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Doug Sutton-Ramspeck / WI02
Bob the Builder or Barbie: The Promotion of Gender Roles Before Adolescence
Jennifer Scanlon analyzes four popular board games for preteen girls in her essay, “Boys-R-Us: Board Games and the Socialization of Young Adolescent Girls.” She describes the attributes of each game in great detail and concludes, “these sex-stereotyped games promote damaging stereotypes, passive rather than active play, and skills that fall short of girls’ cognitive abilities” (480). The characters in each of the games are portrayed in limited gender-specific roles and promote male, race, wealth, and heterosexual privilege in our society. Based on the fact that the objective in the majority of these games is to get a boyfriend, Scanlon suggests that young girls are being taught subservience to men and forming a personal identity based on relationships with men. She concludes by stating, “these board games…frame a world of limited possibilities for girls” (480).
I agree with most of Scanlon’s arguments in her essay about the dangers of gender-specific games during the formative years of female adolescence. Games such as these seem innocent to parents and even cool to their intended audience. But the messages that sex-stereotyped games are sending can be damaging to the self and gender-perception of adolescent girls. Gender specific stereotypes can become rooted in a maturing, young girl’s mind and have a negative affect on her sense of self worth and personal abilities. The portion of Scanlon’s essay that I disagree with is the statement, “the least gender-specific toys and games in the stores are, arguably, those in the baby and toddler section” (472). My theory is that children are taught appropriate gender role behaviors through play long before they reach adolescence. Our society labels babies as boys or girls from the moment the pink or blue cap is placed on their newborn heads at the hospital. And from then on society tries to mold them into stereotypical men and women with every toy offered.
To illustrate this point I researched toy retailers on the Internet and chose to analyze the toys advertised at Toysrus.com. Toys R Us has recently opened “The Center of the Toy Universe” in Times Square, New York, advertised as the world’s largest toy store. The company is currently reorganizing, and predicts pre-tax earnings of $25 million in 2002. The home page for Toysrus.com features prominent links for “Great Gifts for Boys” and “Great Gifts for Girls,” setting the stage for gender specific toy selections. The banner headings for each web page category featured photographs of children. I noticed that the photos of boys, on the “Great Gifts for Boys” page, showed active, intellectual play. Two boys were looking at an atlas together and another was shown playfully wearing a ball cap backward. In contrast, the photographs on the girls’ page included only the faces of several pretty girls with long hair, not engaged in any play or academic activity. The largest title heading on the girls’ page was not a surprise. “The World of Barbie” was the first suggested gift. The boys’ page, on the other hand, featured a Smithsonian frog lab kit under the heading, “Science and Nature.” Young girls are directed to look beautiful and practice dressing and accessorizing by playing with Barbie, while boys are encouraged to use deep level thinking to explore nature.
The remainder of the toys offered on the opening web page for “Great Gifts for Girls” were also stereotypical like the featured Barbie. They included a Pretend and Play dress up kit, Barbie bed and playhouse, and Dream Dazzler doll and dollhouse. One selection that encouraged physical activity was a Huffy bicycle. I would not have counted it as a sex-typed toy if it had not have been Pepto Bismol pink with fringe hanging from the handlebars. Both the boys’ and girls’ pages featured an “Arts and Crafts” heading, but the girls’ suggested project was labeled “Pretty Dresser kit” while the boys’ project was a Home Depot 50 piece mechanics tool set. The other gifts for boys included Batman Mega vehicles, Transformer robots, a fire engine, and various action figures, including a WWII Ultimate infantry soldier. The term “action figure” itself stereotypes gender behavior. Action figures are marketed mainly for boys. Are toy companies suggesting that girls should not be active? Another prominent product on the boys’ page was video games, in particular, Game Boy Advance. Although some may argue that these games do more damage than good during childhood, at least they require some cognitive thought. Again, the name Game “Boy” says it all. Girls are subtly directed away.
After viewing the two gender specific categories, I then searched for gifts by age. I did not expect blatantly stereotypical toys at the toddler level, but I was shocked at the groupings of products that I found. The “Great Gifts for Boys” page featured 29 toys recommended for 2 year-olds. The girls’ page listed 41 gifts and there was no overlap between the groups. Out of 70 different products, Toys R Us does not feel that any of them are suitable for both genders.
The toys posted in the boys’ category featured physical action and work-related playthings. The ride-on toys included a tractor, police car, Fix-It racer, fire truck, and a dump truck. Bob the Builder sets were plentiful, as well as power tool sets and train sets. The girls’ page looked like an advertisement for Future Homemakers of America. The first few rows of products contained a Cook ‘n Clean kitchen, Lil Chef supermarket and shopping cart, refrigerator, stove, and every imaginable piece of furniture and equipment needed to take care of a baby doll. The ride-on toys for girls were again very gender-specific. A Pretty Princess Pedal bike and a Barbie trike represented the girls’ choices for active physical play. The pink Push Around Buggy suggests that girls should not drive, just push carts around the grocery store. Another poor attempt by toy manufacturers to try to break stereotypical trends in their products is the Powerpuff line of toys and clothes for girls. The name looks good on paper, but how much power are we actually giving young girls if we have to use the word “puff” after it? The soldier on the boys’ page certainly was not named the ultimate Powerpuff infantryman.
All of these housekeeping and work-related toys offer great creative potential for developing social role-play in two-year-olds. The problem lies in the fact that we do not offer young boys opportunities to play house or young girls the chance to fix their own trikes. Gender-specific toys mold children’s perceptions of their expected role in society. And if we start this process at such a young age, we will have molded our children into stereotypical citizens very well by the time they are adolescents. The board games that Jennifer Scanlon writes about will only serve to reinforce the gender perceptions children have already learned. In order to raise caring men and assertive women the practice of labeling toys for gender-specific play needs to stop. But as long as babies are wearing their pink or blue booties, that day will probably never come.
Scanlon, Jennifer. Boys-R-Us: Board Games and the Socialization of Young Adolescent Girls. Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Maasik, Sonia, and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 472-480.
Toysrus.com. Copyright 1996-2002 Amazon.com, Inc. 2 Mar. 2002. <http://www.toysrus.com
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