In the movie The Matrix, Morpheus describes the Matrix to Neo by saying:
(The Matrix) is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.”
As I listen to debates about gender stereotyping in children’s media and marketing, I am often reminded of this concept. For example, LEGO has said that they developed their new Friends line in direct response to exhaustive marketing research in which girls told them that what they really wanted was “beauty.” On social media networks, debates have been raging amongst parents and other interested parties about this issue. While many have said that they see no need for the new “girly” LEGO set, others have proclaimed their daughter’s right to be included in LEGO play, and seem to think the Friends line will appeal to their daughters in ways that other LEGO sets have not. Parents themselves have said things such as, “My daughter loves pink girly things, and she hasn’t liked LEGO before, but now she will have a LEGO set that she can relate to.”
It seems to me that, in some ways, both these marketers and parents themselves have had the world of gender stereotyping pulled over their eyes. Many of them seem to have come to believe that girls and boys can and will only be interested in very narrowly prescribed interests. In one exchange on the LEGO Facebook wall, I saw a mom say that her daughter likes to play Star Wars LEGOs and doesn’t need them to be in different colors or shapes. She was then verbally attacked by a parent who went on to call this mother names, say she was sick, and so forth. All because she dared to say that her daughter didn’t need a separate set of LEGOs to play with other than those that her son was playing with.
Why the anger? This mom wasn’t saying anything about anyone else’s child, she specifically addressed her own child and asked for more females in the general sets and more different skin tones. Why have we, as adults, come to believe so strongly that our children can only like this or that according to their gender? Why have we bought so heartily into the idea that we would be threatened enough to call a stranger names when they say something that contradicts our own beliefs? I believe it’s because many of us have had the world of gender stereotypes pulled over our eyes.
This article by Dr. Michelle Smith discusses the way that gender stereotypes have been built over the past years to set up a rigid range of interests for both boys and girls. She says, “The cycle of socialising children into believing that girls should like particular things that boys should not, is not only continuing, but is further compartmentalising children into their genders. This becomes more substantial when these perceptions affect how girls and boys are raised by their parents, making these ‘innate’ gender differences a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In a similar vein, Peggy Orenstein, brings up the excellent point that while girls and boys do have innate interests, they also build their interests based upon their exposure to ideas about what it means to be male or female. When girls and boys are consistently shown and told that they should be interested in only specific, narrow areas, then many of them will begin to demonstrate those interests.
As I have said before, one of the things that I find most disturbing about gender stereotyping is the way that it constricts a child’s vision for themselves. When a girl or boy repeatedly sees males and females displayed in very narrow roles, it is sure to impact their own view of how they should behave, what their dreams should be, and who they might become.
This happens both in marketing directed at children and in children’s media. For example, in a study conducted by Haddock, Schindler Zimmerman, Lund, and Tanner (2003), 26 Disney films were analyzed for portrayals of stereotypes about gender, race, and age. In this study, the authors found that the majority of the films represented some pretty significant stereotyped portrayals of what it means to be a male or female. For example:
The continual viewing of stereotypical representations of both males and females cannot help but have an impact on the way that children develop their own ideas about what it means to be a boy or a girl.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that is wrong for any individual girl to like pink, sparkles, playing beauty shop, etc. What I am saying is that when our daughters and sons only view specific and narrow interests and play themes as “for” them, then their vision for themselves is restricted. What bothers me about the new LEGO Friends line is the idea that LEGO has marketed themselves so heavily to boys that now they say that girls don’t want to play with what has traditionally been a very gender neutral toy. Instead of widening their marketing and products to include girls in a way that would also allow boys to enjoy the new line, LEGO seems to have set up two very separate ways of playing with their product by promoting the Friends line as “for girls.”
The point is that we need to think about what we and our children are seeing from both media and marketing. Teaching our children to be critical consumers means being one ourselves. Allow yourself to look critically at movies, TV shows, advertisements, products, and ask what are the themes that are promoted by this? If they’re ones that you feel comfortable with, great. If not, talk with your child and your family about them. We have a game in our house where we evaluate different media characters and decide which ones we like best, and it’s all based on the decisions that they make and the character that they display. Pushing your children to really look at these things is a key component of helping them learn to be critical media consumers and world changers.
Haddock, Schindler Zimmerman, Lund, and Tanner (2003). Images of Gender, Race, Age, and Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, Vol. 15(4) 2003.