Ladies and Gentlemen: How We Give Children Rigid Ideas About Gender
and let it be known
Okay, so this is only one example, but it’s an overwhelmingly rigid and slow to change one: toy marketing. Crystal Smith, author of The Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys about Masculinity has done a significant amount of research on the ways in which our culture reveals its idea of what activities are appropriate for each gender, trapping both girls and boys in a rigid idea of what is normal and what is weird. But only recently did she translate her studies of toy advertisements to the most useful (to the internet) form of information presentation: the word cloud. Above, the cloud of terms used in commercials for Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Kung Zhu, Nerf, Transformers, Beyblades, and Bakugan; all toys marketed at boys.
Below, the cloud for Zhu Zhu Pets, Zhu Zhu Babies, Bratz Dolls, Barbie, Moxie Girls, Easy Bake Ovens, Monster High Dolls, My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, Polly Pocket, and FURREAL Friends; toys marketed at girls.
Now, you might easily say in response to this: “Ad companies just use what works! They wouldn’t target boys as being into weapons and fighting and girls as being into babies and cooking if that wasn’t what those groups actually responded to.” But what you’re actually arguing is one side of the chicken or the egg. Do kids respond to ads because they’re predisposed that way from birth? Or do they respond to the ads because they are taught to, by ads that have people of their gender responding in the same way?
There’s no genetic predisposition to pink clothing coded into the X chromosome, nor is there one for blue weapons in the Y. This stuff is purely cultural. The reason why it is important to inspect, discuss, and resist this kind of thing is that when you’re a kid whose interests stand outside the defined gender roles, sometimes it doesn’t go so well.