Friday, September 18, 2009

pink toys-- eww, say boys

Our discussion today of children’s reactions to gendered toys interested me. We had discussed the color pink, the messages it sends little girls when we buy pink toys and clothing and bicycles for them, and toys in general. We discussed a little girl playing with Legos, which are often considered a boy’s toy, and we discussed a little boy playing with dolls and other feminine-gender associated toys. We discussed our own personal experiences with toys, and pink, and whether we had gendered reactions to the toys and clothes we played with and wore.

My own personal experience, as I mentioned in class, was that I was raised with toys traditionally gendered for girls, for boys and neutral gendered toys like stuffed animals. The way I played with the toys, however, betrays my own culture of care and interpersonal relationships: cars did not go “vroom”, they went “hello Barbie, how are you today?” I anthropomorphized not only my stuffed animals but my trucks, my miniature airplanes and even lego creations. Was this a “girly” reaction? Maybe it was, although it should be noted that I never once played with baby dolls pretending to be the mother.

So how do children in general react to and play with toys? I found two interesting and scholarly articles that dealt with the subject to a certain extent. First, I found an article detailing reactions of children to a commercial for a gender-neutral novel toy. The girls and boys who saw the commercial showing the same gender playing with the toy wanted to play with it more. The girls and boys who saw the opposite gender playing with it didn’t find it so appealing. A third category of children simply liked playing with the toy once they saw it on tv. This category was of children who were not yet gender conscious: children who answered poorly to questions about gender (e.g. “is that a man or a woman?” or “when you grow up, will you be a mommy or a daddy?”). Another article, similar to the first but without a commercial, details boys’ and girls’ reactions to toys they are told are “for girls” or “for boys”. Not only did they want to play with the toys they are told are for them, but when they found a toy they themselves liked well, they reasoned that others of the same gender would like it too and others of the opposite sex would not.

The end results of the articles? Children have notions of gender at very early ages: from preschool or at the latest, kindergarten or first grade. They also have strong feelings of difference from the opposite gender, even to the point of assuming that if they like a toy, that a member of the opposite sex would not like that same toy. They are heavily influenced by what they see other children doing, and identify with those of the same sex much more than the opposite. Thus, what we tell children and what they see in real life and television both needs to be very gender neutral if we want to show them that the world is their oyster and they need not be identical to every other child of the same sex.

After all that, I want to spend a second on pink. Pink has been a gendered color since when? I don’t know. But today it is associated with women, for better and for worse. For worse: it is a stereotype of the girly girl who is weak and intellectually stagnated. For better: it is Reese Witherspoon’s color as she aces the LSATs in “Legally Blonde” and goes on to work for a senator after law school. Can we take back the color not just in the fight for breast cancer but as a symbol of universal solidarity between women? Or is pink relegated always to Barbie’s color and unattainable ridiculous standards of beauty? I’m hoping for the former. But it seems like a question of balance to me, that just as I was raised with Barbie in her pink Corvette and He-Man too, I hope that we can raise our children exposed to every facet of society, not just the pink parts, and not just the non-pink parts as well.


Eve said...

I think it is problematic to call any toy "gender neutral" because it presupposes that anything can be degendered. Rather than focusing on neutrality, an unattainable goal, parents should discuss with children the social construction of gender. They should explain not only that there are no "girl colors" and "boy colors", but also that liking a particular color should have no bearing on their perceived gender expression.

Anne Kildare said...

It's a shame that toys reinforce so many negative gender stereotypes. Your post reminded me of a controversy from the mid-1990's.

In 1992, Mattel introduced "Teen Talk Barbie." Amongst other vapid comments, Teen Talk Barbie said, "Math class is tough!" The Barbie sparked public outrage and Mattel quickly removed the controversial comment from Barbie's repertoire.

If you want to read more about the Teen Talk Barbie fiasco, check out this New York Times Article:

Kathleen said...

Even though you may have been playing with toys stereotypically associated with boys as well as girls, it sounds like your method of play still fell on the stereotypically feminine side of the spectrum. I just came across this ( short article about how “girl toys” are more associated with magic while “boy toys” are more associated with technology and how things work (in terms of the way they are marketed). That may partially explain why, in your childhood experience, dolls could talk, but trucks and planes could talk too. Because girl/feminine play falls outside the bounds of reality, any of your toys can do anything you want them to. However, toys “for boys” are supposed to be more attractive to them to the extent that they can figure out why and how they work. Since dolls really only “come to life” or “work” to the extent you imagine they can, that may be part of the reason that boys are not as attracted to them.

The article further posits this marketing gap may solidify gender roles/play so deeply that it dictates later interests. It suggests that this advertising disparity may be one cause of the disproportionately small number of women in technology fields. It gets overwhelming quickly to consider advertisers, toy-makers, and other outside sources and the deep effect they can have on our core development as gendered persons.

student said...

Troubled by this "pink" debate, I called the "girliest" four-year-old I know the other day. I don't know how this child ended up so girly, which makes me like her more. Given her family, her "girliness" seems so independent and rebellious. Her mother, a former professional athlete who now coaches a division one team, also wonders where her daughter picked up this propensity for tidiness and passion for rainbows.

Our conversation went like this: I asked girly-girl about what she's been drawing lately (butterflies, hearts, and rainbows), and what her favorite animal is (dolphin), what her favorite food is (burritos, but the family went to In-N-Out for her birthday because she knows her older brother really likes cheeseburgers), and finally, what her favorite color is. Blue.

I found myself hoping that she liked blue for the right reasons. And that when pre-school starts, she will still like blue because she associates it with dolphins, and not turn to pink because of its association with girls.

Anon5 said...

The empirical data that you found in regard to how children form ideas of gender in response to the toys they play with and what they are told about the toys is really striking. As we discussed in class, it would be difficult to regulate the marketing of toys to children because of First Amendment issues, but I wonder if one day there actually will be enough sensitivity in the marketplace that consumers will refuse to buy toys that reinforce gender stereotypes. I think it would certainly take a lot of education. But progress has been made in other arenas to protect kids, such as getting junk food out of public schools, and that was in spite of a lot of resistance from large corporations. Maybe we can progress in this context as well.