Hands playing with brightly coloured toy cars and aeroplanes

“That’s for girls and that’s for boys”

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”

Toy department with separate 'Boys' and 'Girls' shelves.

Children can easily see which toys they are ‘supposed’ to like at Debenhams.

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”.

PlaymobilcatalogueM 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

katie

“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’”.

CenterParcs signs 'Just girls' 'Just boys'

Signs in CenterParcs’ toyshops tell children very firmly which toys are ‘just’ for them.

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.”

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.

25 Comments

  1. AH

    my 5 yr old chose green shoes (to be like Robin Hood) in the shop. but after wearing them with her friends a couple of times, she refused to wear them for the rest of the summer because ‘they are boys shoes’. This is despite my best efforts to fill the house with gender neutral toys & books

  2. Holly

    My nephew always liked cooking stuff and every year for birthday and Christmas I’d buy him stuff he can cook and bake with. Until last year where he said he didn’t want it anymore because it was girly and wanted to play football instead. This is despite the fact that we’ve encouraged him to play with whatever he wants to play with!

  3. Daragh

    My 2 yo daughter flicks through the Argus catalogue pointing out the girl’s one (pink) and the boy’s one (non-pink) when there are two versions of the same toy. We’re keeping the catalogue away from her as much as possible due to the ridiculous gender politics it displays.

    I’m often tempted to switch the shelf contents in the Girls and Boys toy section. Who decided my little girl can’t like trains?

  4. Lise

    When celebrating my daughters second birthday I put on the invitation that presents were optional, but notifying guests that we are a pink and princess free house. My father in law told me I was being cruel.

  5. I’ve bought my son a play kitchen for his birthday and his first (boy) doll for Christmas, so hoping to avoid gender stereotypes but its hard especially if you shop on the high street!

  6. Antonia

    In M & S the other day, my just turned 10 year old girl needed some trainers. The only ones in the girls’ section were pink which she is fed up of (unsurprisingly) so she tried on an identical blue pair from the boys’ section. She was pleased with them but she had big doubts about whether she would be teased for wearing them because not only are they the ‘wrong’ colour for a girl, they have ‘Boys’ written in big writing inside them.
    Even the kids are sick of the lack of choice that gender stereotyping of clothes and toys inflicts on them. Enough is enough.

  7. Bea

    I was inspired to comment, remembering my own kiddie accoutrement choices from childhood in the 70s and 80s. My first lunch box was science fiction themed showing a foreign planet, some kind of moon patrol buggie, and the likeness of the actor Martin Landau (from a show called Space 1999). It didn’t occur to me to not be able to use that lunchbox; I loved it. Fortunately, back then toy manufacturers and, as a result, kids seemed to have been less hung up on categorising toys by gender and I never heard a bad word from other the other children regarding my lunchbox.

  8. Joy

    It’s not just other children, it can be parents too. My brother was given scooters and then later a bike for successive Christmases. After that when I was asked what I wanted, I would reply, ‘A bike!’. My mother’s reply was that I was a girl so I would have to choose something else. But I was stubborn and and did not see why, being a girl, I could not have a bike, so I persisted with my request. The Christmas after my 17th birthday I was finally given what I had asked for – although it was a women’s Raleigh shopping bicycle!

  9. Maria

    My 5yo niece was round at my house and I gave her dad tea in a mug which had flowers on it. She immediately said to him, ‘You’ve got a girls’ mug’. When I asked her why she said ‘Cos it’s got flowers’ – I told her anyone can like flowers, and in fact my (male) partner likes flowers but she didn’t seem convinced!

    The parents are quite often to blame as Joy says. I’ve witnessed a good friend gender-policing her little boy, he isn’t even 18m old yet and she restricts his toys and what he’s allowed to wear. He got a second hand doll which he loves, but she won’t allow him to take it out in public because ‘we don’t want people thinking you’re a girl’. She won’t allow him to have anything pink, even in private, and tells him off when he cries because ‘you’re not a girl’. It just baffles me that this is an issue for her. He’s clearly too young to understand right now but it won’t be long before he catches onto ‘the rules’ and begins to police himself. :/

  10. Monkfish

    I always think to my childhood and the guilt I felt watching “boy” cartoons. I always preferred the action adventure to the girly magic and romance crap that was jammed down female throats. Sadly, the “boy” toy aisle was as taboo for me to enter as it would the boy’s rest rooms, I always would rush through and pretend I was going elsewhere, not lingering in the “forbidden” zone.
    It’s horrible to inflict that on kids. I mean, why the hell couldn’t I buy TMNT or Batman toys if I wanted them? Why did I have to settle with puppies, kittens and ponies in shades of insipid pink and lavender.

    My father was, thankfully, very anti gender stereotypes and quite happily entertained my love of trains and dinosaurs, my mother on the other hand tried so hard to get me to like dolls because SHE liked dolls and “little girls are supposed to like dollies”
    She bought me pink dolls, I barely played with them. I preferred my gender neutral toys like my dinosaurs and my lego. Oh heck yes Lego, back when they still marketed it as a toy for everyone.

    Sadly, despite my efforts to raise my boys in a gender neutral “you can play with anything even if it’s pink and frilly” environment, as soon as eldest went to pre school he refused to play dress up (Only girls play dress up apparently), shunned dolls in public and informs be regularly “this is too girly!”
    He also objects to girls wearing trousers telling me it’s “too boyish” *sigh*
    I tried, I really did!
    His younger brother loves dolls, likes pink and loves frilly bows hahah, it’s hilarious and adorable watching him put headbands on in the store (he’s not even 2 yet) and he has such joy on his face, why would anyone deny a child that? I dread the day he turns around and tells me he can’t play with his much loved dollys because they’re “for girls”, it’ll break my heart.

    I have to admit, nothing makes me smile ear to ear more than seeing a little boy in the doll section of toys r us, staring longingly at the pinkness and then witnessing his parent come over, pick up a doll and press it into his hands saying “ok, let’s take this to the till”. Best.. thing.. ever. I always want to walk over and shake that parent’s hand, but then I think they’ll think i’m a freak hah. Also, it’s sad we feel we have to congratulate a parent who doesn’t buck to the stereotype, it should be the norm not the exception. It shouldn’t be such a rare occurrence that I notice it!

  11. Chloe

    My almost 3yr old son was looking at a picture of a Lego Friends campervan which looks just like our van (although ours doesn’t have pink & lilac headlights…). I thought he’d like to have a mini version of our van as a toy so said ‘do you like it?’ ‘Yes’ ‘would you like one for your birthday?’ ‘No. It’s a girl’s toy.’
    I have no idea where this has come from, not from me or my husband. I’m not really sure how to counter it at this young age either as he got embarrassed & a bit upset when I tried to discuss it with him. It’s very sad.

  12. Elisa

    Depressingly this continues beyond adulthood. I grew up playing with Micro Machines and Lego (back when it was unisex) and while I have one memory of being teased for wearing “a boy’s watch” I had felt lucky to be part of the Pre-Pink Princess Generation- until recently. As an adult I’m now actually finding *more* attempts to limit my choices to the stereotypically girly.

    One time I was in a sports shop trying to buy some tasteful and understated running shoes and when I asked to try on a few of the men’s pairs I was asked if I’d tried looking in the women’s section- I had, but had found most of the trainers to be pink, purple and sparkly. When looking for a nice bright phone case I found most phone shops only offered pink as an alternative to the standard black. I always struggle to buy pyjamas as so many sets seem to be covered in prints of hearts and teddy bears- I’m in my thirties, I don’t want to look like I’m going to a sleepover. As a girl I wouldn’t have liked any of these things and as a grown woman I very definitely don’t like them.

    All of this is infantilisation- it starts when we tell girls they can only be helpless princesses and damsels in distress while the boys get to be astronauts and superheroes, and it continues into adulthood when even our own most grown-up purchases have to be made to look fluffy and unthreatening. I just hope enough mothers get sick of being offered pink laptops, pink phones and pink pyjamas that they reach the point where they don’t want to buy these things for their daughters either.

  13. Kathryn

    My 5YO son tells me the girls play princesses and the boys superheroes (he prefers horsies with the girls at the moment!) but he does go to 2 mixed after-school clubs- karate and sewing! What’s better is the teacher who does sewing also goes to karate and is a black belt. Not bad for a small traditional ex-mining town in Northern England.

  14. MColl

    My children played with whatever they wanted to play with! No input from me! Ist daughter horrified at girls playing with boys toys!Son mostly liked football etc! Daughter two mostly prefered garages train sets& cars! Leave children alone! They will play with what they find interesting! Your way of thinking is just as bad as those who push gender toys!

    • Tricia

      It’s great that you feel your children played with what they wanted to. Not all children are the same though and many feel peer pressure which means they won’t admit to liking certain toys, as the numerous examples we have here show.

      I’m not sure what you mean by saying our way of thinking is, “just as bad as those who push gender toys!”, as what we say is basically the same as you seem to suggest yourself – let children decide what they want to play with.

  15. Mark Catlin

    Surely this is the way it is so to encourage little boys to grow up to become men and little girls to grow up to become ladies/women. I do not believe this to be gender stereotyping but simply just the way it is supposed to be. Why do you/would you want to influence this part of a childs character which would then encourage change of the natural gender development of the boy or girl.

    • Tricia

      Hi Mark,

      We are not trying to influence children to do anything that isn’t natural to them. Marketing has changed a lot over the last few years and is now much more targeted by gender than it used to be.

      Let Toys Be Toys are just asking that retailers and marketers present toys as toys, not as being suitable only for girls or only for boys. That way, whether a child is interested in football, fairies, playing house or dragons they can explore for themselves what it is that interests them without feeling they have to follow any rules. None of those interests are gender specific so why should they be presented as such?

      • Mark Catlin

        I agree to a point with your opinion on freedom of choice, but I do believe some toys, especially girls toys such as dolls, make up, fairies…, are gender specific. Maybe the marketing shouldn’t be allowed to influence the gender of toys, but in my opinion the main influence comes from parents anyway.

  16. Helen

    I am super sensitive about colour coded toys and clothes, but my daughter goes to the childminder. I am sure they don’t indoctrinate her, but she has picked up the “rules” just by seeing the other children. At 2 years old she shocked me in a shop by categorizing the kids’ lunch boxes / backpacks on the shelves. It was not just princesses and dinosaurs which she recognised as gender specific, but Blue Dog – for boys. Ladybird – for girls. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple.

  17. Kat

    My friends daughter was teased mercilesly by the children in her class when she wore a batman suit on non-uniform day, poor child. Worse thing is that even the parents had to comment & laugh at her. How can other parents humiliate a child like that?! Another friend was asked by complete strangers why her son had a baby doll. She answered quite bluntly “because he likes it”. So far my children have inherited my rebellious streak and aren’t put off by other people’s comments (if anything, they’re indignant), but I still hold back from letting them know that I buy the girls clothes from the boys department – because frills and sequins do not withstand tree climbing – in fear that they’ll stop liking them.
    I

  18. Jo

    My son (turned 8 today) wanted some of the LEGO friends play sets, as he wanted the animal pieces and some pink ones to add to his never-ending collection of LEGO but when we went to the toy shop to get one for him he became very embarrassed, telling me that the lady at the till would laugh at him. He ended up getting another car themed LEGO set that day, and as we went to the till I asked the lady if she would laugh at him if he wanted the friends set. She said she wouldn’t. A few weeks later he brought one of the friends sets and paid for it with pride. I was very thankful for the lady at the till, and very proud of him.

  19. Sophie

    My 3 year old daughter was playing with a dolls house at her prospective primary school yesterday – a reception teacher commented to her that she wasn’t much up on girl’s toys as she only had sons at home and was more used to footballs and Lego (I know!) I replied that we had a range of toys including those at home. Her response was to assume that my daughter had older brothers – I felt obliged to contradict her and point out to her that toys are not gender specific at which point she just walked away. Thank goodness she’s not my daughter’s teacher next year. The labeling of toys to conform to gender stereotype appears to be affecting educated adults too – let toys be toys!

  20. Ellen

    I think the main problem is that a lot of toys & clothes are themed to TV progammes (eg Peppa Pig & Postman Pat) which are directly aimed at either girls or boys; & colour-coded to suit; and this sort of advertising should be banned; e.g A game of Peppa Pig Snakes & Ladders should just be Snakes & Ladders & then boys can play it too. Also Disney has a lot of influence. Children should be free from this sort of pressure.
    When I was a child I always wanted the toy to be as real looking as possible, so I could pretend to be an adult. (I would have hated a pink dolls house). I had dolls, a doll’s pram, a Meccano set, a red bus, a farmyard set, Famous Five & Secret Seven books as well as Heidi etc. My first bike was red & had belonged to my older male cousin. I wore girls sandals, boys khaki shorts, plain t-shirts, cotton dresses, plain shoes (for boys or girls). My anorak was for either sex. My friends also dressed how they liked & we never judged each other. To have had to succumb to peer pressure would have upset me, as I have always needed to be who I am. Children were allowed to be children in those days.

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