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Gender stereotypes in children's toys and media

By Julia Leask

Illustration by Renee Klahr

As we progressed through the lectures in my social psychology and human sexuality classes I realized that I am almost every stereotype about females, girls, women, that we have discussed. I am passive in most arguments, really every social situation, and incredibly indecisive about simple things like choosing what/where to eat. I hate the idea of ever having children or even a house, yet I still find babysitting jobs the easiest to secure. I preach women’s empowerment and the fact that I do not believe in gender, yet I will never ask a guy out. All these oppressive implicit thoughts and behaviors forming my identity accumulated from observing my surroundings: I am a product of a sexist society.

Sexism seems inescapable: children are brought up watching shows that portray girls and women as second rate citizens, we have two (gendered) aisles for toys, men and women need to use different bathrooms and shop in different departments for clothes. It seems impossible to incorporate everyone as equals unless there is a crucial shift from our binary system, and this starts with how children are raised and taught.

In 2016, the Obama administration hosted a conference called, “Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Media and Toys.” The goal of the conference was to bring together different toy companies, media executives, and researchers to discuss the effects of gender typed toys. The general consensus from the conference’s participants was that children are primed by societal pressures and models to pick toys associated with one of only two gender options, usually the one assigned to them at birth (i.e. girls are pressured to pick toys for girls like Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens and boys pick toys made for boys, like legos and action figures. The ramifications are then that boys are being primed for jobs that seek skilled professionalism and heroism, while girls are encouraged to engage in domestic duties. For instance, researchers Yeung and Wong [1] performed a study to see if children would identify toys as for boys or girls simply by the color. As you might imagine, they found that the children quickly identified blue toys as “boy toys” and pink toys as “girl toys.” Children are so impressionable! Taking this experiment a step further, researchers Fulcher and Hayes [2] found that when the children were given pink bricks to make a “boy toy,” they took longer to build it than when given blue bricks to build the same “boy toy.”

These gender associations are taught to children in part by parents or guardians who frequently believe that there must be a biological aspect to a child’s preference for a “boy toy” or a “girl toy.” One recent study conducted in Vienna, surveyed parents about what types of toys they would prefer to give to their child. The researchers found that across race, gender and socioeconomic status of the parents, they tended to prefer giving their child a gender neutral toy or a toy of the child’s gender, rather than give them a cross-gender toy [3].

Television is another prominent way the binary system is ingrained into children. Most sitcoms consist of a woman staying at home, and it seems impossible to not watch some white blonde woman desperate to find her husband at Christmas time. Disney is one of the leading networks and consistently re-runs old movies (and new ones) with strong sexist undercurrents. For instance, in Cinderella, a classic movie from my own childhood, Cinderella exudes the female domestic stereotype. She happily sings as she does the laundry and cleans the house, and then at the end of the movie her happily ever after is being a wife to a prince who is attracted to her solely based on her beauty. The film also perpetuates negative male stereotypes: little boys are taught they should be heroic and the saviors of women. These themes are common throughout many of the classics that children grow up watching like Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and The Beast (not to mention what this movie suggests about domestic abuse), and Snow White to name a few [4].

Professors Golden and Jacoby, from Mount Holyoke College, studied how preschool age girls interpreted gender-role stereotypes from Disney Princesses. They observed both their pretend play behaviors and their conversations around princesses. They found that the girls focused on beauty, clothing, princess body movements, and excluded boys from their play. For instance when the girls were playing dress up in the classroom they would argue over who was the prettiest princess. Little girls have already learned to associate beauty with importance [5].

And there are huge ramifications of this early prejudice that continue into adulthood. For instance, one study asked participants to decide whether or not a male or female job candidate (both with identical qualifications) was qualified for a job position. The participants didn’t favor the male candidate over the woman until the study added another factor: the researchers said the the job position needed a candidate with “intellectual ability.” Alarmingly, the study then found that the woman had a 38.3% lower chance of being suggested for the job than the man. The researchers then recreated the experiment with a larger sample, including some children (over 1,000 participants), and got the same findings[6]. Their experiment demonstrates how the bias starts at an early age and is perpetuated into adulthood as an implicit gender bias against women.

Gender stereotypes and the idea of a binary system are taught from childhood and become implicit thoughts and actions. For instance, it seems absurd to have gendered bathrooms, as there is absolutely no need to feel bashful towards one sex especially as little kids. And if the idea is that one should not defecate around their sexual interests then no one should ever be in a bathroom together as the assumption would otherwise have to be that everyone is heterosexual. In order to move away from gender stereotypes there needs to be a shift towards teaching children, not just boys or girls, of the system that is in place in order to overcome the current social norms. Classrooms, toy stores, and book fairs could get rid of their boy and girl sections and teachers should try to intervene when they see children self-segregating, recreating what they see in society. A shift in educating and raising children who are aware of an imperfect system could eventually lead to those children creating a world where bathrooms have no genders, and children do not have to be taught that they see a binary at home, because at home they would not see a binary.

  1. Yeung, S. P., & Wong, W. I. (2018). Gender labels on gender-neutral colors: Do they affect children’s color preferences and play performance? Sex Roles. Advance online Publication.

  2. Fulcher, M., & Hayes, A. R. (2017). Building a pink dinosaur: The effects of gendered construction toys on girls’ and boys’ play. Sex Roles. Advance online publication.

  3. Kollmayer, M., Schultes, M., Schober, B., Hodosi, T., & Spiel, C. (2018). Parents’ judgments about the desirability of toys for their children: Associations with gender role attitudes, gender-typing of toys, and demographics. Sex Roles. Advance online publication.

  4. England, D., Descartes, E., & Collier-Meek, L. (2011). Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7), 555-567.

  5. Golden, J. C., & Jacoby, J. W. (2018). Playing princess: preschool girls’ interpretations of gender stereotypes in Disney princess media. Sex Roles, 79(5-6), 299-313.

  6. Bian, L., Leslie, S.-J., & Cimpian, A. (2018). Evidence of bias against girls and women in contexts that emphasize intellectual ability. American Psychologist, 73(9), 1139–1153.

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