by Michele Yulo
Last year, when my daughter turned seven, my husband and I took the Magic Kingdom plunge. We made the trek to Disney World which seems to be every child's rite of passage into the world of life-sized characters, thrilling rides, and...childhood magic. While I was never big on Disney World myself and had only been there a couple of times--Gabi had been asking to go. While she is a princess-free girl, I knew there would be many other things she would enjoy and didn't want to miss the opportunity for her to experience it at the perfect age. So off we went.
There was one incident which I think shines a particular spotlight on how large corporations like Disney view children. And this certainly did not come as any shock being that we were in Disney World (I know! I know! What did I expect?) but, still, nobody does it like Disney. As we walked up to the reservations desk at the hotel we were greeted by a lovely woman with a welcoming smile. She immediately greeted us and turned toward Gabi and said, "and is this your little prince?" Gabi has short hair and doesn't dress in pink or skirts or sparkle. I said very matter-of-factly, "Nope. And she isn't a princess either." The woman, looking uncomfortable and stupefied, literally had nothing to say. Why? Because there is no room for anything in between those two identities at Disney, and clearly their employees are not trained in the "what if a child doesn't fit into one of these two categories?" situation.
But, in the broader context, is this something that only occurs in the Magic Kingdom or in Disney-related marketing? Absolutely not. This is how many large companies market to children. Girls and boys are both vulnerable to being corralled into separate arenas solely based on what will bring the most profit regardless of "corporate social responsibility" (CSR). The fact is that while many corporations practice some form of CSR--it usually does not include any standards related to gender or address the psychological ramifications of how children might be affected by a continual stream of stereotyping that is often at the very core of childhood bullying.
To the point, here are a variety of ads that depict children in very separate and distinct ways based on being a girl or boy that illustrate the disturbing demarcation that has occurred over the years setting up specific roles and expectations for each sex:
You might have heard about Stride Rite's latest ad campaign that received a lot of attention from blog posts and articles to major news outlets in which girls can "wish like a princess" while boys take on "the power of Darth Vader":
Someone sent me this photo taken recently at a BJ's retail store highlighting the differences between the toys (and notice how similar in color these look to Stride Rite's). Once again, girls are "princesses in training" while the Monster's Inc. fun house is reserved for boys.
But wait--there's more! According to these books--girls learn how to be gorgeous with "Smart ways to look and feel FABULOUS" while boys learn how to be clever with "Smart ways to get smarter." And we wonder why women do not pursue careers in STEM?
I could post pages and pages of these kinds of ads for a variety of products that never show girls and boys actually playing together or sharing the same toy. More and more children and parents find themselves having to choose between being a princess (for girls) and being a pirate or some kind of warrior (for boys). Girls are typically provided with hyper-feminine options while boys are often hyper-masculinized without much room for anything else.
Has it always like this as some argue? Here are a couple of older ads from the 80s that seem to defy the "it's always been like this" argument:
There was a time (seems like eons ago) when companies actually viewed children as children--not "blue" boys and "pink" girls. Not boys playing one way and girls another. I grew up in a time when my brothers and I pretty much played with the same toys like Big Wheels (not one in pink for girls), Tinker Toys and LEGOs. You'd be hard-pressed now to find any form of marketing to children in which both sexes are represented or playing together. I recently spoke to a co-worker about this situation in terms of the stark line that has been drawn between the sexes. It was something he was mildly aware of, but then realized that his five-year-old daughter wondered why girls and boys didn't play together.
The question is--what to do? It seems like an extremely ardous battle--fighting multi-million dollar corporations who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But a group of very determined and concerned women, including myself, have forged an alliance called Brave Girls Want. This group is a collaborative effort of girls, businesses, experts, not-for-profit organizations, activists, parents and educators who intend to shine a light on the corporate mentality that limits children's "in-between-ness," if you will. Our goal is to not only bring greater awareness to the situation, but to effect change. Our hope is to begin to unravel these seemingly entrenched stereotypes that tell girls and boys that they are worlds apart from each other. Or marketing that sends the message to girls, for instance, that building toys or science kits must be pink for them to be interested. Our first project is to invade NY City's Time Square with a billboard that will provide constructive, proactive and inspiring messages as suggestions for media and toys creators, retailers and big corporations. Change is hard and takes time, but we believe our children are worth the effort.
We want all children to experience the childhood they deserve. The childhood that allows them the freedom to explore their own individuality and uniqueness. Because we know that every girl is more than a princess and every boy more than a pirate, but we want them to know that too.