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Political correctness gone mad?

November 14, 2013

So you thought it was safe to take to the streets with your kids without hassle on a Saturday morning?

You’ve followed socially-accepted protocol;  you’ve taught them that a manhole is a utility hole, your Mum’s Spotted Dick pudding is referred to as a Spotted Richard and those egg-shaped chocolates and decorations brought out during that Christian festival are referred to as Autumn Spheres.

You’ve got it covered.

Until a group of do-gooder parents decided that kids’ toys shouldn’t be classified in stores by their gender.

What sense does that make?

Surely girls’ toys should rightly be put under “Girls” and likewise with a boys section.

How else are they going to find what they want?

Girls are girls and boys are boys. Isn’t that how it should be?

Maybe. And maybe not.

Let’s run through a couple of scenarios …

A toy manufacturer brings out a kite, or a kaleidoscope … even a microscope – what do the marketing boffins in the upper echelons of the major toy retailers make of such a universal play instrument? Should the toys in question be colour-coded in order to facilitate easier choice and therefore sales? Should they produce and blue and pink versions of both in a bid to double sales? Maybe integrate them with a marketing campaign of a major movie production to do even better still.

The bottom line being that many of your toy “choices” have been well and truly diminished before the toy even hits the stores.

Combine that with their physical placement in-store … few parents are brave enough to weather the side-ways glances they’ll receive as they drag their son through the girls section in order to facilitate his love of cooking by buying a (pink) toy kitchen.

And the placement is not “accidental”. Researchers looking at Toys R Us stores found that “… boys’ toys are encountered before girls’ toys – so that girls must pass the boys’ toys before reaching their own sections, but boys can completely avoid the girls’ aisles …” (Seitor 1993, p.208).

It’s socially more acceptable for a girl to choose a designated boys’ toy than the other way around.

“To make toys appealing to boys, boy characters and masculine behaviour must be pervasive in toy ads that are aimed at boys or both genders since boys tend to avoid that which appears feminine and are more reluctant than girls to cross gender lines,” found JB Schor in “Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer culture”.

Children limiting themselves to certain categories of toys may narrow their career interests in the future …

You might be tempted to chalk this up to something like “natural order” but It seems we parents have a big role to play.

“Boys’ parents tend to discourage their sons from engaging in most [perceived] feminine activities and encourage them to engage in the more narrow range of activities associated with traditional masculinity,” found E.W. Kane in the 2006 study “No way my boys are going to be like that!”; Parents’ responses to their children’s gender nonconformity”.

And pity those children who choose to go against the grain.

In their study spanning 20 years of responses to the book William’s Doll, researchers examined the responses to fourth-grade students to the desire for William – described as “an unmistakeably normal, healthy, fashionable, shaggy-haired child” – for a doll.

In the book, published in 1972, William’s father’s response is to buy him stereotypical toys for boys instead – a basketball and a train. His brother’s response, along with older boys, is to call William a creep and a sissy.

It is only William’s grandmother who understands and finally honours Williams’ request.

The researchers reviewed responses to the book from fourth-grade students 20 years apart – firstly in 1975 and then again at the same school in New Orleans in 1997.

Running through both generations of responses was a central theme.

“The emotional price paid by boys who choose non-traditional toys and activities causes damage that can be devastating and long-lasting,” the researchers found.

“At about the same time as boys enter school, they begin devoting great amounts of time and energy to avoiding behaviour that may be deemed feminine.”

Being taunted for “behaving like a girl” can be a potent lesson and may lower self-esteem and contribute to negative attitudes towards females, which in turn may interfere with healthy relationships.

It’s not in Disney’s interest to question the status quo.
“Behaving or dressing like a girl, expressing emotions, or desiring toys or objects that are stereotypically feminine can lead to such harsh criticism that boys will avoid these things at all costs,” found the researchers.

“Even when boys do attempt to cross gender lines, parents and teachers will try to pull them back, which serves as a reinforcement for stereotypical male behaviour.”

A massive aspect of this division between toys for boys and toys for girls comes down to the most simple thing – colour.

In their seminal work last year, “The Gender Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website”, Carol J. Auster and Claire S. Mansbach found that pastel-coloured toys were far more likely to be marketed at girls while bold-coloured toys were much more likely to be reserved for boys.

“In addition, with regard to specific colors, while over 85% of toys with red, black, grey and brown as the most predominant colour were for ‘boys only’, over 85% of toys with pink and nearly two-thirds of toys with purple as the most predominant colour were for ‘girls only’,” the researchers found.

But the issue is far deeper than colour preference – and with potentially more far-reaching implications.

“Although the gendered marketing of toys on the Internet may not reflect how adults and children actually perceive toys, it may have tremendous influence on how adults and children think about the toys they want to purchase and ultimately how children do gender,” said Auster and Mansbach.

“…if customers choose toys based on gendered marketing and children restrict their play to toys marketed to their gender, then boys’ and girls’ experiences will be limited.”

The researchers found that this led to boys and girls learning different sets of skills; including cognitive, emotional and social skills.

“As a result of learning different skills, children may become more experienced in – and more prepared for – some occupation fields and future roles and less for others,” they found.

“Children limiting themselves to certain categories of toys may narrow their career interests in the future and contribute to the gender segregation of the occupational structure with women statistically dominating fields such as nursing and men statistically dominating fields such as engineering.”

Toy retailers – like any good commercial entity – are simply giving the masses what they want; access to – and promotion of – their products down stereotypical gender lines drawn in marketing meetings in boardrooms.

It is up to parents, friends and family members to wake up to the fact that so many decisions have been made before they even set foot in a toy store or open up a retailers’ web page.

These arbitrary commercial decisions are having a massive impact on the development of the children in your life.

It’s an impact that has escalated with commercialisation in general, but particularly the spin-off marketing of movies.

The Walt Disney Company had been making children’s movies for 60 years before it released what it called The Disney Princess line in 1991.

That line now contains more than 26,000 gender-typed products and adds significantly to the company’s $4 billion in annual sales.

It’s not in Disney’s interest to question the status quo.

Nor any other toy retailers – with toy sector revenue in Australia estimated at $US 2.6 billion in 2010 and continuing to rise steadily (it was $US 2.08 billion in 2009).

So maybe it’s time for you to reconsider your view on children’s toys and their portrayal by the marketeers.

Even your unspoken but unmistakable preconceptions around them.

Political madness, it is not.

The balancing of your child’s long-term social development, it could be.


Got any thoughts? Leave them below …

Post By Andrew Walters (6 Posts)

Andrew is a former journalist and now writer, editor and technology strategist with an interest in using the web and social media to promote positive change.


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