling of ‘GoldieBlox’ reinforces the stereotype that

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 13.32.21the most iconic action heroes are almost always men.

 

In a refreshing new ad campaign, the main protagonist is a female superhero. The aim is to influence today’s young population with toys that inspire people to divert from the generalist ideal that boys play the superheroes and girls are the ‘damsels in distress’.

 

Artist, Wendy Tsao supports this shift in toy stereotypes, with the transformation of the over-marketed Bratz doll into iconic women such as Malala Yousafzai and Jane Goodall. Wendy Tsao hopes that young girls will aspire to these women instead of the products of Disney and Hollywood.

Rapid progress has been made in recent years about attitudes towards gender, especially with regards to consumer culture. In reality, there is a great need for further discussion into whether it really does matter if toys are gender stereotyped or not; surely it should be down to each individual child and their own social agency as to what they play with, where they play, and who they play with.

 

Bridget O’Brien, Verity Smith, Lara Griffin, Michael Sonner & Emily Seth.

 

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