Lisa Wade, Assistant Professor of sociology at Occidental College, recently put up a quick post at the always enlightening blog Sociological Images, about how some toy websites' "gift finders" will demand that you specify whether you're looking for a boy or a girl before you begin browsing. (Heaven forbid you confuse your three-year-old nephew with pastel-colored building blocks!) Today, she followed up by finding out what happens when you click one or the other at Toys R Us, the largest U.S. toy chain. The results she got were "rather fascinating."
First, you're asked to pick a "personality type," and somewhat surprisingly, the options are almost the same for boys and girls -- "adventurous," "creative," "sporty," "techie," "smarty pants," and "outdoorsy" -- although "glamour girl" is an extra category for the young ladies. The serious overthinker will note from the illustrations that paddling translates to "adventurous" for girls and merely "outdoorsy" for boys, while adventurous boys are into space travel and outdoorsy girls are into backyard swingsets. Of course. Also, "creative" girls paint butterflies while their male counterparts paint giraffes, and -- just to get in a little extra early stereotyping -- the "techies" are a cute blond female and an Asian male. But I digress. We are not even at the disturbing part yet! Next, you're asked to choose the child's interests from categories that, as Wade notes, are exactly the same ("animals & nature," "cars, trucks, trains, planes," "music," "building" and "gaming") for both boys and girls. "So, why even ask about gender?" Wade wondered. She plugged in "techie" and "building" for both gender options, ages 12-14, and found out.
"Someone somewhere observed that when it came to technology, there was a stereotype that men were the engineers and designers and women were the consumers and users," she writes. "Well, that's essentially what Toys R Us told me." The top results for boy techie-builders were "13 building/engineering games (like Lego and KNEX), 3 ipod accessories, 4 portable DVD players, 2 MP3 players, and a few other things." For girls, the first results included "Seven ipod accessories, 5 portable DVD players, 4 MP3 players, 3 laptop computers, 3 cameras, and one building/engineering game. One." (I'd also like to note that a full 25 percent of the offerings for girls are pink.) "Sure enough," Wade concludes, "Toys R Us confirms that girls may like technology, but boys build it."
I couldn't resist running my own experiment -- this time using the same ages, but plugging in "adventurous" and "gaming." The top results in that case appear far more similar, I'll give them that -- except that the search returns 85 "boy" items and only 56 "girl" ones. (And one of the 56 is a real thing called "Jenga Pink Girl Talk.") How about 8-11 years old, "sporty," and into "cars, trucks, planes and trains"? 311 items for boys, 48 for girls! Next up: ages 8-11, "creative," into "animals and nature." That yields only 37 items for boys but 86 for girls. Among the first 24 results for each, one group has: eight items from the Barbie "Fashion Fever" collection, a bunch of adorable stuffed animals, two easels, and a "Playmobil Egypt playset," whatever that is. The other has one easel, two swords, one gun, two things involving bugs, five things involving dinosaurs, police officer and firefighter uniforms, a telescope, and some other crap. I'll let you go ahead and guess which is which.
Yes, it's only one website, and no, there's nothing stopping consumers from buying a firefighter costume for a girl or a Dream Dazzler So Chic! Salon Stylist belt for a boy. Still, the segregation reinforces not only a false and restrictive gender binary but the impression that, as Wade wrote in an earlier post:
Femininity is just for chicks. When men do feminine things, they are debasing themselves. Masculinity is awesome and for everyone. When women do masculine things, they're awesome. This is sexism: Masculinity rules, femininity drools. Men are encouraged to stay away from femininity, so their individual choices are constrained, but they also are staying away from something debasing. In contrast, women are required to do a least some femininity, so women are required to debase themselves, at least a little bit, even as they are given more options.
So at least sporty girls who like motorized vehicles do get their 48 options, but the boys who'd most accurately be described as "glamour girls" -- and the kids who don't feel comfortable fulfilling either of the expected gender roles -- are completely S.O.L.
Making matters worse, kids who are socialized to accept strict gender roles often grow up to be parents who enforce them -- and although girls acting masculine are still generally seen as cooler (or at least less debased) than boys acting feminine, there's resistance to the former as well. In comments on another recent Sociological Images post, someone claiming to work in marketing for a toy company writes, "A lot of toys I see as gender neutral, we are marketing towards boys and then we discuss making a girls version -- which inevitably ends up being something to groom girls into being housewives, like a shopping cart vs. a boat or something. The issue is, this is what a lot of mothers want for their daughters too, and they won't buy 'boy toys' for their girls. So when we do make an effort to produce something for both boys and girls, we don't see any return on that." And the cycle continues.
I'm not saying, of course, that gendered toys by themselves will automatically turn kids into gender-policing adults, or that every kid should only play with wooden blocks and chemistry sets, or that pink toys should be outlawed; I was a dress-wearing, unicorn-loving girly-girl who grew up to be a humorless feminist blogger, and I don't think a Barbie will necessarily make a girl self-loathing and submissive any more than my Easy Bake Oven made me a good cook. (And yes, by the way, I've heard the "boys will make a stick into a gun and girls will make a rock into a baby doll" argument about 5 million times.) Toys are only one element of gender socialization, and there are plenty of more disturbing ones out there. But I am saying that well over 30 years after William had to beg his sexist parents for a doll in "Free to Be... You and Me," it seems like we should have made a little more progress.