Are children really affected by gender stereotypes? Tricia Lowther looks at how kids take in the ‘gender rules’.
The vast fortune spent on marketing toys to children has no effect, and there’s no such thing as peer pressure. At least that’s what some critics of Let Toys Be Toys suggest when they say that children will choose to play with whatever they like and aren’t affected by signs in shops, adverts or packaging.
I was involved in a radio debate not long ago, where the other caller was vehement that this was an issue only adults care about. “Children don’t care,” she said. “Children will be drawn to and play with the toys that interest them.” This is an argument we hear a lot; that it’s only ‘politically correct’ adults who are concerned with gender stereotypes and children just don’t care.
“I do, but I don’t want anyone to know”
Recently a small but telling incident in my own house showed how my daughter has been steered away from her interests because of gender stereotypes. M used to love the Lightning McQueen character from the film ‘Cars’. This came about purely from her; as a toddler she began to stop and smile every time she saw the character represented anywhere. Over time it became a mini obsession and she was delighted when a relative bought her some ‘Cars’ toys and the DVD that Christmas.
I knew her interest in ‘Cars’ had waned recently; she’s developed new interests since starting school. But when I found myself in a hurry to buy some juice cartons, and the choice was between ‘Disney Princess’ or ‘Cars’ cartons, I grabbed the Cars ones, sure she’d prefer them.
The next morning she saw a carton go into her lunch bag and took it out again. She said it embarrassed her. After a bit of coaxing she told me it was because ‘Cars’ is ‘boyish’. When I said to her that I thought she liked ‘Cars’, she said, very quietly, “I do, but I don’t want anyone to know”.
M knows about and supports the Let Toys Be Toys campaign. She says children should be able to like whatever they want to, but obviously the pressure to behave ‘like a girl’ has got to her. What kind of society have we made when a six year old girl feels she can’t admit to liking a film about cars? And as for boys who enjoy ‘girls’ films…?
Adults can argue back and forth about this issue as much as they like, but the heart of the argument concerns the wellbeing of children and we hear countless tales of children who get upset, angry or are otherwise affected by gender stereotypes in toys.
They understand the rules
Children absolutely do understand the gendered messages they receive. They are looking for patterns and social rules – they understand the gender rule ‘This is for boys and that is for girls,’ in the same way as other sorts of social rules, like ‘Don’t hit”. There’s a right way and a wrong way, and they are quick to police themselves and others…
“Oh dear, I think this one is for little boys, I have to have this one”, 4 year old girl changes her mind in a toyshop from a blue toy she wanted to a pink set she thought she ‘should’ have, via CheddarOnToast, Mumsnet.
“I can’t have this because it’s for boys.” 3 year old girl talking about a car, via Thisisaeupemism, Mumsnet.
“That’s for girls.” 5 year old girl pushes baby boy off a pink seesaw, via Kate on Facebook
“I am a nurse and he is a doctor, because girls are nurses and boys are doctors.” 3 year old girl, via @helenturvey on Twitter
“Boys HATE shoes and dresses and princesses!!!!” 5yr old boy to 5yr old girl dressed as princess, via Twitter
“All superheroes are male because they have to rescue females.” 5 year old boy, via @WhatJusThinks on Twitter
“That’s a boys’ t-shirt! Why are you wearing a boys’ t-shirt!” Boy shouts at girl in playground for wearing a skull and crossbones t-shirt, via Jess on Facebook.
“That one is for boys” 5 yr old girl refuses to get on a blue carousel horse, via Ruth on Facebook.
“The boys won’t like the same things as the girls.” girl at cub camp asks for gendered bingo prizes, via cub leader Rebecca on Facebook
“That’s for girls and that’s for boys.” 2 year old looking through a toy catalogue - Lucy, on the Let Toys Be Toys petition
Sociologists call the period between birth and age 7, The Imprint Period, because this is when children absorb everything around them, like sponges. They accept much of it as true because they haven’t yet developed the capacity for critical thinking. It’s one of the reasons gender stereotyped toys can be so damaging; if young children are repeatedly exposed to stereotypes they will believe them, and at this age beliefs and values become ingrained. It also raises serious ethical questions about marketing to children.
They understand the consequences
Let Toys Be Toys asked supporters for examples to show how children are affected by gender stereotypes:
Becky told us how her little boy loved the colour pink until he started nursery. She said; “Now, however, he is scared to go to the park wearing jewellery or nail varnish. He just says, ‘People will laugh at me’”.
Elizabeth wrote about how her daughter preferred to shop for clothes in the boys aisle because there was more colour choice and she wasn’t keen on pink or sparkles, but “…after being teased relentlessly for wearing “boys shoes” (which were simply blue and black tennis shoes) she decided she didn’t want to buy from the “boys” aisle anymore. Not because she no longer preferred the things there, but just because she didn’t want to be teased about it anymore.”
Joanne told us how her son was; “too embarrassed to get off at the girls’ floor in Hamleys cos it is all in pink, despite there being something he wanted there.”
@LetToysBeToys my SS wished for a boy when I was pregnant so they could play football as he didn't think he could play footie with a girl.
— LoveLEE (@LauraAnneCooke) September 16, 2013
Fran said; “Two years ago my daughter just wanted to be a Princess, and when I asked her about being an Astronaut, a Doctor – anything Science related – she said that was for boys only… that is why I started my business – making clothes for girls in Space, Aeroplane and Dinosaur subjects, all the things the high street determines are for boys only.”
From the moment they are born, children are expected to conform to expectations of what it means to be a boy or a girl. It’s obvious that they are affected by the way toys are marketed, and obvious they take in some pretty negative stereotypes about how girls and boys are supposed to behave. Children accept what their world tells them, so it’s essential to look at their toys and media with a critical eye and challenge the harmful stereotypes they are being sold.