Girls like pink. Boys prefer blue. Girls care for dolls and play house. Boys fight with action figures and assemble models. Girls pretend to be princesses and fairies. Boys imagine themselves as pirates and cowboys. That’s just the way kids are, right? Not exactly. Although advertising often portrays girls and boys as two separate, homogeneous groups with contrasting interests, not all girls nor boys adhere to such strict gender expectations. In this paper, I will first outline the debate over the gendered advertising of toys aimed at young girls and then address how this debate participates in the larger dialogue of how gendered marketing stereotypes adolescent girls. Lastly, I will further explore the real-world implications of these generalizations.
One of the most convincing ways of asserting that advertising perpetuates gendered stereotypes is to analyze the public response to the LEGO Friends product line marketed toward young girls. On January 1, 2012 the LEGO group, a company known for manufacturing toy sets that encourage children’s creativity, introduced a brand new product line: LEGO Friends. LEGO group’s Chief Executive Officer Jørgen Vig Knudstorp claimed that in order to appeal to a demographic other than their traditional mainstay, young boys, the LEGO group designed their new line “to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children” (qtd. in Wieners 1), namely young girls. The LEGO Friends sets are based on the daily lives of five girls in the suburb of fictional Heartlake City and include a veterinary clinic, café, beauty salon, horse stable, and residential home (“Lego Friends”). However, Lego’s misguided assessment of what girls would find attractive about this product incited criticism from parents and children alike.
To the right is the box cover of the LEGO Friends set entitled “Butterfly Beauty Shop.” Although only one example, this image conveys the general formula of the LEGO Friends line: an overwhelmingly pink and purple color scheme, characters with feminine clothing and hairstyles, and a focus on stereotypically “girly” activities such as frequenting a salon. The characters themselves are drastically different from the smaller, stockier, and less detailed LEGO mini-figures that are characteristic of the LEGO products aimed toward boys. Still, the controversy around the LEGO Friends products ultimately revolves around whether LEGO purposefully propagates gendered stereotypes about young girls.
Numerous parents as well as children are dissatisfied with the implied limitations of the LEGO Friends productline. Since such a large number of people were outraged by the LEGO Friends sets, in December 2012 a petition for LEGO to commit to gender equality in their marketing was posted on Change.org, the world’s largest petition platform. Activists of the SPARK Movement to end the sexualization of young girls, Bailey Shoemaker Richards and Stephanie Cole, created the petition, which asked the LEGO group to “recognize that the toys our children play with today help shape them into the leaders we want them to be.” In other words, according to SPARK, the LEGO Friends sets discourage young girls’ ambition and limits their exposure to a variety of opportunities by including exclusively female gendered activities. As a result, many consumers are critical of the restrictions the LEGO Friends product line imposes on what they think are young girls’ interests and how this may negatively shape their future goals.
However, there are many who defend, or at least do not see an issue with, the LEGO Friends product line. For example, “Darya Shevchenko,” a commenter on NPR, seems to miss the problematic gendering of “male” and “female” activities, noting, “Has it ever occurred to anyone that girls and boys just like what they like?” Shevchenko argues that different toy preferences of girls and boys are natural and does not see the implications of gendered products, such as LEGO Friends sets, to be harmful to children. There are also those who do not hold the LEGO company responsible, for they believe the LEGO Friends product line was driven purely by consumer demand. However, this line of thinking naturalizes gender, rather than recognizing the ways in which LEGO Friends constructs stereotyped gender roles in young girls Unfortunately, this apathetic response to the problematic nature of the LEGO Friends sets stems from advertising’s tendency to represent young girls as inherently domestic and materialistic.
Children’s advertising often assumes all young girls are domestic in nature, appealing to their supposed inherent desire to perform household tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, and nurturing children. Child-sized kitchen sets complete with plastic foodstuffs and small appliances such as the iconic Easy-Bake Oven encourage young girls to hone their skills in the kitchen. Chores considered mundane and trite in adulthood become entertaining and engaging when presented to little girls in the form of brightly colored appliances and lifelike dolls. These types of toys are commonplace, says Dr. Monica Brasted, Chairperson and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication the College at Brockport. She asserts, “Girls continue to see models of domesticity,” which include the types of toys to which they are exposed. The Easy-Bake Oven, a product that Hasbro has sold successfully since 1963, drew public attention in recent years in regards to its gender implications (“Easy Bake History” 1). In December 2012, 13-year-old McKenna Pope went shopping with her parents to buy an Easy-Bake Oven for her 4-year-old brother who had been wanting one for months (Grinberg). However, she was disappointed to discover that all of the boxes were pink and purple, depicting exclusively young girls using the product. In response, McKenna created a petition imploring Hasbro to feature boys on the packaging of Easy-Bake Ovens, as she thought buying the pink and purple oven would make her brother feel as if he was playing with a “girl’s toy” (Grinberg). McKenna’s concern was well-founded when one considers that toy advertising often forecasts girls’ future role as mothers as well. Marilyn Ferris Motz, an Associate Professor of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, argues that the onset of the commercial production of baby dolls in the mid-1800s “turned motherhood and domesticity into a play activity”(qtd. in Browne 54). A successful example of this product line is the American Girl Doll which has increased in popularity since its debut in 1986 (“A History”). Photographer Ilona Szwarc argues that the branding behind American Girl Dolls “perpetuates domesticity and traditional gender roles” (qtd. in “American Girls”). She explores this theme in her project American Girls, a series of portraits of girls in the U.S. who own and idolize American Girl dolls. Miriam Forman-Brunell’s book, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930, suggests that such marketing creates a “culture of consumption,” which represents “domesticity and maternal self-fulfillment” (184). The advertisements of toys such as LEGO Friends and American Girl Dolls reaffirm the societal impulse to urge young girls toward stereotypically female gendered roles such as housekeeping and motherhood.
These products are almost exclusively marketed towards young girls, suggesting that their rightful place is in the domestic sphere rather than the public workplace and thereby limiting their aspirations. If toy companies assume that girls are innately domestic and crave such “feminine” roles, they can be expected to promote such products toward girls. However, the problem is that girls may internalize these messages over time and eventually accept them as fact. In January 2014 Elizabeth Truss, the British Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, stated that “manufacturers risk turning girls off careers in science and math by producing gender-specific toys” (qtd. in Paton). As eager to fight this trend, Truss supported a campaign calling for an end to gender segregation in toy departments. Truss has argued that toy manufacturers do not expose young girls to women participating in a multitude of fields, such as science and math, and that this lack of role models can dampen these girls’ aspirations. Likewise, Becky Francis, a professor of education at Roehampton University, agrees that the differences between toys marketed towards boys and girls “might have a bearing on schooling and career choices later” and worries about the implied message of these marketing strategies. Namely, that “boys should be making things and problem solving, and girls should be caring and nurturing” (qtd. in Barford). From this, one can make the argument that these toys are “training” adolescent girls to fulfill the roles of wife and mother and conditioning them to enjoy tasks they will be expected to complete in adulthood. In 2010, Emily Coyle, a senior psychology major at Washington and Lee University, tested this hypothesis by conducting a yearlong study. Coyle dressed stereotypical girls’ toys in uniforms worn in male-dominated roles (such as a firefighter or an astronaut) and recorded how it influenced whether girls viewed themselves as capable of working in those industries. She argues that “it's helpful to encourage children to keep their options open as long as possible, so they are choosing what they want to do and are not funneled into doing something simply based on their gender” (qtd. in Tschiggfrie).
Toys promoting domesticity in girls can also have implications in regards to girls’ personalities. In a report entitled “Playing by the Rules: Gender Roles and Young Children” published by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN), it was noted that “shyness is generally more socially acceptable for girls than for boys in western society” and is “often equated with fear and anxiety,” emotions “equated with femininity…which may explain why shyness is more of a concern for parents of boys than for parents of girls” (3). Unfortunately, toys that model domesticity may also inadvertently encourage girls to be shy and reserved, reinforcing the stereotype that girls are more passive and less ambitious than boys. Therefore, the domestic nature that is encouraged by the majority of “girls’ toys” may have numerous problematic implications on young girls’ future livelihoods and dispositions.
In addition to assuming young girls are domestic, advertisers also portray them as materialistic, promoting toys and games that encourage obsession with shopping, clothes, and makeup. In her Fortune article, Nina Munk suggests a possible explanation—although children of all genders spend money, statistically girls spend more: “boys spend money too…but it's girls who move markets.” It is apparent that society deems shopping a “girl thing,” and advertisers and toy manufacturers do their part to make sure it stays that way. Specifically, dolls such as the Barbie, Polly Pocket, and Bratz lines all emphasize a girly preoccupation with material goods. In her book Barbie Culture, Mary F. Rogers states, “Barbie’s appeal lies significantly in what she has…and is thus an icon of not only consumerism but also of materialism” (72). In other words, if one were to take away Barbie’s clothes, shoes, and dream house, nothing remaining would hold a child’s interest. In regards to Polly Pocket dolls, Margot Magowan on her blog Reel Girl admits that she “can’t stand Polly Pocket” with her “50 million…little plastic outfits” and hates that her daughter “is being trained to focus an inordinate amount of time and energy on getting dressed.” Magowan hints that the preoccupation with clothing the Polly Pocket dolls encourage can have negative effects on young girls, her daughter included. The Bratz dolls are similarly criticized. In his book Children, Adolescents, and the Media, Victor C. Strasburger asserts that children desire the values associated with certain products, and the Bratz dolls “are marketed to tween girls as a ‘lifestyle brand’ that revolves around makeup, sexualized clothing, and communal shopping and congregating at the mall,” which encourages materialism in children (71).
However, the reflection of the assumption that young girls are materialistic is not limited to dolls, and even applies to activities typically thought of as gender-neutral, such as board games. “Mall Madness,” a board game in which the objective is to buy the most stuff in the shortest amount of time, features exclusively doe-eyed, slender females on the box and is what Megan K. on Smosh.com calls an overall “outrageously materialistic game.” The blog Children of the 90s affirms that Mall Madness “dictated to girls that it was acceptable to be vapid, superficial, materialistic, and openly money-hounding.” Another popular board game, “Pretty Pretty Princess,” involves putting on various jewelry such as earrings and a crown, emphasizing the fact that dress-up, particularly when princesses are involved, is traditionally considered a girly activity. The commenter, Darlene, in an article about the implications of gendered toy advertising, considers princess-related toys “deeply problematic” for they “encourage materialism, snobbery, entitlement, laziness, and a terribly limiting view of the value and potential of both men and women.” Darlene goes on to argue, “There is nothing practical or constructive about raising any child to fantasize about being a member of an idol aristocracy.” It is clear that Darlene does not favor the materialistic values that princess-related toys impose upon young girls. And so it is easy to recognize that the supposition of young girls as materialistic is reflected in the vast majority of toy advertising.
All these toys and games that encourage and stereotype young girls as materialistic, and consequently shallow, act to further perpetuate the pervasive notion that self-worth is intrinsically linked to possession of material goods. As Michael Gurian says in his book, The Wonder of Girls, “Many girls just feel better when they are surrounded and ornamented by material” (251). Still, after years of exposure to materialistic values, partially from the toys they play with, young girls often develop an obsession with shopping, particularly buying brand names. Katie A on the blog Teen Ink observes that “the brand name of a product will ensure that a person’s wealth will be displayed for everyone to see…[people] are constantly trying to outdo each other when it comes to the things they own.” This becomes increasingly problematic because their self-esteem is often related to the amount and quality of their possessions. As a result, competition and jealousy inevitably arise between young girls, leading to cattiness and even bullying. If they don’t have the “next big thing,” young girls may be snubbed and ridiculed, often severely, by their peers. On the Tots to Teens magazine blog, Adina K describes it as “brand bullying,” which she argues is “especially evident in teenage girls who often judge each other by who has the cutest clothes and other materialistic possessions.” By requiring almost no critical thinking skills and having little educational value, it seems as if the sole purpose of the toys and games mentioned previously is to expose young girls to the inevitability of participating in a capitalist society from a young age and into adulthood. For example, makeup is marketed to young girls from an early age as a play activity which then translates to spending their own money on cosmetics as teenagers. Psychologist Margo Maine, who treats eating disorders and founded the Eating Disorder Coalition for Research teenage girls, attests that “teenagers spend over $9 billion on makeup and skin products alone,” which “robs them of self-determination, self-awareness and self-esteem” (qtd. in “Driving teen egos” 60). As part of the capitalist system, toy companies market products, especially to young girls, that encourage materialism in order to turn a profit. However what these companies do not take into account are the negative impacts of these advertising strategies, such as lowering young girls’ self-esteem and increasing instances of peer pressure and bullying among them.
Although the majority of toy advertising stereotypes young girls as inherently domestic and materialistic, there have been promising efforts made toward creating more gender-neutral and inclusive products. In August 2012, Debbie Sterling, an engineer from Stanford, began a campaign to fund her new GoldieBlox line of construction toys for girls, hoping to encourage girls to develop interests in engineering, which has already raised more than $285,000 in funding (Stewart). In addition to these toys that refute the stereotype that girls are not attracted to or capable of honing their math and science skills, there are also those on the market that contest the generalization that girls are passive and domestic, such as the Rebelle line by the toy brand Nerf. Introduced in 2013, the Rebelle line consists of merchandise such as bow and arrows and sling shots that come in a “swirl of pink, purple, white and gold plastic” with names “like the Heartbreaker and the Pink Crush” (Stout and Harris). Although these toys still treat girls and boys differently in their marketing campaigns, they do signal progress in that these types of playthings are being advertised to girls at all. And it’s not just individual toy producers that are changing their ways; entire large-scale retailers are showing signs of inclusivity as well. In 2013 the U.K.-based lobbying group Let Toys Be Toys, a parent-run organization that campaigns to remove gender bias in toy sales and marketing, successfully convinced Toys “R” Us to “market its products in a gender-neutral fashion within the U.K., depicting children of different genders participating in a wide range of activities, including those that defy gender expectations (Torres). Still, while these initiatives do disrupt the limiting stereotypes of young girls that advertising often promotes, they constitute a minority. The majority of toy marketing enthusiastically endorses these generalizations. Therefore, it is imperative that the public support these attempts at inclusivity, especially those aimed at large corporations that hold a significant influence on children, particularly young girls. Only then will the negative impacts on their futures, personalities, and self-images be prevented.
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