Monday, October 1, 2007

Toy Shopping: Gendered Consumers/Engendering Consumerism

As soon as a child leaves its mother's womb, it is born into a world that believes he/she should fit into one of two gender based stereotypes, male or female. If the child is not "instructed" into which gender role he or she should fill, the result is often ostracism from everyday occurrences such as playing with school mates and other social norms. The stereotyping of everyday life is compounded by everything, either subtly or blatantly; for example, having both boys and girls sports teams, and the more subtle aspects of life, such as toy shopping.

As children grow and begin to find, or rather identify, themselves based on these cultural stereotypes (which suggests “that the way the sexes are shown in is the usual and appropriate arrangement,” [Henley and Freeman, 84]), it becomes increasingly simple to determine that such subtle acts have a significant impact on the child's life. And when children are young, toys are one of the main agents of socialization; therefore, they have quite a significant impact on the way children see the world. Toys directly influence gender socialization, and to depict its severity the author, (I) went shopping for a theoretical nine year old girl named Steph. Steph has an array of toys she would like, ranging from typical “girls” toys, such as dolls, to more “unisex” toys, such as, board games.

Upon working my way through the various channels of the aisles of the toy store Toys R Us, I found myself looking at how different items were being advertised. Those being advertised to girls (my depiction of what was “feminine”) were typically brightly colored, soft, or domesticating and “instill in legions of little girls a preference for,” (Gilman, 73) these roles. To further delve deeper into the inner workings of one of the most popular outlets for toy purchases I asked an employee what a “typical” nine year old girl would be interested in. Without fail she directed me to the area where my previous conceptions were now confirmed. When I asked why she did not direct me to a different area of the store she said “this is where the girls’ toys are,” I thanked her, and went about finding toys for Steph.

Steph, for the most part, fits the “typical” nine year old girl. She enjoys playing with dolls, kitchen sets, tea sets, and board games. The only thing about her that would be “atypical” by a patriarchal viewpoint was that the board game she was most interested in is Monopoly. Buying and selling property is normatively viewed as a shrewd market, one not settled into by women; however, to make this game more appealing to females there are countless different varieties of the game, and as I asked another worker she pointed out a Disney Princess version of the game. By seeing that girls’ toys are generally geared towards domesticating women at a young age, and unisex toys have different versions depending on whether the buyer is male or female, it can be seen that today’s society is still patriarchal.

Toys allow people to see what is expected of them in society, and therefore what society sees as valuable assets. For girls society sees them as kind and nurturing, motherly stay at home types, which accounts for the high probability of finding a tea set or a doll in almost every girl’s room you enter. On the other hand, our society does not dictate that they be strong or competitive, in other words, they teach young people what society wants them to be, not what they want themselves to be. Girls are taught from a young age via the media and other agents of socialization; they have a place in the world, but that place is the home, which could lead to dissatisfaction, if they do not enjoy what society dictates for them. This brings up a very crucial point, if children do not adhere to society’s demands they are overlooked and outcast.

Finally I set out to find a gender neutral toy; one that I believed could in no way be biased towards one gender or another, sadly I found very few. The toys that were to be initially considered were the board games, but looking at the depictions of men and women in the classic game of Clue, led to its “toss out”, similar conclusions were reached about other board games as well, and then I thought about playing cards, but they too signified gender superiority. I found the card game Uno to be a neutral game only because there is no gender basis for the value of each card, only numerical.

To conclude, the demand of society for women to be submissive is apparent in all aspects of the world, including toys. Direct examples of which include domesticating play sets and baby dolls, whereas indirect examples include the “feminine” versions of the popular game Monopoly. The former toys are important to advertise to girls because society sees these qualities as valuable in girls. The advertisements help to “spread the word” so to speak about how women should act, and to get young girls to believe this as early as possible. As the children get older, the stronger the dichotomy between the sexes becomes. And, if the children do not display the stereotyped interests, they are seen as awkward and as a misfit, but thinking for oneself should hardly be considered awkward.

Works Cited
Gilman, Susan J. "Klaus Barbie and Other Dolls I'd Like to See." 72-75.
Kellner, Douglas. Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publicaions, 2003. 9-20.