Monday, March 31, 2008

Socializing Gender Through Toys

As any first year sociology student will tell you, gender is a social construct. And that is the context in which I’ve always thought about it. Until now that is. I am at that age where lots of women around me are either pregnant or starting to think about having children. Also, on a more personal and very exciting note, my brother and sister-in-law are pregnant! There hasn’t been a baby in my family since my younger cousin (who is now 22) so you can see that it’s been a while.

I’ve had quite a few conversations with my sister-in-law as well as with others that always end in “yes, we agree that gender stereotypes exist but no, we don’t agree that this is necessarily ‘bad’” Sometimes that’s enough for me (as a feminist I’ve learned to pick my battles) but usually it’s not. Now especially, since I’m going to be an auntie, it’s not enough.

Gender socialization begins the moment a child is born, and I’m not only referring to the color outfit s/he is placed in at the hospital. The way children are talked to, touched, and played with all establish norms and expectations, thus socializing children from day one. Parents will engage in more “rough play” with their boys while using more language with their girls. This is limiting for both. Boys learn to “be tough” while girls learn to emote and use their words. Both sexes need both sets of skills, which is why gender socialization is so limiting for everyone involved. Everyone including the parents who need to develop both sets of ways in which to relate and bond with their children.

In Jewish tradition (or rather superstition) you should not purchase gifts or items for an unborn child so to not draw the attention of dark spirits. However, my sis in law gave me the go ahead to buy (just not give) her baby gifts. So try to buy I did… as I wandered through Target’s baby section, I noticed some adorable bibs. There were two sets. One 4-piece bib set was blue and green and had the following saying written on the front: "Fireman" "Policman" "Astronaut" "Dinosaur." The other 4-piece bib set was in pink and purple and said "Lipstick" "pretty but messy" "I clean up cute" and something else as equally gross... In this case, as in many, it wasn’t the colors that bugged me (because I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with a baby girl in pink or a baby boy in blue) but rather the message that the toy or clothing sends. The boys' bibs encouraged creativity and opportunities for the future (granted stereotypical jobs are pretty restrictive also) but the girls' bibs were very clearly appearance motivated. They are basically saying she had no chance of becoming an astronaut but she can certainly be just as successful as her male counterpart by taking care of her appearance and buying in to female gender norms.

It's not always as apparent as my bib example but obvious or not, the message remains the same. Engendering children limits their creativity and opportunities. The messages baby items (toys, clothes, games) convey are restrictive when they should instead develop a child’s imagination. One that sticks out most vividly in my mind was a commercial that aired not to long ago for Playskool’s Rose Petal Cottage The commercial used all sorts of clichéd messages about girlhood. There were two commercials – one directed at children (well girls rather) and one geared at parents. I posted them below because this is a “you gotta see it to believe it” type of thing. The kids’ jingle sings lines like “taking care of my home is a dream, dream, dream.” The commercial for parents says “now there’s a place where her dreams have room to grow... where she can decorate and entertain her imagination.” During that line of the commercial, the little girl is doing her laundry and actually says “do the laundry!” in her happy, petty, training to be a housewife, sort of way. Really Playskool? Encouraging girls to entertain their imaginations by doing laundry and taking care of the home? We have got to do better than that.

When I YouTubed this commercial, I found a fun reaction that someone made. This time the line “a place where she can entertain her imagination” is spoken behind a young girl in a chemistry lab. That is more like it.

Targeting Girls:

Targeting Parents:

This isn’t unique to Playskool either, Fisher-Price did it too (quite recently in fact). Some of you may have seen commercials for My Pretty Learning Purse “Keys, lipstick, money, music …this adorable purse has everything baby needs for learning and role play fun!” Please don’t argue with me about our society not being inundated with highly gendered toys until stuff like this is off the shelves. Girls have very few options in terms of toys and imagination: housekeeping, princesses, or dolls... all of which require them to develop their nurturing sides and wait patiently for a prince to rescue them from their castle (or Rose Petal Cottage). And don’t even get me started on Bratz dolls... at least the Powerpuff dolls had purpose and kicked some ass...

Boys don’t have it all that easy either. Gender norms are just as restrictive for boys. Don't we want our children to be creative and explore as much as possible? Boys playing dress up with heels and makeup are often reprimanded. But why? Shouldn't we let them be just as creative as we allow our girls to be? Why are we limiting our children's imaginations at all? Most toys geared at boys consist of trucks or cars, action figures, or violence. The famous Tonka Truck commercial for a toy that’s been on the market since the 80s exclaims, “boys... what can you say? They’re just built different.” We need to teach our boys communication, cooperation, and the use of words. By encouraging violence, confrontation, and competition we set our boys up for a future in which they are limited in their ability to resolve conflict. Excusing fighting and rough housing with the “boys will be boys” mentality only causes us to pass up important opportunities to have potentially life changing conversations with our children.

All that said, I am finding it extremely difficult to find gender neutral toys, clothes, and other items for my future nephew so if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears. I suppose I’ll forever be the auntie that buys progressive or education toys, or even worse... dun dun dun... BOOKS, haha. In the past I’ve tried to buy music toys which are pretty gender neutral or art supplies. But I’d love to hear what you all, readers, have given as a gift (or received) that was your favorite gender neutral toy.


Unknown said...

Nice post! I have three boys. I've tried to raise them gender-neutral. They dress up in anything they can find, including mommy's shoes. The problem came for me when the older one went to school. He would come home angry about how the girls wouldn't let him play with their things and that he was now restricted from playing dress-up the way he wanted or liking pink and purple. He could no longer play doctor and cook. He was only doctor. He couldn't like pink, even though that's the color of the most tasty bubble gum. He felt genuinely hurt. I didn't realize how much our family sheltered him from those gender norms until then. Daddy fixes the car, cooks, vacuums, and does laundry. Mommy fixes the pluming and electrical, cooks, grocery shops, kisses boo boos, etc. We would go to drop-in play centers that didn't discourage them from dressing up as tooth fairies or pretend vacuum. Yes, they play with the big trucks, cars, and Spider-Man more than those other toys. But they were never stopped when it came to 'girls' toys. It wasn't a big deal to us. Now, to ease the pain these boundaries caused, I've started to teach him about how others view gender roles, particularly at his school, but I also reminded him that he was welcome to play how ever he wanted at home or on the weekends at the drop-in centers. He'll eventually be hit with a harder version of this life lesson soon enough, and he'll have to learn how to navigate around it, but I'm glad he has a mom and dad to show him that he doesn't have to be boxed in.

So, to answer your question, yes, there are gender neutral toys out there, but you have to look long and hard for them. Try Lamaze toys, which you can find at Babies R Us or Wal-Mart. They're brightly colored and are wonderful for babies 0-24 months.

Lindsay Blau Portnoy said...

Evil engendering sis-in-law here. If I had more than 10 minutes to respond, I would do a more thorough job. But for now here's what I've got:

Regarding this lovely long post. I don't recall toys r us putting armed guards in their stores and aiming guns at the heads of parents wishing to purchase dolls for boys or (EEEEK) doctors kits for girls. But again, this is my first child and I'm learning a lot, so maybe...

What I do know is that as a teacher I saw many boys (should i call them 'children' so as not to engender them?) come to class with pink and purple clothing. I chose books for my little girls to read that were about construction workers and yes, both genders were represented in those books.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's all about the colored glass you choose to look at the world through. If it's a big deal to you, great! Change it with your kids. If you don't care, great! Don't do anything.

Personally, my little boy will be an absolute heart breaker in pink, purple, or blue and if you want to get him a book about house keeping I will gladly take the help in the house! I'm more concerned with him becoming a responsible, kind, and loving human being.

Now if you want to really take a stand, talk about all these idiots pressuring moms to return to a before baby body within 2 months of child birth. Lucky for me I was voluptuous to begin with =)

See, it's all about the tinted glass that is your lens to the world. Just don't forget that it's easy to be a critic when you've never been there yourself.

Lindsay Blau Portnoy said...

p.s. The kids aren't being engendered because of clothes. It's these nutty parents and adults, teachers included, who are screwing them up. Honestly, Galina, engendering should be the worst of our problems. Why not focus on training parents to be better parents instead of worrying about putting Sue (boy or girl) in a particular color. There are bigger fish to fry then the color palate that best suits your 3 year old. If you ask me, the priority here is ass backwards.

There you go, now your fellow engender-phobes have something good to bite into.

Gary said...

Now that you are bringing my unborn son into this i have to jump in and defend him, before he can defend himself.

Growing up is difficult enough as it is, without having to batttle gender stereotypes. You decided to take up this fight for yourself, when you were old enough to understand and deal with the reprecussion of your decision, but isn't it unfair for you to make this decision for your or anyone else's child and force her or him to live with it? Kids are mean, and in the world at large, boys predominantly play with trucks and soldiers and tools, girls play with dolls and kitchen sets. I am not saying it's right, but that's the way it's always been. And when it comes to the real world that we currently live in, I'd rather my son "fit in", even if he is fitting in with a stereotype. I'd rather he have friends he can play with. So until you can change the world, where other kids and their parents don't consider it strange if a boy plays dress up and wears a dress, i'll continue to encourage him to play with trucks and guns and soldiers. Sorry, I am just not willing to stick my child on the front lines of the gender equality fight.

That said, will I take away a doll that his aunt brought over for him to play with? Absolutely not! But I don't believe that it's the toys that engender the children, it's the parents. What is a gender-neutral toy anyway? A gray building block? Or does building block imply that it's for a boy, and therefore taboo for a self-respecting feminist to buy for her nephew? Isn't it good to have options? Pink, blue, trucks, dolls. Buy whatever you want for my future son, but just know that for every doll, he'll have 3 trucks, and for every pink shirt, he'll have 2 blue ones, and hey, and someone who was constantly mistaken for a pretty girl up until I was 2 years of age, because normal clothes were hard to come by in Russia and kids wore whatever the parents could get their hands on, i for one, really appreciate having blue clothes for boys and pink for girls.

Radical Reminders said...

Linds and Gary - i don't mean for you to have to jump to your child's defense, really, i didn't wanna make this a "thing" lol... but i do want to address some of the topics you brought up.

Gary, you know what? i totally agree with you that childhood is hard enough and fitting in is hard enough and the last thing i'd want for any child is to deal with bullying and being teased. You're right, maybe stearing away from gender norms at home would encourage bullying from others at school whose parents didn't educate them to be accepting and embracing of everyone...

And no, i'm not going to give your baby boy Barbie dolls, because they are just as much a problem of gender socialization as the Tonka Truck. You can expect gifts of musical instruments, art stuff, out door activities - totally gender nuetral toys that encourage play, imagination, and creativity.

Linds, i agree - we should teach parents to be better parents. It's not only toy manufactures and media's responsibility to raise our children for us and parents are (or rather should be) the main people responsible.

I think Kandee (above) does a great job explaining how she has raised a boy who understands gender socialization. I am sure i'll have a different opinion on parenting once i am a parent simply because i will be experiencing it first hand but it's not fair to say that it's easy to be a critic b/c i haven't been there yet myself. If that is your argument, should I stop fighting against racism too? No, of course not. We don't have to personally experience the oppression or inequality to take a stand.

Unknown said...

countrygirlcityliving -

Although your response was passionate, which is valued, failing to factor in how gendering affects one's ability to 'parent well' is not a good idea. Children receive cues on how to behave based on the body they were born with - so we later on question ourselves wondering why men do the things they do to women and why teenage girls have low self-esteem without connecting the dots. Leaving the deconstruction of gender up to individuals discounts the fact that we spend most of our time in social environments. Our opinions of ourselves are heavily influenced by those around us. We have the mind, as adults, to combat some of those assumptions, but as children, we take the cues from our parents, relatives, teachers, friends, etc. So I can try as hard as I want to raise my children differently, but they will encounter people who disagree and believe that 'boys should be boys' or 'only sissies wear pink' and put that judgment on my impressionable child. Just like magazines of skinny models affect girls' impression of their bodies (which sounds like you're already trying to combat by defying the 'get your pre-pregnancy body back in 2 days' craze), the same happens for gendering, and even race. Not only will my boys have to combat the homophobia that is associated with gender role defiance, but they will also have to combat the racial assumptions made about them. Before they even get a chance to discover themselves, they will be told that they're 'studs' or 'well packed down there' or 'can dance and play basketball' or 'should only like rap music' etc.

A part of good parenting includes instilling values in your children. For me, those values include showing my boys that they can use their words to resolve conflict and go beyond the gender roles to create valuable relationships with men and women. Once they understand the concept of gender roles, they will be able to see how equal women are and avoid some of the pitfalls that come with 'all women are' or 'all women like' and support human beings as they are. Those principles are the same for race and sexuality.

Amelia said...

I think this was an important post. After my post ("Gender-specific eggs?") I wanted to better convey why such things were bad. You did a nice job of that. If I still write that post, I'll probably have to cite you, now since you covered it so well. Nice work.

And when I was looking online for some material for the post in my head, I so that "My Pretty Learning Purse" and all I thought was...why?

Great post.

Lindsay Blau Portnoy said...

That is what I call great parenting, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the color of your sons clothing or their choice in toys. Talking to your children, or using words, is yet another example of good parenting, not indicative of the gender of your child.

It's actually funny to me that you are all serious. I honestly thought it was an april fools post.

Radical Reminders said...

Just to be clear for anyone else entering the conversation, this is NOT an April Fools post...

The socialization of gender effects everyone and it is crucial to engage in discourse to better understand what we can do as adults.

GottabeMe said...

RIGHT ON! I wrote a paper for a class in college analyzing the language in commercials targeted at girls and women v. those targeting boys and men, so I notice this stuff ALL THE TIME. I can't not notice it!

One thing I really thank my parents for is letting my play however I wanted as a kid. I had My Little Pony, a few Barbie things, but I also had collectible model horses, Hotwheels and Matchbox cars, and kickin' Big Wheel that was red with orange flames on it (nothing girly about that!) and the majority of my friends were boys. My best friend in 4th grade was a little boy my age that lived down the street. I LOVED Star Wars and had some action figures, but his collection was AMAZING. He even had the Darth Vader carrying case! One of my favorite memories is a snow day when school was closed and we took the Star Wars stuff outside and played, pretending it was Hoth, the ice world.

Gifts for kids - I do put thought into this. I'm not totally against giving girls things that are stereotypically "girly", but I prefer to give gifts that are gender neutral and encourage creativity, like cool art supplies (I gave a 10 year old girl these special crayons that you could write on glass with and wipe off with a paper towel, she loved them!), books, etc.

Smirking Cat said...

The argument that parents engender, not toys, is a bit moot when it's the parents who present children with the toys and then behave as if there are "girl" toys and "boy" toys. Guess what? I loved my playhouse as a child. I also loved my basketball, stuffed animals, baseball, cars, and trucks. I was not restricted to any category of toys, and I learned more from it than if I had been stuck with baby dolls and toy kitchens only.

Little girls' clothes are plastered with sayings like "Diva; Drama Queen; Cutie," etc., all very much bolstering the concept that her appearance is the most commentable feature she has going for her. I've seen boys' clothes with fire trucks, dinosaurs, and bragging slogans like "Chicks Dig Me", all supporting very different notions, and it is very clear which items are "supposed" to be for girls, and which are "supposed" to be for boys.

If toys had no impact on children's developing ideas of gender roles, then why would there be such a push to foist certain toys on girls, and certain types on boys? If toys truly were insignificant, then why are people on this very post admitting they will keep their children away from certain types of toys, lest they garner the wrath of others who embrace gender stereotypes? Clearly the toys we give children have a huge impact on perception, both the children's and adults'.

Can anyone tell me they have never felt the sting and limitation of stereotypes? And can anyone defend teaching the same stereotypes to kids, to keep the problem eternally cycling?

It's as simple as not restricting children to any one type of toy based on gender. That's it. An open mind can do amazing things, but we're given precious little opportunity to see that in action.

D said...

The issue I have with engendering little ones, besides the massive amounts of money spent targeting specific audiences with specific products (because that is the job of advertising companies), is the power structure that starts almost at birth. No one is saying that children deserve boring toys, and as an adult I still hate boring toys. This isn't a movement to remove the joy out of the lives of children. The real aim is to make sure that children, who will eventually become adults after years of enduring these needling messages, receive messages that encourage them to not conform to standards that create the gender power structure. There is a reason why the gender of maleness is attributed to certain things as is the gender of femaleness to other things. Gender is an illusion, and the real shame is that maleness is still valued above femaleness. This state of power didn't happen overnight, but rather through decades of constructed images and language that create a reality (post-modernism at its best...). If there is anyone I can easily blame, its companies that advertise these terrible gender stereotypes to people. If these commercials were advertising based on race or religion, could you imagine what they would look like and how quickly they'd be removed from broadcast? Somehow, these gender related problems are still tolerated, and agreeing that there is no way to solve the problem is just buying into the system. Its like saying "well, the world is already on its way out, so I might as well litter because nothing I do makes a difference". Everything makes a difference, and that includes opening up a dialogue about how these advertisements surface with seemingly little push back from the public. I'm not asking anyone to train their children to take on the injustices in the world from infancy, but I'm saying that children are entitled to make choices that aren't hampered by gender.

Supergirl said...

you bring up some great points. as much as i try to teach lil supergirl that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to, she still wants to be a "ballerina" or a "model" or a "mommy" when she grows up. alas, even last year's "take your child to work day" could sway her to be an accountant like yours truly. however, i did get her the "no damsel in distress" fairytale book when she was four, which has many a brave HEROINE in it. she adores the book. also, friends of mine recently had a baby girl, and in place of the pinky-sweet stuff, i got her an ani difranco onesie ( that reads "i am an all powerful amazon warrior." hehe. they also have "future feminist" onesies (in gender neutral black and yellow, thank you very much). but overall i think you're on the right track, with educational and imaginative toys like music, art etc. best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Through my experiences as a preschool teacher, I would say that the split is about 50/50 between families who want their children to experiment with roles and toys that are "for the other sex" and families who get freaked out when their boy child draws a dolphin.

I have a little boy in my class who defies all "laws" of "boyhood:" he loves to dress up in a white lacy dress (it's his favorite, and yes I do offer gender neutral clothing like t-shirts and hats), he loves princesses, especially Ariel... he loves dolphins and other "soft" animals... and he likes to hug and kiss, he's very affectionate. His mother is appalled that he is able to wear a dress in our classroom- she has told me that if I see him dressing in such a manner, I need to tell him that it's not appropriate and that he will be punished. She has explained that this type of behavior is unacceptable in her culture and family. Honestly, I do the exact opposite. If he draws a castle with a princess, I make sure to label it clearly and put it directly in her mailbox or worse, hang it on the wall where EVERYONE will know that he likes those things. It's not that I like to go against families' wishes... it's that I am NOT going to make a child feel guilty about his enthusiasm. I am not going to streamline him into being a "boy." I have an open mind and a very liberal view on these types of issues... and if (as his mother fears) he turns out "gay" (GOD FORBID!!!!), I only hope that he will remember that his personality was fostered and not squashed in his early experiences, and that the value is on himself rather than his sexual preferences.

As for gifts, I like to give art supplies, journals, stickers, and books. Being in early childhood education, I have a great supply of books and I rarely buy the gender stereotypical ones!

...and Galina thought I couldn't make a strong stand on anything... :)

Renee said...

My goddaughter is 17 months and her parents are REALLY good about gender stereotypes. Her favorite toys are blocks, dinosaurs, and a dancing Elmo. I find pretty good non-gendered bibs at Target, cute ones in neutral colors that say "Hungry-potamus" and the like. And books are always good. Check out Mo Willems' books (, his pigeon books are my FAVORITE. Steer clear of Berstein Bears, it's chock full of sexist stereotypes. And Eric Carle's books are pretty good about non-gendered representations. (His Grouchy Ladybug is surprisingly male.)

I'm a kids' book junkie, so if you have any questions, let me know! (My mom is a preschool teacher, can you tell?)

Radical Reminders said...

Thanks, everyone, for all the great input.

Kelly, i never doubted your ability to take a stand on something you were passionate about :) In fact, i teared up a bit reading your example. Thanks for sharing about the boy in your class, and thanks especially for fostering his creativity :) There should be more teachers like you out there!

Heather T said...

Great post, Feministgal! I'll speak from the "after-childhood" standpoint as a mom who tried to raise her daughter as gender-neutral as possible. When my daughter's third brithday was coming up and I asked her what she wanted, all she could say was "Barbie." I was shocked. Now we are deep in the trenches of early adolescence. No matter how much you fight this, the battle never ends.

Can I ask you about Powerpuff girls, though? They disturbed me greatly, and I actually shut them off entirely. My daughter was 4-5 when the powerpuff girls came out. At about the same time, Charlie's Angels was revived, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a hit tv show. There was a weird subliminal message being sent -- a successful female is strong, beautiful, smart...and violent. That's another post entirely, like why are we not appalled by the same level of violence in traditionally male-targeted media and toys? To me it seems like teaching girls to be violent is like teaching boys that they should be obsessed with their appearance. I say get both ideas out of the rearing altogether.

Anonymous said...

My favorite toys as a kid were Breyer model horses, which I guess are pretty gender-neutral. And books, of course. Before the Breyer horses I had My Little Ponies, which were much girlier, but still not so much forcing me into a specific gender role.

And I agree--it's not about color, but it IS about whether the toys teach kids that they have to embody a certain stereotype.

I love to wear pink--and I loved it even more when my ex-fiance bought me pink boxing gloves.

Anonymous said...

feministgal as you continue to shop for this baby, the realizations that you've had viz-a-viz the rose petal cottage will NOT go away. They will become more and more obvious. I tried to be as gender neutral as possible with my daughter's clothing when she was an infant. It was tough, but not too bad. But when she hit two - the "boy" "girl" separation really kicked it. Primary colors? Boys. Pastels? Girls. PERIOD. The best I can do is go with beige or black or brown. Trucks or other vehicles? Boys tees. Flowers or butterflies? Girls tees. Apparently boys don't know what flowers are; nor do girls have any concept that there are machines that move in the real word.

The toy aisles at Target or any large corporate toy retailer are pretty obvious too. If you see an aisle in the aforementioned primaries, chances are it will be stocked with cars, trucks, transformers, and legos. If you see an aisle that looks like Pepto-Bismal, it's a good bet it's full of purses, tiaras, dolls, doll beds, doll bottles, doll diapers and, of course, household cleaning appliances.

Do the best you can. Everyday. It's the only thing you can do. And talk, talk, talk about it. Question the assumptions of the child, the parents and the society in which we live.

Anonymous said...

Short useful comment...
Papaya Patch in West Hartford has awesome (a bit pricey) organic clothes and toys. They have some gendered clothes, but most are not. Dinos and such. They also have organic cloth diapers but that's a topic for another day (greener and cheaper - sorry, had to get it in). I suggest clothes for the child being 7 mos to one and a half. Parents get 84 billion lbs of baby clothes, which the kids grow out of in 6 months. There are also a ton of used baby and toddler clothing stores in the state. You'd have to comb through them to find the non-gendered stuff but most have barely (or never) been worn (again, the growing thing). I'm not sure why anyone in their right mind buys 100% "new" clothes for their 3 month olds.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I think your post is great and timely. I'm having my third boy and someone having only their first child just wouldn't get it.
Aside from that, I'm really sorry for you that you have to deal with the people in your family. Grace be to you for putting up with them.

Ithaca Skinhead said...

Yes. Obviously. The reason men have superior physical strength and stamina is because of G.I. Joe actions figures. I feel so much better knowing that.