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Miles of Aisles of Sexism: Helping Students Investigate Toy Stores


Sudie Hofmann

1 You sure wouldn't know our society has experienced almost 40 years of
significant changes in the area of gender equity in education after a trip to the What is resistant to change?
mall. How?

2 Toy stores are stubbornly resistant to change and remain entrenched in sex-
role stereotypes and the unabashed glorification of war. Boys are still blasting,
crushing, striking, and pulverizing their way through playtime. And girls are
cleaning, diapering, and primping through theirs.
Toy stores and
3 Unfortunately, toy stores continue to support levels of male and female manufacturers support
gender bias not unlike what we saw before Title IX was passed in 1972. The levels of gender bias. Give
aisles of girl toys are designated with pale pink letters and the names of the text evidence to support this
girl toys are in oval signs framed in purple or pink. The boys' aisles are marked claim.
with green letters or blue frames even today in Toys R Us, one of the
nation's leading toy stores. And in many stores, child-sized Dirt Devils and Easy
Bake Ovens crowd the girls' department and plastic power tools fill the boys'.

4 Some say corporations are just giving consumers what they want by
providing friends and family with the products that will put smiles on kids'
faces at weekend birthday parties. Yes, trendy toys and gadgets reflect societal
values, habits, and the quest for stimulation. But let's look at the long-term
messages that are sent to kids. Are toys providing innocent fun, or are children
being socialized in ways that could ultimately influence career and life choices?
Are boys encouraged to demonstrate power and control during playtime by
simulating violence and war? I attempted to answer these questions by taking
a look around Wal-Mart, Target, Kaybee Toys, and Toys R Us to consider the
possible effects of gender-based toys. I came up with several areas of
concentration such as gender segregation, career-related toys, militarism, and
themes in packaging such as color usage and marketing language. After
completing my investigation, I designed an exercise that required my students
in a university gender issues course to explore a local toy store and report
back to the class. How have boys toys
become more lethal or
Investigating Stores violent? What does this
signify about the male
5 A visit to several chain toy stores at the Mall of America and suburban gender bias? (par. 5- 8).
shopping centers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area taught me a powerful
lesson about how toy manufacturers operate. I began by recording the
categories of toys in the girls' and boys' sections. The boys' section was
dominated by weaponry. Using Myriam Miedzian's powerful critique included in
her 1991 book, Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and
Violence, I observed that boys' toys have become even more "lethal" since
1991. But the language used on the packaging now justifies the use of force or
violence in the name of being a "peace keeper," completing a "mission," or
being a "superior defender." The text used on the war toys Miedzian observed
was seemingly more honest about being the aggressors. For example, the
Rambo 81 mm Mortar Thunder-Tube Assault declares the "army will stop at
nothing to control the world" and the motto for the Rampage Transformer is
"those who conquer act: those who are conquered think." Madison Avenue now
encourages violence during playtime in the name of peace and justice.

6 The colors commonly used on the packaging are black, red, and deep yellow
to provide images of flames. Jagged letters suggest lightning, the icon for
speed and power.

7 Words such as "bashing," "kicking," "deadly," and "assault" are standard fare The boys toy aisle offers
used to promote these children's toys. Toys such as Power Brutes, Battle Arena, some educational/academic
and Big Brother (whose box states, "Get Ready for the Real Confrontation") can toys for young boys. How
be purchased at just about any discount or toy store. does this differ from the
girls toy aisle? Why? (par.
8 Kaybee Toys committed more than one third of one aisle to Power Team Elite, 9-10).
manufactured by Hong Kong-based M&C Toy Centre; featured were about two
dozen action figures with guns, scopes, grenades, Humvees, and an A-F
Combat Helicopter. These toys offer children a particular perspective:
Patriotism and superiority are the ultimate goals, and aggression and training
for war are justified through a simplistic lens of "us" versus "them."

9 In addition to the war toys, the male area offers word games, chess, and
other challenging board games. Boys and presumably their dads are
prominently featured on the boxes of Pavilion's Backgammon and Chess
Teacher. Planetariums, globes, interactive world maps, atlases, 3-D Dino
Adventure, Legos, science kits, and GeoGenius fill the shelves.

10 I tried to find one female child or adult on any of the many science kits Girls are expected to be
at Toys R Us. I thought my research results would look a bit questionable if, in popular with boys. How do
2005, I claimed that not one female appeared on any of the science kits. I was the toys in the girls aisle
determined to find at least one. I found a small plastic chair and attempted to suggest this feat to be
reach the top shelf to see if that very last science kit would have a female on achieved? (par. 11-12).
it. A friendly albeit skeptical store clerk asked if I needed assistance. I told
him about my research and he brought the box down. For one joyous moment I
thought I had found a female. Alas, it was not to be. The boy on the back panel
just had long hair.

11 The girls' area, or should we say fantasyland, is well stocked with vanity
mirrors, combs, brushes, nail kits, makeup, and polyester hair extensions. The
focus is on being popular with
boys. The shelves are overflowing with Mattel Barbies and endless
paraphernalia, including Barbie's scale, set at one weight: 110 pounds. What is missing from the
girls toy aisle? Why? (par.
12 Shopping is a focus of many of the girl toys such as Lil Bratz Fashion Mall, 13 14)
which warns girls, "Don't forget to stop at the makeup shop." Packages provide
fashion advice and tips about how to be trendy and get noticed. Crowns,
pompons, and phones in lavender and pink hang on the separate carousels
near the small, upholstered furniture. Jump ropes, umbrellas, tea sets, and
sticker books are in abundance. Unlike the colors used on the panels of the
boys' toys, pastels reign here. The edges of the letters are smooth and an i or a
t is dotted or crossed with a heart, butterfly, or star. Glitter is on everything Boys and girls are absent
from the packaging to the product itself. The copy usually includes words such from each others
as "kitten," "princess," "fairy," "precious," "wish," "dream," and "wonder." perspective toy aisle. Give
examples to support this
13 The girls' section does not have many board games that stimulate creative claim and infer the reasons
thinking or require higher-order reasoning. It has bingo and simple activities for this. (par. 14 15)
such as coloring books and car or travel games. Although the female area
appears to be a pink fantasyland, the dream soon ends. After getting the guy,
by playing Milton Bradley's Mystery Date or through sheer vanity and
competition, the girls get the brooms, mops, vacuums, diapers, and plastic
food. And they are smiling in every packaging photo.

14 Boys are noticeably absent from any of the advertisements, promotions, Give some evidence
store posters, or packaging for toy household cleaning products, kitchen items, Hofmanns students have
or childcare toys such as baby dolls and strollers. The product lines do not stated as to why gender
model social acceptance for boys to play homemaking or parenting. biases are not accurate.
(par. 16)
15 When young boys engage in dress up, pile on the necklaces, enjoy painting
their nails or select other girl toys, cultural norms or homophobia often correct
the behavior immediately. In fact, in Fisher Price Playlab studies where staff
members observed children behind one-way glass, they found that boys will
play with "girl" toys if they think they are in a safe environment. Our culture has expected
gender roles for males and
16 My students frequently offer supporting evidence about boys crossing these females. List examples and
gender lines, from their part-time jobs at after-school programs. They believe explain how this can be
that young boys relish the chance to get their nails painted and have their hair detrimental. (par. 17 19).
styled when girls are doing it as a special activity. As one student told my class
recently, "I think boys just like the closeness of being with a staff member,
being touched while we paint their nails, and talking with us." Perhaps it is the
tactile, calming aspect of this activity that draws boys and girls to it. However,
sex roles are reinforced very early in boys' lives, and toys play a part in that
socialization.

17 Jackson Katz in Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, a
Media Education Foundation video, explores the ways boys are taught to be
tough and how they're encouraged to define manhood in ways that hurt
themselves and others. Katz provides an insightful analysis about how boys are
socialized to be solitary, independent, and often violent through toys, video
games, and Hollywood movies. According to Katz, the cultural message is that
emotional connections are for sissies. Beyond the obvious problems of violence
and aggression that many of the toys engender, even the science-based toys
are solitary and don't present opportunities for verbal or social development.
Packaging hints at being the best or creating and building superior models or
designs. There is little evidence that toys help boys in social and emotional
development or in Katz's words, help boys to be "better men" some day.

18 Toys for girls implicitly urge them to find husbands in order to get their
dream lives. Girls are taught to compete with each other for male validation.
One makeup kit states, "Wait 'til they see you." Female rivalries, jealousies,
and other negative behaviors such as bullying and harassment pose a host of
problems for girls. Yet girls' toys promote unattainable physical perfection and
materialistic values. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, a groundbreaking
book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, including depression, eating How does toy segregation
disorders, and declining self-confidence, refers to contemporary society as a impact the inequities we see
"girl poisoning culture" and offers many empowering approaches for in reality?
addressing issues of self-esteem. The toys available to girls typically
strengthen the cultural messages of inferiority and second-class status that
have influenced and continue to affect self-image and academic performance
for many girls.

19 The harsh reality for girls is that when they enter the labor force they will
make about 75 cents to a man's dollar (www.dol.gov/wb). More than 90
percent of U.S. women will work during their lifetime; they comprise 47 percent
of U.S. workers, and about 70 percent of moms participate in the labor force
(www.aspe.os.dhhs.gov/hsp/97). Most women work because they have to, and
girls should be aware of this fact early on in their lives. Economic self-
sufficiency and a sound understanding of money are essential for girls and
boys. But it's hard to get even a glimpse of that reality in the fantasyland of
toy stores.
Toy Segregation

20 The effect of toys and playtime may not be as benign as some parents and
educators think. Although great strides have been made in many social areas,
boys are still pushed toward higher levels of unhealthy competition and
stoicism during playtime while many girls are reinforced in their unrealistic
beliefs that they will always be taken care of or that employment outside the
home is optional. The segregation under those neon lights is a fairly good
predictor for what is to come, both in terms of earning power and career
choice. The power and labor inequities in homes and work places and the
damaging messages sent to boys about their roles in society are often
shaped and defined in the types of toys that are mindlessly thrown in the
shopping cart.

Sudie Hofmann (shofmann@stcloudstate.edu) is a professor of human relations and multicultural


education at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Hofman teaches courses on gender bias and
other related issues of oppression in educational settings.

Based on what youve read, what can toy stores and toy manufacturers do to help create a more equitable society?