Tuesday, April 14, 2015

GENDER SOCIALIZATION: Content Analysis of Toy Store Merchandise

Authored by Sabrina Beram

It is a long standing stereotype that boys should work outside of the home, earning a living for his family, while a woman’s place is in the home, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.  Indeed, “financial security” was the top rated value by men, while “raising a family” was the top value reported by women in a national survey of over a quarter of a million first year undergraduates at 437 two- and four- year universities in the United States (1).  This was reflected in a 1979 study in which Miller examined several characteristics of boys and girl’s toys which were selected by preschool teachers and ranked pertaining to twelve different dimensions by undergraduates in order to determine which characteristics were commonly associated with boys toys and with girls toys.  One finding was that “boys toys encouraged more fantasy play that was symbolic or removed from daily domestic life, whereas girl’s toys encouraged fantasy play that was centered on domestic life” (2). This correlated to my experience observing toys in Toys ‘R Us.  The boy’s toys emphasized exploration of the unknown and mobility, as evidenced by toys based in real world spaces such as the ocean and space (A pirate Lego adventure set, Star Tracker Telescope, a 3-D space projector) and vehicles which afforded transportation (cars, trucks, motorcycles).  It is my assumption that the prominence of adventuring into the unknown seen in boy’s toys encourages a sense of bravery in boys that is less commonly associated with feminine characteristics.  Conversely, the girl’s toys capitalized on mystic fantasy taking place with magical characters in a land based in unreality (mermaid and princess games) or pretend play with items associated with preparing a house (iron, dishes, kitchen sets, shopping carts, furniture, vacuum).  Thus, through these toys, it seems boys are meant to internalize the stereotype that they hold the reins to the outside world, while girls are sent the message that being a homebody and performing tedious chores are an important role that they should fulfill.  This is manifested in the present adult world in which “society socializes women toward two, somewhat contradictory goals- to be independent/ pursue a career but also to marry and have a family.  However, women are stigmatized only if they do not marry and have a family” (3).  It is also seen in statistics supporting that men receive more managerial positions and higher wages than women with comparable qualifications in the work world (4). 

The previously mentioned adult roles for men and women may reflect the skills males and females are stereotyped as having.  There are still elements of the settling period in which men went out to hunt animals, and women remained at a home-base and gathered agriculturally-grown food in the stereotypical determination of the breadwinning father and stay-at-home mom, and I believe the characteristics which made humans successful in that historical time period have been turned into stereotypes in the modern era.   For example, boys are socially, and possibly biologically, regarded as having “spatial skills” and are often given “blocks, construction toys, or...toy vehicles that can be tracked;” toys reminiscent of men’s traditional roles as shelter builders and precise archers who could track game (5).  Perhaps this association with men and precision is responsible for the association with boys being more apt at math and science, and the consequent wealth of pictures of boys playing with scientific equipment (chemistry set, microscope) and the numerical theme found in boys toy boxes (block sets highlighting the number of blocks included, number representation of toy car horsepower or engine statistics, sports statistics for athlete figurines).  This faulty notion was even recognized by Harvard University President Larry Summers in his speech on gender gap among top-tier tenured science professors, as he explained “men may have more "intrinsic aptitude" for high-level science,” while the Time Magazine issue on “Math Myths” dissected and disproved his hasty theory (7).  Perhaps the most telling example of this gender divide was found in the toy laptops targeted at the two genders.  The boy version of the laptop, named Nitrovision 80, helped to develop geometry and geography skills and included number puzzles, while the girl version, B-book Laptop, taught girls subjects pertaining to logic, music, and vocabulary.  Girls in North American society are stereotyped as “supportive, sensitive, and kind,” characteristics which align with the traditional role of caretaker, are enhanced by communication skills, so it is reasonable that games with an emphasis on interpersonal interactions (tea parties, sleepovers, dress up and hide and seek with talking baby dolls) and emotional exploration (diaries, telephones) are targeted at female children (6).  Talking baby dolls meant for a 5+ female demographic were especially eerie since they called their human playmate “mommy” and demanded things of her pertaining to food and diaper changing; this train little girls to want to procreate before they are even biologically capable of doing so. 

In a survey on college student beliefs about women, men were significantly more likely than women to agree that “women are manipulative” and that “all women want is money” (8).  Manipulation of appearance is certainly obvious in the abundance of female toys which touted makeup, brushes and mirrors- all tools meant to disguise oneself as something better than they naturally are or to project a calculated appearance.  One girl’s toy even consisted of one headless body with several female heads for the child to swap out.  Such a toy could be seen as sending the message that how you look relates to how others may perceive you and that encourages the notion that people judge one another’s value based on looks, not brains or personality.  The male perception of manipulation may stem from a sense that girls are sexual temptresses, a concept that is supported by the slew of female toys that strongly emphasize beauty and enhance attractiveness (vanity table, lip gloss).  Additionally, there was a strong theme around secrets in girls toys (words on packages included “come to a secret place” and many toys included “secret compartments”), while many boys toys concentrated on spy detection and decoding software and hardware (lie detector, walkie-talkies, binoculars, phone tapping device).  Additionally, many of the female gender stereotyped toys were overwhelmingly materialistic.  These included “full service” mini-scale spas, jewelry, and the latest fashion clothes.  Although there is research by Buunk et al. has found that “women desire a partner with a higher income than themselves, this does not suggest that women look for money above all” (9).  Dion and Dion point out that “men may feel this way since traditionally they have contributed more money to the relationship…women’s (and her children’s) standard of living is strongly affected by the husband and father” which influences the relationship between a man’s financial stability and his desirability (10).  Additionally, since “women still earn two-thirds of what men earn, and have fewer legitimate means of seizing power than men, [they] must resort to more deviant means to obtain it…Manipulation is one way a disadvantaged person gains control” (11).  A common male stereotype that exists which is relative to male and female romantic relationships is that while , “Men will initiate intimate relationships [and]…men who grow up being socialized to be active, assertive, and even aggressive are usually accustomed to being in control in most situations[,]…women will respond with permission or denial” (12).  This stereotype of men as participants in the relationship who pressure the women to go past as many bases as possible, or who are ‘fast’ and ‘in control’ was symbolic in many boy’s toys.  There was a huge emphasis on competition, speed, and control.  While many female child icons, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, were featured as friends in many Disney toys, male child icons, such as Superman and Batman, were pitted against each other, duking it out for supremacy.  This competitive theme may relate to the fact that boys must often compete for the attention of a girl or, with additional violent overtures (seen in army and wrestling toys) to the patriotic/ familial notion that a man must fight to protect his family.  Speed was evident in toys that emphasized the pressures of a ‘race,’ and especially in ‘fast’ car toys, such as Hot Wheels.  In fact, a toy called ‘Fast Lane’ advertised ‘You control the crash.  You control the speed.’  As Block suggested, “boys’ toys are more likely to provide feedback…[and] respond to a child’s manipulations on the controls” (13).  Examples of these include radio-controlled planes, video games, and electric trains, and it is safe to presume that experiences with these toys instill in boys a sense of empowerment.  The stereotypes of girls as patient recipients is reflected in the girls toys which involve something being done to the female figure/image, such as brushes and makeup for dolls, while the ability of men to penetrate can be seen reflected in construction toys that dig into the ground and rearrange the environment and message decoding games.

Three elements of packaging led me to easily detect which toys were aimed at boys and which were aimed at girls; color, typography/ words, and pictures.  Color selection for toy design and packaging associated toys that corresponded to the connotations of the colors used.  Colors commonly incorporated into boy’s toys were black, red, and blue. I observed black and red on most boys’ toys that had to do with aggression and speed.  According to the article “Color Symbolism,” which concentrates on the symbolism of colors in North America, black represents “modernity, power, wealth, anger, and mystery,” red represents “energy, masculinity, danger, strength, and aggression…[Also], studies show that red can have a physical effect, increasing the rate of respiration and raising blood pressure” (14)  Blue, representing, “conservatism, technology, and wisdom” appear the most in intellectual games and toys relating to science.  The hues of these colors tended to be flashy, energetic, and attention grabbing.  The typography chosen for text on masculine packaging was mostly large, bold, and boxed to give off the impression of fortitude.  Messages on boys toys often consisted of challenges like “Can you take the heat” and commands like “Rip ‘em Apart!”  Materials used for boys toys also often represented metal, and even the music emanating from boy’s toys had the hard and fast tempo of heavy metal.  Images on boy’s packaging were muscle men, heroes, and boys energetically enjoying with the toy usually with a friend against whom they were competing.  On science-related toys, if a girl was featured on the cover, she was usually gazing in wonderment at her boy companion actually controlling the object up for sale.  The most popular colors on female toys and packaging were purple, representing “sensuality, spirituality, arrogance, nobility, and ceremony”; blue, symbolic for “peace, unity, harmony, tranquility, cleanliness” ; green: “fertility, generosity, earth”; and pink, which stirred up emotions of “admiration, sympathy, and love” (14).  The tones of these colors tended to be powdery, pastel, and gentle.  I noticed an image of cleanliness in many of the girls toys including Snow White, sinks, brushes etc. and took it to represent chastity or virginity, as did the illustration of mermaids who lacked legs to spread apart.  According to Christopher Byrne, and independent toy analyst known as “The Toy Guy,” “Ariel, ‘The’ Little Mermaid, is consistently ranked as the favorite Disney princess by a majority of girls” (15).  Girls’ toys were made of soft plastic, tactile fabric, and long hair, probably to encourage them to handle object gently.   Fonts used for girls were thin, flowing, almost cursive, and had many loops and sparkles reminiscent of fantasy and romance.  Messages on feminine packaging mentioned “dreams,” “love,” and “emotions/feelings.”  All of the described packaging attributes unmistakably related to gender stereotypes.

Children are at a stage in life when they are searching for social and environmental messages and images that will help them create an identity.  Toys represent an ideal of what a child would like to become, since they hold their toys in high-esteem.  “There is research that does show that children’s toys and games do impact their development…[b]y playing with strongly stereotyped toys, girls can be expected to learn that appearance and attractiveness are central to their worth, and that nurturance and domestic skills are important to be developed.  Boys can be expected to learn that aggression, violence, and competition are fun, and that their toys are exciting and risky” (5).  There are several disadvantages to having children play with highly stereotyped toys.  In her article “Toy Advertising and the Impressionable Mind of Youth,” Casse Weaver philosophizes that “Toy advertising limits a child’s ability to discriminate between who they want to be and what they are told they should become.  This limited freedom in shaping their identity is going to have an impact upon their future.  The unresponsive and indifferent trend exhibited by teenagers of today may be due to an identity crisis caused by the inability to develop a character on their own during childhood.  Children must be given more freedom to determine who they are without the strong influences…” (16). After learning about all the varieties of transsexual and transgender individuals who exist, I must agree with Weaver’s assessment that rigid gender roles presented by toys and the media may stunt individuality and overall contentment for people who may be happiest crossing gender lines, but must risk being ostracized due to arbitrary preconceived gender stereotypes.  I think that this lack of flexibility and acceptance preached to kids at a young age is doing a disservice to society since, as we discussed today in class, other societies do not “waste people like whites do,” and in Native American and Indian cultures, third gendered people’s different perspectives on life add to the community and areas like creativity and arts and the marital realm.  Additionally, “both [heterosexual] boys’ and girls’ development could be enhanced by learning domestic skills, as well as by learning to build with construction toys…[and] developing educational, scientific, physical, artistic, and musical skills” (5).  For instance, although men were significantly more likely than women to agree with the statement “women not married by age 30 are unhappy or depressed,” other data suggests that “it is men, not women who suffer from being unmarried.  In a national study of 36, 142 individuals between the ages of 25 and 64, researchers compared the mortality of singles and married and found that unmarried males exhibited high mortality from social pathologies—accidents, suicide, homicide, and cirrhosis of the liver—and from diabetes, causes of death most affected by smoking, drinking, risk-taking behavior, and neglect of medical regimes,” and yet a desire for marriage is much stronger in feminine toys and girls are the ones stereotyped as desiring marriage and dreaming of their wedding day, well men view getting married as becoming tied down, when research actually shows that “marriage requires considerably more adjustment for women than for men” (8 ,17)  I think that for children’s gender development to change, simply giving a child more gender neutral toys without changing stereotypes and stigmas in society will not due very much.  It may even socially harm him/her since the child may not be socialized in a manner that will make him/her socially successful.  To work, parent’s attitudes need to change.  Basow notes “Parents serve as the initial and major socializing agents in society…For example, parents describe their newborns differentially with girls being described with respect to their appearance while boys are portrayed with respect to their physical abilities.”  In Christmas requests, “children reliably prefer toys deemed appropriate to their gender,” and avoid cross-sexed toys, in many cases attributed to parental preferences which have been modeled (18).  Peers need to all be on the same page so that a generation can grow together in fostering acceptance of multiple gender preferences, equality, freedom of choice, and ultimate success since our text stated that androgynous people have a larger repertoire of roles to choose from and fit into a variety of situations, resulting in greater self-contentment.  Even if a specific community, as a whole, is more accepting of gender differences, there is no guarantee that there will be a relationship between toys and gender stereotyping.  In a study “Zammunder examined the toy preferences of Italian and Dutch children and found empirical support for the notion that children’s toy preferences reflect the social view of gender differences.  Italian children’s preferences were more gender-typed and this was interpreted as a reflection of more gender-typed social attitudes in Italy than those found in the Netherlands” (19).  However, Inglehart and Norris  reported results from a “cross national analysis of attitudes toward gender equality in 61 countries and Sweden and Finland ranked as the most egalitarian countries”, and since researchers thought that children’s toy preferences and collections reflected social attitudes, they expected to find less gender-typed toy collections in Sweden (20).  According to this follow up study, surprisingly, “Swedish children’s toy collections do not appear to be less gender-typed than toy collections and toy preferences found in previous research in other countries” (19).


(1) The American freshman: National norms for fall, 2002.
by American Council on Education and University of California.
(Fall 2002)
Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute. U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. 93-1

(2) Qualitative differences among gender-stereotyped toys: Implications for cognitive and social development in         
girls and boys
by C.L. Miller
Sex Roles, 16, 473-487.

(3) The decision to remain single: Implications for women across cultures
by P.A. Gordon
Journal of Mental Health Counseling 25: 33-44.

(4) Men’s and Women’s Perceptions of the Gender Typing of Management Subroles
by Leanne E. Atwater, Joan F. Brett, David Waldman, Lesley DiMare, Mary Virginia Hayden
(February 2004)
Sex Roles: A Journal of Research

(5) Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys
by Judith E. Owen Blakemore
(November 2005)
Sex Roles: A Journal of Research

 (6) Sex bias in work settings: The lack of fit model
by M.E. Heilman
Research in Organizational Behavior, 5, 269-298.

(7) Who Says A Woman Can’t be Einstein?
by Amanda Ripley, Research by Coco Masters
(February 27, 2005)
Time Magazine

(8) College student beliefs about women: some gender differences
by Andrea McNeely
(December 2005)
College Student Journal

(9) Age and gender differences in mate selection criteria for various involvement levels.
by B.P. Buunk, P. Dijkstra, D. Fetchenhauer, et al.
Personal Relationships 9:271-278.

(10) Psychological Individualism and Romantic Love
by K.K. Dion and K.L. Dion
Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 6: 17-33.

(11) The Pay Gap between Male and Female Jobs: Organizational and Legal Realities
by P. England
Law & Social Inquiry 25: 913-931.

(12) Our Sexuality, 9th Edition
By Robert Crooks and Karla Baur
Thomson Learning, Inc.: 75

(13) Differential premises arising from differential socialization of the sexes: Some conjectures.
By J.H. Block
Child Development, 54, 1335-1354.

(14) Color Symbolism
(February 2, 2007)

(15) Review: The Little Mermaid Magical Talking Salon
by Christopher Byrne
(September 2006)
< http://www.thetoyguy.com/toyreviews/lit_mermaid_salon.html>

(16) Toy Advertising and the Impressionable Mind of Youth
by Casse Weaver
(February 14, 1996)

(18) Gender: Stereotypes and roles (3rd ed.)
by S.A. Basow
Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

(19) Children’s Toy Collection in Sweden- a less gender-typed country?
by Anders Nelson
(January 2005)
Sex Roles: A Journal of Research

(20) Rising tide--Gender equality and cultural change around the world
by R. Inglehart and P. Norris
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

No comments: