Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

The World that has been pulled over your eyes: Children and Gender Stereotypes

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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:

1. Males

  • use their physicality rather than their words to express emotions or
  • are not able to express their emotions
  • are not in control of their sexuality and behavior when a beautiful female is around
  • overweight males had negative characteristics such as being stupid or villains.

2.  Females

  • appearance is more highly valued than their intellect
  • are helpless and need protection
  • have the goal of being a homemaker and wife
  • overweight females had negative characteristics, such as being ugly and cruel.

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.

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19 comments on “The World that has been pulled over your eyes: Children and Gender Stereotypes

  1. Pingback: Shaping Youth » Lego Friends: Please Build on Possibility, Brain Plasticity

  2. Andrea
    January 2, 2012

    My ex SIL use to buy what I considered boy toys for my girls. A bug catcher, a tonka truck, a baseball. When she gave my girla gifts, she would always buy them something that I would never buy for them. The toys would gather dust because my girls were not interested in them. Eventually they would go to the Goodwill. One year she gave each of my girls a machine that made gummy spiders and roaches. Shortly after that my youngest asked her aunt “Why don’t you call me by my name”. The Aunt answered that she called her by her “Real name”, not her nick name. My daughter (about 5 at the time) responded with “But THAT’s who I am.” If we listen to our kids (and the children of others) we know who they are. My former SIL didn’t care who my children were on any level. She thought it was SO hip to give my kids the gifts she thought they should have, that she gave no thought to what the child wanted. What she really gave my kids was a lesson in how NOT to give a gift. Every child is different. There is a difference between exposing your child to different types of toys and ignoring what their preferences are.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 2, 2012

      That’s true, Andrea. I have three children and they are all very different in their preferences. I expose them to lots of different opportunities for learning and try to help them stretch themselves while also respecting their individual preferences. What’s funny is that my daughter who loves anything sparkly and frilly but also really loves anything that has to do with animals and bugs. Now, she doesn’t like roaches or spiders that much, but she loves other kinds of bugs. I have another daughter who loves the American Girl toys but also collects swords, shields, and daggers. My oldest has never liked dolls but loves puzzles, books, and games. They’re all unique and different and have a wide variety of interests. The problem with this heavily gendered marketing approach is that it doesn’t allow boys or girls to investigate and try out new things because the options are so limited: if you’re a girl, you should like this/ if you’re a boy, you should like this. It prevents both girls and boys from exploring their interests fully.

    • Lisa
      January 4, 2012

      I may be a bit like your SIL. I bought my 6 yo niece (who is all about pink, makeup, looking “smokin'” and her new ipod touch) a science kit and some books. I feel sad that she’s not being exposed to things that might actually cater to her brain, rather than her looks and what’s currently trendy. Maybe they’ll end up at Goodwill, but maybe, just maybe, she’ll start to get the idea that there are other cool things to be besides a supermodel.

      • Salem
        January 4, 2012

        Thank you for being that kind of aunt. How are children to learn about new things if they are never introduced to them? Children need all sorts of experiences from all sorts of people and a little exposure to toys and ideas outside their paradigm never hurt anyone.

  3. Phil
    January 3, 2012

    My daughters are pretty content with standard Legos and I was a little put off by these “girl” sets at first. Then I realized they would just get integrated into the big mixed block box. They have the freedom to play with whatever they want, and they do pick the “girl” stuff most of the time, but we let them know they always have a choice.

    Their favorite “toy” though, also happens to be ours: books. Yes, we own the obligatory copy of Pinkalicous, but now it sits on the bookshelf right next to a couple of Star Wars titles, and tons more non-gender books. Many book marketers don’t need to do the whole “gender” thing, and they do just fine.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 3, 2012

      Phil, I think that’s the key: giving kids options. We’re big book lovers too and while we enjoy the American Girl books, the favorite series for all three of my girls i, hands down, Harry Potter.

  4. Michelle A.
    January 4, 2012

    As I type, my kids are all playing Legos….11 and 8 yo girls and 7 and 3.5 yo boys. We have no pink Legos. They’re playing garage and are building boats and trains and cars. The Lego sets the 4 of them (and me!) are lusting over right now..the new pink frou-frou ones? NOPE! The Lego Harry Potter sets. They have girls, strong female heroines, in fact, and I don’t think they have a touch of pink in them. (except possibly on Molly in the Burrow set.) I have a big problem with gender stereotypes. My girls love their AG dolls, as well. They also love Harry Potter, playing with primary color Legos, and digging in the dirt….my oldest more so than DD#2, but they all do. My boys don’t necessarily have baby dolls of their own, but they play with their stuffed animals, and they are always up for a game of house with their sisters. They play “clubhouse” on their swing set and dig in the sand box. They race each other on their bikes and scooters. EVERYONE wants a turn at chopping up wood and setting up the tent when we’re camping. Boys and girls alike are all required to share in the house hold chores. You know what? It has made my kids pretty well-adjusted all around, and darn good kids. I am a very proud mom of ALL of what my kids have accomplished. It makes me really sick that companies think my girls need more pink junk shoved down their throats.

  5. MrsB
    January 4, 2012

    At our local Target store, the “girl” toy aisle actually has bright pink pegboard behind the girl toys. When my son was a toddler, only ten years ago, I could get kitchen toys for him that weren’t pink..they were just primary colors. My daughter noticed that lately toys seem to be less and less “neutral”.
    We haven’t seen the “girl” Legos, yet but my daughter loved the Medieval village Lego set she got for Christmas this year. A few years ago she was thrilled that she had some pink Legos…but the older she gets, the less thrilled she is that every toy out there for girls is some hideous shade of pink!

  6. Kim Blackburn Genovese
    January 4, 2012

    I think many parents are afraid to allow their boys to play with “girl” things and girls to play with” boy” things. I have heard many parents say things, like I don’t want my son or daughter to be gay. So, that may be the proverbial elephant in the room. Many are afraid to verbalize this fear, and it is also frequently promoted by well-meaning grandparents. Keep that in mind when you have this discussion. Education is the key to eradicating this mistaken belief. It is only natural for parents to feel protective over their children’s gender ID, but someone should straighten out this notion that toys can impact sexual preferences. My opinion is that after fighting for equal rights through the 60-70s, our daughters grew up, had children, and their little girls were princesses. Of course they were, which of course meant their mothers were princesses and deserved to live in their dream houses immediately, drive the SUV, etc. You can see where that got everyone. Make no mistake it is all connected. If you don’t believe that ask Disney, they marketed princess mania, Disney World kept the mouse, but added, Cinderella, Snow White, Little Mermaid, Belle, Jasmine, and the latest token black princess. They became attractions on their own, captivating a generation of little girls and their mothers! In the 60-70s most toys were Sesame Street, Playskool, Fisher Price, and most were basically in primary colors. So did the children of the 70s go retrograde, pushing back the little progress made toward equality between the genders? Watch PanAm, Once Upon A Time, Madmen etc. Society goes like this anyway, usually every third generation. So these kids are a throw back to the 50s, I guess. Very interesting topic.

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  10. kuu
    January 9, 2012

    i wish I didn’t have to take psych and sociology classes, if I want to work for a toy company. a BA in that, a Master’s in art and 4 years in the field to work with Hasbro

    how about looking, hearing and making stuffed animals people buy? I think I am qualitfyed.
    that and If I dressed up plastic animals and gave them weapons, and got all my 14 year old friends to do the same. That means children everywhere will demand their parents trample and pepper spray other parents for my toy.
    http://www.swimtowin.com/53004.aspx something like that, but cartoony, with a tunic, belt, and sword. if your children don’t want them then something is wrong with that child.

  11. Pingback: Should you paint your girl’s bedroom pink and your boy’s bedroom blue? « psychologymum

  12. Pingback: LEGO Friends: Feminist Frequency responds | Don't conform Transform

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This entry was posted on December 31, 2011 by in Recognizing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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