Saturday, December 22, 2007

Stereotyping Toys by Kim Gandy

NOW's Naughty List: Stereotyping Toys

Below the Belt: A Biweekly Column by NOW President Kim Gandy

December 21, 2007

For what I hope is the last time in 2007, I find myself asking: What year is this again?

I'm not talking about abstinence-only education, or Bush's appointment of birth control opponents to high ranking reproductive health positions, or even "purity balls" (although I may have to get to those someday soon). No, I'm talking about toys.

'Tis the season for abundant toy advertising and shopping, so naturally the NOW office has been abuzz about the ubiquitous "Rose Petal Cottage" TV commercials. If you haven't seen these ads, count yourself lucky. Honestly, if I didn't know better, I would think they were beamed in from 1955, via some lost satellite in space. Or maybe it's a deeply subversive parody that a clever (and rich) band of feminists snuck onto the airwaves in heavy rotation.

According to the makers at Playskool, the Rose Petal Cottage is "a place where her dreams have room to grow." And what might those dreams be? Well, baking muffins, arranging furniture and doing the dishes. The voiceover even declares that the toy house will "entertain her imagination" just before the little girl opens the miniature washing machine and says – I kid you not – "Let's do laundry!"

Now, I'm not knocking the important work of housekeeping, but this commercial is aimed solely at females (there are two versions -- one designed to entice little girls and one targeting their moms). Products like the Rose Petal Cottage and the marketing campaigns that accompany them perpetuate the notion that cooking and cleaning are women's work, and girls might as well start getting used to that fact at an early age. C'mon Susie, this scrubbing and ironing look like fun!

Of course the message of the Rose Petal Cottage would not be complete without its flip side . . . the Tonka 3-in-1 Scoot n' Scoop truck. This commercial states its theory right up front: "Boys. What can you say? They're just built different!"

The not so subtle concept is that boys are adventurous and unpredictable. Playing "their way" involves mischievous acts like pulling flowers out of the garden and tracking dirt across the kitchen floor. But thanks to Tonka, a boy can channel "what he does naturally" into sorting shapes and learning to walk. Yup, those sure sound like boys-only activities to me.

The idea that a girl might want to ride on a truck, or a boy play house, well, that's just too radical for most toy manufacturers. They prefer the status quo, thank you very much.

But what about toys that promote learning -- surely their marketing is more forward-thinking, right? Imagine my surprise when NOW received an email from a woman alerting us to the fact that even the Discovery Channel's online store organizes toys by gender beginning at age five. As the email writer explains: "Since the store is a major one for science and technology toys, I worry that it is just another way women are being discouraged from pursuing interest in science and technology at an early age."

Another disappointment is the makeover Dora the Explorer received recently. Yes, you can still buy dolls and products that look like the same Dora you see on TV, but now you can also buy an elongated and glamorous Dora, too. These new Doras are approaching Bratz territory, and that's disheartening. Dora is one of the few positive female role models in cartoons -- a smart, brave, curious girl who doesn't look like a supermodel in the making. Why must she be robbed of her uniqueness?

Take a trip through Toys "R" Us and pay close attention to the kinds of toys that are marketed specifically to girls or boys. The girls' section features dolls, fashion, jewelry, and a few crafts and other items that are best described as decorative. The boys' section contains cars, planes, sports equipment. These toys seem to value action, dexterity and skill. Many boys' toys literally and figuratively encourage them to reach for the stars, while girls' toys urge them to play at being stars, like the troubled pop princesses who rule our celebrity-obsessed culture.

To some folks, I might sound like Scrooge…disparaging decades of toy tradition. Or, this might sound like a pretty silly concern with everything else going on in the world. But the messages we send to kids as they are growing up have the power to influence the rest of their lives. And these toys do send a message about the roles of women and men in our society.

Through the world of toys, girls and boys are given separate dreams to follow. Girls are prepared for a future of looking pretty, keeping house and taking care of babies. Boys are given a pass on that domain, and instead pointed toward the outside world of challenge, physical development and achievement.

A lot of this has to do with making money, I'm sure. After all, if girls and boys don't share toys, families with kids of both genders have to buy twice as many products. But it's also about promoting difference between the sexes. Our society, heck, the whole world, still isn't ready to give up the standards that define gender and all the rules and customs that go with it.

Women will never be fully equal until we, and all of our society, stop restricting our children's aspirations based on their sex, and constantly directing them toward predetermined roles. It starts with pink and blue baby clothes, then dolls and trucks. Next thing you know, boys and girls are being segregated into separate classrooms and schools because they "learn differently." Then, they enter the workplace with an outlook that can only perpetuate division and derision.

Girls and boys both will benefit if we offer them limitless options. They will grow up to be more fully developed people if we give them the freedom to discover who they are, without the stress of tightly patrolled gender borders.

As I write this, 2008 is on the horizon, and it seems like a fine year to expand our vision of what girls, women, boys and men can do beyond our outdated, unimaginative conventions. And we can start with something as innocent-seeming as the toys we buy our kids this holiday season.


Anonymous said...

What's a washing machine supposed to say? Let's eat? Let's drive? These sort of arguments are so silly. Kids play how they want, with whatever strike their fancy.

Kimberly Simmons said...

I am so thrilled about comments!!!! Keep them coming. I think the point about toys is trends and hyper-marketing. If kids simply played with all kinds of things, including household toys, it would be great -- domestic play is a huge part of getting ready for grown-up life (and isn't the washing machine a big part of my life). But when certain toys are significantly over marketed to one kind of kid -- in this case domestic toys totally marked as "girl toys" and "girl toys" limited to domestic and shopping toys, "choice" becomes significantly influenced by corporate forces and adults. Take a walk through toys-r-us and you can see the incredible amount of sex-specification in the packaging of toys. Packaging Girlhood by Lynn Michel Brown is a good read for this topic, too.

goactivegirls said...

Wow! My two children, both girls, have watched almost no television, and after reading your article I couldn't be happier that we made that decision!!!! They have almost never been exposed to such ridiculous advertising. Their toy collection is quite diverse and includes lots of building toys (tinker toys, legos, blocks), real tools, doctor's kits, dolls, stuffed animals, musical instruments, plastic people, balls, scooters, bikes etc. They can imagine anything they want with a wide variety of props. Yuck!!!! I can't believe that about poor Dora. I knew it was too good to be true and I'm glad they haven't watched that either. I just cringe to think their world will one day be limited by some annoying little priss who might say, "You can't play with that! You're a girl!"