Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Now let's be good little gendered boys and girls...

Writing Assignment Number One

The word "toys" instantly conjures images of blocks and Legos, Barbie's dream house, and a few GI Joes into my head. This thought is instantly followed by one saying ToysRUs is a great place to get anything a child could want. And why wouldn't I think this? I was raised on products purchased from this mega store and in a gendered society that makes me understand very clearly what toys I "could" or "could not" play with. I figured that I could find everything Allen, my imaginary ten year old friend, would want, at ToysRUs. As an fan of football, matchbox cars, computer racing games, and baseball, he seemed to fit the bill pretty perfectly for your "normal" 10 year old boy growing up in New Jersey. This generalization on my part clearly fits right into the very thing we are trying to resist: there is a powerful and persuasive assumption that toys are supposed to be gendered because boys and girls like different things, act in different ways, and should be raised differently.

When I started my hunt on the ToysRUs website, I know I went in with a bias. From the way I have seen this toy store and others organized in the past, I know that there are often very clear divisions of the boy toys and the girl toys. When you see any thing heavy duty or even perhaps malicious, you can be pretty certain you have entered the world of boys toys, but when things start to turn pink, frilly, and delicate, you have entered the equally terrifying world of girls toys. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the first thing ToysRUs. com asked you as you narrowed your search was not gender related, but age oriented. I gladly clicked on the 8-11 year old section and the small bubble of hope I had built for the world was shot down again as I saw that it was indeed divided by gender. Still, I hold out hope, as this isn't the only category you can use to help you shop. You can search by category, brand, price, and so on, which makes me think, or perhaps just dream, that maybe people are at least trying to not make the world of toys such a gendered one.

The toys found on the site designated for boys were, for the most part, related to athletics, video games, cars, building, and action figures. Any of the "doll" like toys seen were not really like dolls at all, except in the characteristics that they perhaps stood up on their own or had human faces. They were all male, mostly based on comic book heroes or sports stars, and never soft or cuddly. These figures clearly state some of the most basic "principles" our society promotes regarding boys and their development. They are shown the people they are supposed to look up to, whether it be the wealthy and successful sports star or the almighty and invincible comic book hero. They are shown that male children can only play with dolls that are male, lest they be seen as girly and effeminate. The rough and tough exterior of each of these figurines reflects the rough and tough exterior real life little boys are taught to develop - one that does not let them cry or feel compassion or pain.

This creation of gender stereotypes for toys, and therefore for the kids that play with them, often goes under the radar, as people take it as "normal". The social ideology of hegemony as James Lull defines it fits in well with this normalization of gendered toys. Lull defines hegemony as "the power or dominance that one social group holds over others (Lull, 61). He explains that this power is presented as "normal", much in the way gendered toys are presented as normal, so that no one feels the need to challenge the stereotypes. Logging on to the ToysRUs website and seeing the choice of boy toys or girl toys is just one example of the way that our society puts forth it's ideologies of hegemony even for children to follow. Most boy toys are stronger, sturdier, and bigger than most girl toys, just as grown men are seen as stronger and therefore dominant over women. Toys are also made into symbols of societal beliefs, projecting on to children the ways they should behave and the gender they should fall into. David Newman explains that symbols, although arbitrary and wholly human created, have a very powerful impact on our thinking and emotions (Newman, 74). The fact that boy toys are so rough, meant to withstand harsher play and lacking in the ability to comfortably cuddle with them or treat them in a "feminine" and compassionate way, generates the perception that boys must act this way too. They are, in essence, expected to grow up to be like their toys. These "innocent" symbols that children and parents so callously toss around are actually very representative of the way society makes sure you will grow up gendered.

Since I was disappointed (although not surprised) by the choices of toys for boys, I went instead to the section labeled "both" to find a gender neutral toy that Allen might like. The toy choices here were mostly board games, computer games, or educational material. Very few correlated to a specific topic of interest, like sports or dolls. They were all very gender neutral, relating to TV shows and real life models that both boys and girls could look to without seeming odd or queer. None of the things our society generally correlates with little girls or little boys showed up on this page, promoting the idea that those toys must stay with their particular and predefined gender.

I wonder why I feel so upset with society after doing this project. It is not like I didn't expect to find toys to be gendered. Perhaps I had hoped that the stereotypical ideas of gendered toys were just that - stereotypes, meaning they didn't really exist as forcibly as we think and could be changed. Or maybe I was wishing that the world of toys had evolved some since the time when I was a child to reflect the fact that boys and girls in our society today may not want to be the "perfectly normal" boys and girls we imagine, and instead want to be themselves. Neither of these things turned out to be true. Children's toys are still a horribly gendered arena. Strides have been made since my childhood, but there is much more still to be done if we really want to be able to call ourselves an accepting society and raise our children in a world that lets them play with whatever they want and be whomever they want.


Lull, James. Hegemony. In Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text Reader, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez, 61-66. California: Sage Publications, 2003.

Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2007.

Transformers Action Figure: http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2535023&cp=2255956.2269725.2269731&fbn=Boy+Girl%7CBoys&f=PAD%2FTRU+Age+Filter%2F8-11+Years&f=PAD%2FBoy+Girl%2FBoys&fbc=1&categoryId=2269731&parentPage=search

Madden Football Game for Nintendo Wii: http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2667199&cp=2255956.2269725.2269731&pg=4&fbn=Boy+Girl%7CBoys&f=PAD%2FTRU+Age+Filter%2F8-11+Years&f=PAD%2FBoy+Girl%2FBoys&fbc=1&categoryId=2269731&parentPage=search

Operation: http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2267249&cp=2255956.2269725.2269731&pg=1&fbn=Boy+Girl%7CBoth&f=PAD%2FTRU+Age+Filter%2F8-11+Years&f=PAD%2FBoy+Girl%2FBoth&fbc=1&categoryId=2269731&parentPage=search