Where better to begin a critical analysis of the genderization of children than the place where they get most of their training: toys stores! Through the toys they play with, children absorb the messages and meanings behind their games. They learn about what gender is and what our society values in its members. As part of my little experiment, I began looking for toys marketed to boys around 10 years-old, but I also got a look at the messages girls receive from their playthings. I even tried to look for a toy that did not focus on gender the way many toys do. Well, I gave it a shot anyway.
GI Joe Cobra Infantry Iron Grenadier
Well, obviously every boy needs this thing. Just look at it. There are more guns than one Iron Cobra Infantry whatever can carry! There’re a portable mission launcher and a bazooka! And, in case there’s not enough heavy artillery for ages 5 and up, there are ninja death stars included. All of this smartly packaged above a tagline that reads “A Real American Hero.”
And since videogames are huge sellers to the young male demographic I wanted to make sure I swung through that section of the store. Here’s what I found.
What 10 year-old needs a video game where the goal is to kill, maim and/or destroy everything you can?
The videogames and the GI Joe serve the same gendering purpose here. They are sending the message that violence and aggression are not only okay, but laudable qualities in today’s society. They tell boys, their target audience, that this is “maleness.” In order to be a part of mainstream society, you have to accept that men are powerful, dominant, and aggressive to the point of outright brutality. Here we draw a parallel between these toys and what we as a society celebrate. In 100 years, historians will look through a TV Guide and see everything from war documentaries to Ultimate Fighting Challenge to slasher films. Look at the message of the GI Joe, where violence is synonymous for “American,” and that to be a “Hero” you need to obliterate anything that opposes you with heavy artillery. It’s not enough to try in our society, it’s about “being better than the other guys-beating them- that is the key to acceptance” (Messner 129). If what we teach children manifests itself in adulthood, we are breeding males that glorify gore.
Sometimes, however, it’s not the items themselves that denote gender differences, it’s where they are placed in a store. In order for me to find the modest display of sports equipment in Toys “R” Us, I had to go deep into the heart of “boy toy” zone, all the way on the opposite end of the store from where “girl toys” where housed. But Toys “R” Us was rather magnanimous in their own way. While it said loud and clear sports are for boys first and foremost, they let girls know that they were welcomed to join in the fun too, if they really wanted to, and if they chose from there extremely meager subsection of “sports stuff for girls.”
Here we see genderization working both ways. This emphasis on sports for boys and not necessarily girls is interesting. There is an undeniable correlation between boyhood and organized sports. Boys are taught from very young ages that in order to have acceptance, friendships, success and gain praise, they must excel at some form of athletic competition. In the words of Messner, when men discuss their childhood involvement in sports they “commonly talk of the importance of relationships with family members, peers, and the broader community” (123). As a society we place great value on performing these physical tasks well. We will give you millions it you can hit a ball or tackle someone.
But then there is the “special” equipment for girls. Why are there pink and purple patterns on everything? Why do we need delineation between “girl” equipment and “boy” equipment? We see other examples of this separation by “special-ness” in society as a whole. This bias is evident in everything from toys to the titles we give ourselves and each other. For instance, take my mom. She’s a very talented engineer, but when she gets praised for her work, people always bring up that fact that she’s the highest ranking female in her company. This is an example of what Newman describes as the use of “linguistic expressions [which] either render females invisible or makes them exceptions to the rules… by using the words lady, female or woman as noun modifiers” which in turn leads to “the cultural belief that the occupations in question are still men’s domain” (78). In this aisle, a pink batting helmet is the cultural equivalent of saying “female athlete,” a novelty not signaled out for talent but for gender.
Keeping this in mind I headed over to what Toys “R” Us calls the “Learning Toy” section. As far as I am concerned, that’s what all toys are supposed to do. Help kids learn. About something. About something other than fashion or beauty or violence or aggression. Regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity or socio-economic class, I have always believed that every child can benefit from a toy that encourages them to think outside of the box, make their own fun, and create their own games without genderization written all over it.
Meet Hoopla! Ages 8 and up. It’s a beat the clock game with brainteasers, sketching, charades and word games. You have to think fast and be creative. You have to work as a team and cooperate to win. It’s small, compact, all ages can enjoy it, and… here’s the best part… YOU GET TO HAVE FUN USING YOUR BRAIN!!! Gosh, what a concept.
You never really realize how many different ways gender is taught to kids until you start thinking about it, and once you start you can’t stop. It’s pervasive, so deeply imbedded in our society we often overlook it as something natural, something benign. But what is benign about feeding stereotypes to children? These toys serve as visual images and concepts that presume to explain what a “girl” or a “boy” is, what gender means. Hall claims that these kinds of ideologies work for toy manufacturers (and toy buyers) because they “construct for their subjects… positions of knowledge which allow them to ‘utter’ ideological truths as if they were authentic authors” (90). It’s assumed and accepted that boys and girls must grow up to fulfill certain roles, and we often blindly buy toys that teach lessons that may harm rather than help. It’s time to break these cycles of mindless acceptance.
We need to learn what these toys really teach.
Hall, Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” : 89-93. Rpt. in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc. , 2003.
Messner, Michael A. “Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Contructions of Masculinities.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Jan. 1990): 120-137.
Newman. “Portraying Difference: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in Language and the Media.” . 71-105.