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“The Other 50 Per Cent” : Gender socialisation through toys

You can read in many a sociology or women’s studies textbook that gender, unlike sex, is a socially constructed phenomenon. Where sex refers to the physical, biological state of having female or male genitals, hormones etc; gender is much more complex and multifaceted, involving layers upon layers of social norms, regulations, stigma and stereotypes. Gender is a synthesis of social meanings attributed to the state of existing as male or female, resulting in the categories of masculine or feminine, which vary widely depending on culture and historical context. A main aspect of gender is that it is something we learn over time and then perform according the gendered cultural script we have learned. Because gender is something we do, rather than something we innately are, we use things to help us perform and embody our socialized femininity or masculinity. These things include clothes and other bodily adornments, cosmetics and grooming styles and material possessions. Thus, we do our gender with the help of technologies that our culture has produced and imbued with certain gendered meanings and codes that inform both others and ourselves of where we fit in the gender order.

As gender is something we are taught from an incredibly early age, toys play a major role in the gender socialization of children. Traditional sex role theories claim that little boys and little girls learn to emulate the gender roles of their same gendered parent. Thus, little boys are taught to play with cars, trains, guns, action figures and tools, while little girls are taught to play with dolls, stuffed animals, dress ups and home-maker play sets. This sort of early socialization can establish lifelong performances of gender roles that feel like they are ‘natural’ when they are really carefully crafted tactics to uphold the gender regime. I must acknowledge here that individuals are not blind and inactive in their socialization. Boys and girls oscillate between traditional gender stereotypes and there is scope for difference, now more so than in the past. Moreover, toy manufacturing companies do not knowingly perpetuate traditional gender stereotypes with an intention to syphon the submissive pinks from the dominant blues, the individuals involved also exist within a gendered system that they themselves are not consciously aware of.

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I was interested to write this blog because I am constantly frustrated by the ridiculous gender stereotyping (and possible resulting inequality) in toy catalogues. As an adult looking at them as objectively as I can, the ‘Boy’s Toys’ always look far more interesting, developed and complex, with a range of options for different ages and interests. Conversely, the ‘Girl’s Toys’ seem not to differentiate much by the age group and are all fairly similarly themed around fashion, beauty, families/babies, pets and being a princess. My gripe is best personified in the 2012 ‘Lego Friends’ range.

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Lego is an iconic and much loved children’s toy regardless of gender, it helps develop motor skills, problem solving, strategy and creativity through construction. However, it is clear that the majority of Lego is surreptitiously targeted at boys. Friends is Lego’s most recent attempt to “reach the other 50 per cent of the world’s children,” following past sets of ‘girl Lego’ such as ‘Belville’ from the 90’s that never really took off. There are a number of aspects of this new Lego that I find jarring, for example, although extensive market research went into the development of the product, it still came out with a stereotypical and unremarkable girl’s toy. The Friends sets feature pastel colours (pink), unrealistic childlike buildings (in comparison to the City range for the same age bracket for boys), predominantly domestic, beauty or service industry scenes, and bigger doll-like minifigures.Image

The minifigures in the series also have names and qualities attributed to them, not unlike Bratz or other dolls. For example, Olivia is ‘the smart girl’ who likes to create inventions in her workshop. Although I do appreciate this, along with the karate set and the magician set, these just seem like politically correct tokens thrown in to shut the feminists up. “But we have a girl engineer!” I can hear their counter argument to my opinion that these toys merely perpetuate stereotypes of submissive hyper-femininity. Yes, your product is so ground-breakingly progressive and gender atypical, with its Butterfly Beauty Shop.

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I don’t want to sound completely negative: I’m not condemning any young girls who like toys like this to complete pinkified antifeminist stupidity or anything. I fully recognise that some girls just like to be ultra feminine and that’s fine. I just think it would be great to have more choice in mainstream toys, especially considering that we are no longer in a society in which women’s sole existence revolves around domestic, familial and materialistic spheres. I also disagree with the trend in toys like Lego where boy’s toys can claim to be gender neutral, but girls’ toys are only for girls. This system socialises girls into a world where to be a man is the default state of humanity, and being a woman is an exception, or Other.

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About JohnnyCigar

My name is Ruby and I'm a Gender Studies major at the University of Tasmania, Australia, with a special interest in gender, sexuality and technology. I also enjoy books with a bit of attitude, American TV with sex, violence and preferably a car chase, tea with no sugar, and a flawless WiFi connection.

4 responses to ““The Other 50 Per Cent” : Gender socialisation through toys

  1. Jamie ⋅

    How is the girl in a laboratory so progressive? More than half biology- and chemistry students are women…

    • Hey Jamie, I fully recognise that the concept of women engaging with sciences and technology in general isn’t revolutionary in itself. However, in terms of gendered children’s toys which on average tend to market the most stereotypical gender roles possible, a girl in a lab is a step in the right direction. Particularly considering your point that more than half of those enrolled in biology and chemistry subjects are women, it would be great to see more toys aimed at girls (and boys) which represent social realities rather than dumbed down, cartoons of outdated prescriptive gender roles (eg. pink/purple kitchens, beauty parlours, baby change tables etc).

  2. Pingback: iDentity: Constructing Gender Through Apps and 4G Technology | Rise Of The Fembots

  3. Christina ⋅

    Legos also upset me quite a bit. I read an article regarding game play that asserts that boys are a better target for toys as opposed to girls. The rationale is that there is a lag period between when a girl plays with dolls and moves onto clothes and makeup- thus eliminating a huge marketing group; whereas, boys tend to maintain interest in toys at some level well into their teenage years. I don’t know if the explanation is sensible, but the article continued to comment that boys are a much more solid market that pays off and that regardless of efforts girls toys just do not sell as well.

    For more on the inequality that exists among toys read: Tech Work by Heart by Brenda Laurel

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