When was the last time you sat and watched cartoons on a Saturday morning? Recently, I snuggled in bed with my husband and nine-year-old daughter to watch some 'toons. I'm sure most of us can recall waking up on Saturday mornings to the sudden realization there was no school, while our parents got some rare extra shut-eye, then clicking on the television set (that's what we used to call it) to tune in to our favorite shows. I am a child of the 70's, so my go-tos were shows like "Sigmund & the Sea Monster," "Land of the Lost," "School of Rock" and "Josie & the Pussycats" to name a few. And remember the commercials? For me, it meant mentally storing my proposed Christmas list. After all, marketers have been at work like drug pushers pedaling their wares from inside their overcoats to kids as long as I can remember.
But marketing to children has changed a lot since I was a kid. To absorb just how much, I urge everyone to sit down in front of any cartoon cable station these days (doesn't have to be on a Saturday morning) and witness the litany of ridiculously gendered ads. Honestly, this is the best way to educate yourself and your children as you witness the very blatant use of stereotypes that not only serve to entice your child as a consumer, but also to really sear those stereotypes into the mindset. All the while companies like Mattel and Hasbro rake in the big bucks showing little regard for how your child might be effected.
My husband, who had not seen the toy commercials that are aired throughout kids programming, was completely dumbfounded. As we watched one after another, he looked at me and said, "I never knew." To illustrate some of the more egregioius offenders, I'll let the ads speak for themselves. The first two Crayola ads provide insight on how companies market and limit the same product to girls and boys.
Crayola's Virtual Design Pro "Car Collection" for boys:
Crayola's Virtual Design Pro "Fashion Collection" for girls:
Lalaloopsy's Baking Oven for girls:
Hasbro's Construct-Bots for boys: note the language which includes using the words "build" and "construct" multiple times:
Lego Friends "Sunshine Ranch" which is supposedly "building for girls," but NEVER ONCE uses the word "build":
Barbie "Glam" Camper for girls? Because we all know how glamorous camping can be:
First of all, can't we all admit how utterly shameful and ridiculous these are? Obviously, there are marked differences visually (the color pink is vomited all over everything in the girls' renditions), but you really don't even have to be watching to know which is which. You just need to be listening. In the commercials for girls there is often a lot of giggling narrated by a high-pitched female whose tone usually borders on squeaky and flowery. The music is typically bouncy and light. Commercials featuring boy products are laden with heavy metal guitar rhythms and hard, rhythmic sounds in the background along with a male narrator who has a deep, sometimes dark gritty voice. The language used in each is completely different. These ads would have us believe that all girls are happy and love sunshine and cupcakes while the boys are active and busy building and smashing things.
The thing is, I could post videos all day which prove beyond a reasonable doubt how over-saturated and dripping with gender stereotypes kids toy ads are. These commercials are played in almost rapid-fire succession while your child is glued not just to the television, but to the messages being sent (think of it as a kid's version of The Manchurian Candidate). There is no time for them to think or consider what is really being sold which is a world in which girls and boys don't play together, and femininity and masculinity are just as cartoonish as the cartoons themselves. It's a perversion of childhood and yet seems to be not just tolerated, but swallowed whole.
As my non-girly daughter has grown up, I hate the fact that she cannot place herself in either of these scenarios. She does not fit into the mold of femininity that a majority of companies sell. And since there are no girls present in any of the ads for boys--she is being told she doesn't belong there either. There is absolutely no room for in-between. There is no room for a girl who might like to bake and play with cars. Or a boy who might think about designing clothes and is also interested in building sets. When either sex is alienated from playing with certain toys, it leads to being alienated in the real world. It leads to things like bullying and intolerance. Think about this: everything a girl is taught to be from birth, every message spewing from these commercials that tells her to dress or act a certain way or be interested in certain things is turned against her as she gets older. The same for boys. So why are we allowing this to happen?
And if you think it doesn't matter or has little effect, think again. The one thing we can be sure of is that companies don't spend billions of dollars on marketing and advertising because it doesn't work. But what can we do to change an industry that relies so heavily on brainwashing children for profit and has the power to keep doing it? It's truly a dilemma to which some of us have devoted our blood, sweat and tears. For one, we must continue to be vigilant about bringing awareness while also offering and promoting alternatives. The very minimum we can do is to educate ourselves and our children by taking the opportunity to point out the differences between what is offered girls and what is offered boys. Ask your kids questions about whether they think these are authentic depictions of the kids they know. Ask them if only girls like to bake and then point out that a majority of professional chefs are male. And, last but not least, explain that these companies really don't care about them as human beings. Let's raise media literate children who understand that what is being sold to them is much more than a toy.