By Michele Yulo
When you have a little girl, like I do, who does not like typical girl stuff, but instead longs to have all the Star Wars sabers, Matchbox cars, superhero costumes, and every other "boy" toy she can get her hands on, you gain perspective much like a sixth sense. Once that sense is activated, you never see things the same. It's as if a veil is lifted and suddenly you are privy to just how much specific gender identification drives the various children's industries--clothing, toys, videos, etc. Prior to this, you are like a hypnotized subject who is told, "when you see pink, you will see female," and, "when you see blue, you will think of boys." We have been made to believe this is just a natural expression of each gender. Of course, it is not. But when is someone going to clap their hands so we can snap out of it?
What irks me the most is how easy it would be for companies to make very small changes that would allow kids (and adults) to see that there is no such thing as a "girl" or a "boy" toy. For instance, my six-year-old daughter decided to buy an Air Racer X car. It is a remote control hi-tech car that works from an app that can be downloaded to any Android or iPhone. The app allows the phone to become the steering device. Pretty cool, huh? She thought so--and decided that was what she wanted to buy with some of the Christmas money she'd received. I went online to check out their site and found this video that shows two boys playing with the cars. As my daughter and I watched, I wondered why they simply could not include a girl in the video. I thought about my daughter who constantly sees only boys in commercials and ads playing with the toys that she often plays with. I've often wondered what effect this has on her in terms of how she places herself in a world that tells her she is excluded from such play. According to all that she sees, she should, instead, be playing with something like the Easy Bake Oven. This becomes clear when you see the commercial which consists of six young girls dressed in pink shirts with pink aprons dancing and being cutesy while having fun happily baking cookies as their approving mother (also in pink) looks on.
Even the Easy Bake Oven itself is pink--let's face it, no boy is going to want to play with a pink oven. We have made sure of that.
Take a look at commercials for Bakugan and Lego Ninjago--both of which my daughter owns. Not a girl present in either. Not one!
And the latest brouhaha over Lego's latest decision to appeal to girls by adding girly mini-figs (short for mini-figures) in a host of overtly feminine options like building a hair salon just shows that we are simply traveling deeper and deeper into a land in which there is a severe line drawn between boys and girls. [While Lego continues to say that their products have always been available to girls, they have openly admitted that they have only marketed them to boys.]
Even science kits for kids have become separated by gender. I think this is one of the saddest examples of gender stereotyping out there. The one for girls is called the "Spa Science Kit" and focuses on those things that supposedly interest girls...you know, like perfumes, and oatmeal masks, and bath gel--because this is the only way to get girls interested in science. Janet Stemwedel, a blogger for Scientific American, put it best in her article, "Some reasons gendered science kits may be counterproductive". She says, "Here, the folks marketing science kits for girls are making the assumption that all girls are the same. Assuming that young females are a monolithic group — especially one whose interests you perceive to be so narrow — means you are bound to alienate the girls who don’t fit your stereotype."
However, not only is all of this marketing problematic because it assumes sweeping generalizations about boys and girls, but because it ultimately affects how children interact with each other. My daughter has often been asked why she likes to play with boy things and has caused her, at times, to question her identity--all because she'd rather dress as a fireman than a princess. This is what we are doing to children.
Company's marketing departments and ad agencies want us to believe that boys battle and build and girls bake cookies and make soap. But my little girl prefers to battle and build. And I know for a fact that there are plenty of other kids out there who defy these stereotypes because all girls and all boys are not the same. I just cannot believe there isn't a single person at any of these companies who doesn't think that a girl might want to race a car or a boy use an oven. Is it too much to ask that they simply insert a boy in a baby doll commercial and a girl in a Bakugan or Lego commercial? I want my daughter, and other girls, to see themselves playing right alongside the boys. The same goes for boys who should see themselves happily baking right alongside the girls. There is no reason I can come up with that this can't and shouldn't happen. Even the idea that profit has been the motivating factor behind gendered marketing doesn't seem like an impediment. The only difference would be in how sales are distributed; it wouldn't necessarily have to mean less in terms of profit.
Perhaps the most recent phenom, Riley (who by now you've probably seen many times), the little girl who angrily rants about how companies just don't understand that girls can like superheroes and boys can like princesses, will actually have some affect--maybe it will break the hypnotic spell we're under as a society. Because there's absolutely no reason for it and no reason we can't change it. We just need to snap out of it.