In the public debate about gender stereotypes being promoted by children’s media and marketing, I’ve heard an interesting argument coming from those who do not believe there is anything wrong with companies promoting stereotypes. This argument goes something like this: “Girls and boys are biologically different and have different inborn preferences. There is nothing wrong with recognizing and promoting these preferences, in fact, companies should do this in order to provide access to both girls and boys.” This argument is based on personal observation and sometimes on studies such as that done by Hassetta, Siebert and Wallena (2008) which show that children demonstrate the same sex differences in toy preference as do monkeys. So it must be biological, right? The thing is, the study referenced above simply shows that male monkeys showed a preference for wheeled toys while female monkeys showed a greater variation in preferences.
If anything, studies like this tend to demonstrate that females tend to have a wider range of interests that can be developed. As neuroscientist Lise Eliot (2010) points out, there are three small early sex differences that appear to be biological, meaning they are promoted by either prenatal hormone exposure or sex-specific gene expression. These are the fact that baby boys are a bit more physically active than baby girls, toddler girls tend to talk a bit earlier than boys, and boys appear more spatially aware. But Eliot points out that these are very incremental differences for the most part, and the large differences that emerge, as children get older seem to be driven by nurture rather than nature. In fact, neuroscience has identified very few real differences between the way that girl and boy brains function. She says, “Our actual ability differences are quite small…there is more overlap in the academic and…social-emotional abilities of the genders than there are differences” (Eliot, 2010, pg. 33).
What Eliot is saying is that a child’s ability and interests develop in a context. This context provides the child with guidance and feedback about what behaviors and interests are appropriate for them, individually and in reference to their gender. The ways and amount that parents talk to their child, the toys and activities that they are exposed to, the media messages, peer groups, and communities of which the child is a part, all of these influence the things that a child learns about what it means to be a boy or a girl.
There are very clear lines drawn in advertisements directed to children between what toys are “for” boys or girls. Packed into these advertisements are consistent messages about behaviors, interests, and activities that are appropriate for girls and boys. Research has found that television commercials for children overwhelmingly present gender stereotypes, with pastel colors, cooperation, and indoor play associated primarily with girls and competition and outdoor play associated with boys (Kahlenberg & Hein, 2010). In a study conducted by Johnson and Young (2002), the researchers examined the themes of gendered voice and words present in children’s television commercials. Clear gender patterns were found in the types of verbs that were used with action, competition and destruction rating high in advertisements that featured boys and boy-targeted products. On the other hand, verbs that focused on limited activity and feelings and nurturing rated high in advertisements that featured girls and girl-targeted products. Another pattern that was found involved the use of verbs of agency or control. These words were found more often in boys-oriented advertisements than girl-oriented advertisements, with a ratio being over 4:1. When we consider the use of the word power and related words, 21% of boy oriented advertisements used the words power or powerful, but in all of the girl-oriented advertisements, there was only one incident of the word “power” being used, and it was in the context of identifying the maker of a Barbie car (Power Wheels). Johnson and Young conclude “Toy makers and their advertisers either make no effort to associate or may consciously avoid associating girl-toys with power or their potential to transfer power to their users” (Johnson & Young, 2002, p. 477).
Children are internalizing these stereotypes and the message that certain products, interests, and activities are gender specific. A study in 2009 (Miller, Lurye, Zosuls, & Ruble) examined the accessibility of gender stereotypes and found that girls and boys tended to describe girls as nice, liking to play with dolls, and as having her value linked with her appearance. This focus on appearance seemed to be particularly strong for girls in late elementary school when compared to younger children, with an average of half of that age girls describing appearance as an important component of a girl’s identity. The traits most often associated with boys included being active, athletic, and aggressive.
Another interesting thing to think about in terms of products and media that consistently promote separate girl/boy play is that when children are exposed to high levels of gender salience, meaning clear demarcations of being in one group as opposed to another, they tend to demonstrate increased gender stereotypes, have less positive feelings about opposite-sex peers, and not play with them as much (Hilliard & Liben, 2010). So, when advertisers consistently depict their product being played with mostly by only one gender, children of the opposite gender will not see that toy as accessible to them. When children are consistently exposed to the idea that girls and boys are very different and should play separately, they will begin to function that way in the real world, preferring to only play with children of their same sex. When commercials show toys being manipulated by only one gender, children are likely to identify that toy as “for” the gender of the child shown in the commercial.
But hold on a minute. Guess what else research has shown, when both boys and girls are depicted as playing with the same toy in a commercial, children are more likely to later identify that toy as being “for boys and girls” (Pike & Jennings, 2005). In fact, advertising research has suggested that instead of developing two different sets of advertisements for boys and girls, advertisers can more effectively appeal to preadolescent boys and girls by choosing themes that either focus on agency or community. Preadolescent boys and girls are both interested in the idea of promoting agency though acting independently and in building community and relationships. By the age of eight, girls actually begin to show more favorable toward advertisements that promote agency (Bakir, Blodgett, & Rose, 2008).
So why don’t we see more advertisements that depict boys and girls playing together? Why don’t we see more commercials that promote agency for girls and community for boys, since we know that those can be effective as well? Some have suggested that it’s because segmenting the market is more profitable (Johnson & Young, 2002). If I can sell two different sets of the same toy to one household because the parents think they must have different ones for their son and daughter, then I make more money!
But the thing is, this type of advertising also promotes stereotypes that feed into the idea that girls are less capable of acting on their own behalf as agents, that they are less interested in activities that tend to lead to interest in STEM fields, that boys are not interested in relationship and community, and that people of different sexes should not play and in the long-term work together. None of these ideas are healthy, effective ways of helping children develop into strong men and women. Parents and other caring adults need to understand this so that they can begin to use their buying power to pressure companies to produce something different. That’s where change will come, but it all starts with parental awareness.
When most parents list the characteristics that they hope to see in their child as they grow, they include things like compassion, integrity, leadership, and strong character for children of both genders. In order to produce those things, we must become more aware of the messages that our children are absorbing. We must become critical consumers and help our children learn to do the same so that their ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl are shaped thoughtfully, and so that whatever their talents, our children learn to envision a way to use them to make this world a better place.
Eliot, L. (2010). The myth of pink & blue brains. Educational Leadership. 32-36.
Hassetta, J.M., Siebert, E.R., & Wallena, K. (2008). Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Hormones and Behavior, 54, 359-364.
Hilliard, L.J. & Liben, L.S. (2010). Differing levels of gender salience in preschool classrooms: Effects on children’s gender attitudes and intergroup bias. Child Development, 81, 1787-1798.
Johnson, F.L. & Young, K. (2002). Gendered voices in children’s television advertising. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 461-480.
Kahlenberg, S.G. & Hein, M.M. (2010). Progression on Nickelodeon? Gender-role stereotypes in toy commercials. Sex Roles, 62, 830-847.
Miller, C.F., Lurye, L.E., Zosuls, K.M., & Ruble, D.N. (2009). Accessibility of gender stereotype domains: Developmental and gender differences in children. Sex Roles, 60, 870-881.
Pike, J.J. & Jennings, N.A. (2005). The effects of commercials on children’s perceptions of gender appropriate toy use. Sex Roles, 52, 83-91.