Anita Sarkeesian, at Feminist Frequency, starts from the beginning. How is contemporary advertising to children gendered today? And why does it matter? With a special discussion of girls and technology. Enjoy:
(Transcript after the jump.)
Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Song: “I’m a Barbie girl in a fab world”
I recently spent some time watching afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon network, and look what I found.
“Nerf’s N-Strike arsenal has a specialized blaster for any mission”
“4 Ever Kidz pets. It’s snap on fashion play”
“Dirt, mud, we don’t care. These trucks go almost anywhere”
“…Barbie girls and we’re making the scene. Our jammin’ jeep wrangler is one glam machine”
Holy crap! What is going on here!?
Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve raced home after school to watch cartoons but I was amazed how highly gendered these commercials were. Have they changed or did I just not notice them before?
The messages being promoted in these commercials are deeply restricting and severely limit the development of boys and girls in different ways. The ads are actively demonstrating that boys and girls have different social roles and skills that are highly stereotyped and just outright sexist. So let’s take a closer look at ads targeted directly at boys.
“Battleground. Prepare to attack. Fire”
“Whose gonna win? Whose gonna win? YA”
“Arc light powered up. 3 in 1 repulser. Ready for action.”
“Close combat pistol. Rapid fire blaster”
“Always ready for action, G.I. Joe. Are you in?”
“Defend the castle! Imaginx Adventure”
Boys have power and get to be active and destroy things, YA! These commercials directed at boys value competition, being in control, having power, and conquering and commanding. Those values restrict the acceptable options for what boys are allowed to express emotionally, I’ve yet to see a commercial where see boys being nurturing or caring. They are limited in examples of how to react to problems and how to solve conflicts. They are taught to fight, to be competitive and to be aggressive.
I noticed that there are also a few other reoccuring messages embedded in ads targeted at boys.
“Bat cave building power. Trio building system lets you build the ultimate Trio bat cave. YA!”
“You can build the massive Neptune sub.”
“You can build up and customize your heavy duty truck with tons of parts”
“You decide how much firepower to arm your ships with then build your fleet and battle your way to victory.”
These ads encourage boys to build new worlds, use their imaginations and be creative. They are actively making and constructing. These are the training blocks for creative and fulfilling adult lives. The confidence that is fostered through the act of making and building and doing is something that is almost entirely lacking in girl’s toys commercials.
“The Liv girls have a flair for hair”
“I can make my own magic snow”
“Change the colour, change the style, ad the gel and look at the glitter”
“The easy way to make designer cakes. Bake your cake in the microwave in 30 seconds.”
“… beauty of the bride, share the gown and light up ring, handsome groom and everything”
“Go Go with me we’re walking round, Go Go with me we’ve hit the town.”
“Baby alive is so real, you can feed her. ‘I made a stinky.’ And then she leaves an uh-oh in her diaper.”
So girls get to play with sparkly glitter and bake cakes and changing stinky diapers, how fun! Commercials targeted at girls heavily focus on teaching child rearing, homemaking, domestic work, popularity, self image and an obsession with beauty. This restricts their imagination of what women are capable of and prioritizes appearance over intelligence. They are not encouraged to be creative, to build and construct and really take control of there environments. Girl’s toys are generally unimaginative and lack the creative element of play that is critical in the development of young people.
We can see this even in the way the same basic product is marketed differently to boys and girls.
“Moon Sand is the amazing moldable, squishable, buildable, demolishable sand that never dries out.”
“Moon Sand is the amazing moldable, holdable, decoratable sand that never dries out.”
Clearly this isn’t a coincidence since advertisers spend $17 BILLION dollars a year marketing to youth. That’s billion, with a ‘B’. Young people are seeing more than 25,000 advertisements a year on television alone, and that doesn’t even include product placement which is so common on popular television shows. The enormous amount of money advertisers are spending isn’t just on producing and airing ads, it’s also spent on the latest neuroscience research to find out EXACTLY what images, feelings and representations will appealing the most to developing minds.
Although many factors influence our socialization such as family, peer groups, churches and schools, the media plays a highly critical role. Advertising aimed at youth is especially dangerous because young children are unable to differentiate between television programming and commercials, they are still developing the necessary critical skills.
Youth may have a hard time recognizing that these commercials are teaching them what is expected, what is desired and what is possible for their genders, for their careers, for love, relationships and creative endeavors in the future. These messages are so manipulative, deeply embedded and carefully crafted that it’s even hard for us as adults to recognize them.
As someone whose really interested in promoting and encouraging the use of technology in young women, I found a stark difference in the way technology is marketed to boys and girls. Girls get a fun little purple computer that’s “hot” or a program that can help them cook and look pretty.
“It’s the Bratz laptop with over 100 games, you can have fun learning. It’s fun, smart and hot.”
“In my fashion mall, make pizzas, do makeovers and more, and throw the ultimate pajama party.”
Whereas boys get to go online and play adventure games.
“Become a pirate and join thousands online. Captain your ship and command the sea.”
“Now you can be the hero and join your friends in an epic online adventure.”
One of the reasons that the gender specific marketing of technology is so concerning is when we look at the statistics of adult women in technology fields. Only 3% of open source programmers are women and only 11.5% of video game developers are women.
Although as I stated, there are many factors that affect the jobs and careers people enter, it is not hard to connect gendered advertising at such a young age to the socialization of women who don’t feel confident or supported within heavily male dominated and male identified tech fields.
I was originally going to say that “We need to hold the media accountable for what they are teaching our young people” but no, really, advertising directed specifically at young people needs to STOP altogether, no exceptions. A precedent has already been set to implement these types of restrictions. Quebec has banned print and broadcast advertisements for youth under the age of 13 and Sweden has banned advertisements for youth under the age of 12.
In the mean time we need to encourage critical media literacy skills in people of all ages. I’ll leave you with an amazing remix created by some female youth at Reel Grrls during a workshop with Jonathan McIntosh. They were able to actively resist these harmful media messages and really begin to talk back to the media by simply swapping the audio and video of gendered commercial. The results are hilarious and very illuminating.
“Nerf’s N-Strike arsenal has a specialized blaster for any mission. You can improve your blasting speed with the maverick rapid fire blaster. While the night fighters night beam targeting system allows for pin point accuracy. And you can nail targets from long distance with Nerf’s long shot blaster. Two blasters in one, quick fire clips and detachable scope, everything you need to blast your skills to the next level. N-Strike, blaster sold separately, batteries not included. Nerf.”
MJS — November 21, 2010
Oh my God! Dolls marketed towards girls? Nerf guns marketed towards boys? I'm shocked! SHOCKED!
Angie — November 21, 2010
As the mother of a 2 year old girl, this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Luckily my kid only has a few shows she likes, and they are on Nick Jr, which is a commercial-free network. Going into a toy store and seeing the massive gender split, or seeing how many of the "girls" toys are princess or baby themed really bothers me.
We make sure that she has lots of access to toys regardless of what gender they are typically associated with, and so far that's allowed her to have a wide range of interests. I just hope those interests don't get restricted as she gets more influence from outside our home.
Scott — November 21, 2010
So is the problem that toys are marketed to genders or that toys marketed to genders follow specific patterns that are repressive of gender identities?
A case study can certainly include Nerf guns and Barbies, since these are some of the most well-known and blatant examples of gendered toy marketing, but what of gender-neutral toys and games?
I offer up Jenga and Erector as toys that are marketed gender-neutral. However, Erector's current owner's website has gender/age distribution graphs which show men having a large market share within presumably registered users. (note the spikes at 8 and 30 in both groups)
Inevitably, the question is "shouldn't companies have their own self-interest at heart and take advantage of any preference they can?" The question boils down to one of morality. At the end of the day, there should be a voice making it clear that it is moreover _immoral_ to encourage misogyny and misandry, to put a stick in the spokes of a bright young girl's potential leadership in the field of semiconductors (currently male-dominated) and contribute to the sort of anti-effeminate environment among males that makes little boys kill themselves.
Sayantani DasGupta — November 21, 2010
Kudos Scott for stating it so brilliantly!
I think the question is also how much a binary construction of genders - with accompanying binary gender preferences - is enforced and, in a sense, policed by the capitalist marketplace. As Judith Butler says, all gender is performance - we perform what our ideas of 'girl' 'boy' etc. FOR a social audience that either reinforces that performance or punishes when that performance is against the social grain (which of course, changes historically and across cultures)
I have the same struggle with 'girl books' and 'boy books' - since my big reader boy would never have been exposed to some wonderful books like the Little House series (which has some attendant racist issues, I know...) or even the Beverly Cleary books had he stuck to the narrow window of what's defined as a 'boy book':
Not to mention the whole pandoras box of the sexualized girl toy marketplace these days... ugh...
DLL — November 21, 2010
When I had my son in 1983 & my daughter in 1985 I was determined to raise them in the least sexist way I could. I truly believed that gender roles existed only because they were pushed on us by social conditioning. For my son's first b-day his gifts included a doll, a boy doll I admit. My daughter's 1st b-day gifts included a fire-truck. Now this is true: My son's only use for his doll was to use him to knock down towers of blocks. And I walked into my daughter's room to find her cradling & rocking the fire-truck! They both continued to get gender neutral gifts like blocks & art supplies, but I stopped trying to thwart what were clearly some of their inborn interests. I'm not saying EVERY little girl wants to cradle something. I am saying that my daughter did, without any pushing from anyone. And given blocks and a doll my son devised his own uses for those. I let them play while I read Ms Magazine :)
Carolyn Dougherty — November 22, 2010
I noticed a female action figure in one of the military toy ads--I wonder how that's marketed, and to whom?
microadvert — November 22, 2010
indeed, it is a worthy goals today.
Many people have found that trieun so quickly but I find not sustainable. Rapid development into a market cluttered.
thanks for information
Michele — November 22, 2010
I've created a brand/concept specifically in response to all of this highly gendered stuff our kids see. It's called Princess Free Zone and it was inspired by my daughter who rejected all typical "girl" stuff since she was three! www.princessfreezone.com.
The images our kids are exposed to have significant effects on their emotional and social development--there is no question about that as research continues to prove. It just happens to be highlighted more now than ever which is a good thing.
cecilia — November 22, 2010
I just want to say that even though it is banned in sweden to market ANY commercial to children under 12, this is only for swedish channels that are directed to the swedish public.
however, the swedish channels 3, 5, 6, etc, are BRITISH channels, that broadcast in swedish. the only channels that actually cannot market to children are the government run channels 1 and 2 (sorry, don't actually know if they are government run or owned, or what), and channel 4.
3 channels compared to the rest of the 50 channels or more that are available in sweden.
Quijotesca — November 22, 2010
I can't believe I'm saying this since gendered ads are one of my pet peeves, but some the examples are kind of strange. Fashion and baking are creative acts. Making those the default outlet for women and only women is what strikes me as problematic.
Alice — November 22, 2010
I dunno. While I don't think any of this is particularly good, I think the interpretation is fairly reductionist.
Children like things simplified. The good guy is completely good; the bad guy is completely bad. The girl is completely feminine, the boy is completely masculine. Eventually children grow up and realise that the world is a lot more complex - but unfortunately they have to start small.
I don't agree with the assertion that girls' toys are not creative, they just tend to be creative in terms of fashion, decorating and role-play, rather than war, destruction and conflict. I do think there is a significantly heavier emphasis on consumerism in girls' toys, and also the fact that boys are encouraged to develop their motor skills while girls aren't.
However, I grew up in a country where I (and children my age) saw the bare minimum of child-directed advertising, and girls still preferred to congregate in a corner while boys ran around - so I'm not sure how much that distinction is driven by suggestive gender roles in advertising.
lisa Horst — November 22, 2010
I went into a big box toy store for the first time in years this summer, and was really infuriated by the strict gender categories. I was looking for "plastic food" to go along with our kitchen and was told, not even joking, that it was in the "cooking and cleaning" aisle of the girls section.
This is a major retailer who has decided that cooking and cleaning are a legitimate subset of girls play. At least the employee seemed embarrassed to admit it.
Laura — November 22, 2010
Le sigh, I love her.
emjaybee — November 22, 2010
There really is no good reason to segregate activities like "building" "cooking" "fighting bad guys" "being magical" or "art" into genders; the pink and blue approach to those things is wholly a marketing decision.
Take dolls. Roleplay dolls like Barbie and GI Joe are essentially in the same category, used for story-telling and heavily focused on acquiring accessories (whether they are dresses or rocket packs). The restriction of these dolls to extreme gender roles of nurturing vs. warfare is artificial as well; could Barbie join the Army? Could Joe become a marine biologist (asking him to do childcare is probably too much yet)? Sure, if toymakers had enough imagination to market them right. (Army Barbie could be a hot seller to little girls w/ military moms). Could action figures include more warrior queens, female knights, female bad guys, and quests with female heroes? Sure.
Could home-roleplay toys like ovens, kitchens, and cleaning toys be de-pinkified? Sure. (Though I have to admit, I would never have played with a toy broom for any reason....)
We know it can be done; pushing the toy industry to do it is the hard part.
We're not going to be able to ban toy advertising, and honestly, if the toys being sold were not so offensive, I wouldn't be bothered by the ads. We don't have cable TV and so miss a lot of these ads anyway.
tekanji — November 22, 2010
There's a full transcript available at Feminist Frequency. It should be linked. Transcripts, when available, should always be linked. When not available should be created and posted (there is a community on Dreamwidth that will transcribe videos for you; you do not need to be a member of the site or community to post a request).
I think it should be obvious why always providing transcripts to your readership is important, but if not here's a good summation (from A Letter for your Toolbox: How to ask for transcripts and subtitles):
This stuff is (dis)ableism 101 and it's something that a sociological blog really needs to be aware of, especially one that is so good about covering other aspects of social justice work.
Feministisches Linkfrühstück « kiturak — November 23, 2010
[...] via Lauredhel/ Sociological Images: Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency: Toy Ads and Learning Gender, dort mit komplettem Transcript. [...]
Anon — November 23, 2010
I've seen all of Feminist Frequency's videos, and about half the content in each seems well thought out, but the other half is ideological based assumptions.
The media does have an influence on developing minds as well as adults, BUT what is not addressed is the responsibility on parents to turn off the TV. She suggests going right after the media company through government legislation without doing the simple thing and enlightening the parents first.
She admits family, peer groups, schools and churches play a role, but the media plays a special "highly critical role". How is that even defined? Is it critical in that it is needed for the development of an individual? No, media can be completely cut and all previously mentioned influences can take up the slack. Is it critical in that it's highly influential? Maybe, but all those previously mentioned influences are much stronger than the passive manipulation of the media. Once again, the power stops when the TV is off.
I don't get why she brings up that 3% of open source programmers are women (that's a very selective example) and that 11.5% of video game designers are women. There's a difference between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity. She says: "it's not hard to connect gender and advertising at such a young age to the socialization of women etc etc." Yes, it's not hard to make up a simplistic and shallow explanation without showing HOW the process works.
J — December 1, 2010
For the first Christmas I can remember, I asked for only two things: a toy truck and a baby doll.
Not one relative bought me a toy truck.
Guess my gender.
This crap isn't as trivial as just "dolls vs. guns". How many parents walk right past the "My First Microscope" display on their way to the Bratz dolls when buying gifts for a daughter?
The point here isn't that boys GENERALLY like guns and cars, or that girls GENERALLY like dolls and baking. The point is that individual children shouldn't be defined and restricted by stereotypes. I would steal my brother's bow and arrow set, and he would sneak in my room and play with my barbies. He ignored his "action figures" while I would pit my stuffed animal minions against one another to fight an epic battle before bedtime.
Boys learn very quickly the ramifications of playing with barbies in public, but how many girls later experience a similar sense of insecurity when it comes to choosing a career in engineering or joining the military?
Mhari — December 9, 2010
The question that I have is how much of our assumption that 'girls like dolls, boys like trucks' or any variation thereof is created by commercials like this? Do we assume that this is an inborn natural instinct in play and thus the commercials are simply reinforcing and pandering to what 'normal' girls and boys like? Or is it because of these commercials that such strict divides are created?
Honestly I think its the latter of the two. A little girl who plays with cars, trucks, nerf guns, legos, ect... but hates baby dolls is going to be bombarded with images that she's not normal and she should want to play with dolls. Concerned parents, worried that their little girl isn't 'normal' according to what they're being shown as normal girl play stop buying her 'boy' toys and instead get her 'girl' toys. Now the little girl seems to like playing with girl toys because that's all she has. Lets say Barbie becomes a super hero with amazing butt kicking power, that only lasts until a well meaning adult figure, who wants the little girl to fit in, convinces her that Barbie can't do that.
Little boys get it too. Lets say there's a little boy who enjoys playing with cleaning toys, a fake mop, broom, duster ect... How long before well meaning and concerned parents give him something more 'appropriate' for his gender based on what boys are supposed to like playing with? Now anyone who sees the little boy assumes he likes trucks more since that's what he's playing with.
The company gets the positive feedback of parents buying gender specific toys and keep pumping out very gender rigid commercials. Parents keep seeing what their precious angel should be playing with and don't offer gender neutral or opposite gender toys out of fear their child won't fit in. Advertisements become more gender rigid, parents become more convinced little Bobby or Susie isn't going to fit in with others their age and the cycle repeats.
Sayantani DasGupta — December 9, 2010
And then of course, appropos of all this -- is VIDEO BARBIE. This year's horrifying addition to the pantheon of gendered toys...
a lens in between her breasts and a USB in her, er, hip. You can't make this stuff up! (I'm beginning to suspect disgruntled women's studies/cultural studies grad students moonlight at Mattel....)
See more: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2010/12/from-insitute-of-barbie-studies-video.html
That Labeled Dude — December 19, 2010
Gender stereotypes are all BS. Keep your chin up. Always remember that labels are BS and they do not define a person. Choose your toy. Choose your career. "In the end, it doesn't even matter"--Linkin Park
dkmilgrimheath1 — April 12, 2011
Sociological Images In A Gendered Way
By D.K. Milgrim-Heath©2011
Sociological images in a gendered ways-
Have they changed since my own childhood days?
Being a child of the 1950’s -1960’s respectively-
Mostly saw feminine toys for girls and masculine toys boys in society.
Today boys can play with dolls of the action/GI Joe figures kind-
Girls can do this too so keep that in mind.
Anyone can be a doll collector gender doesn’t come into play-
Dolls are so different for all reasons today anyway.
Yes-I was the ultimate Barbie doll collector-
So spoiled that way by my father protector!
When my three children were impressionable and still small-
Even I used a gender division on their toys I do recall.
My daughters had their Barbie’s; my son had his Mutant Ninja Turtle thing-
No matter what one’s child plays with their imaginations grow with everything.
Today more girls dream of doing things that were once kept in a man’s world-
So are their toy gender differences apparent that are unfurled?
Myself as that ‘girly’ girl child never dreamt of playing with a truck, gun or train-
But Women’s Lib happened and toy companies find their wares can be unisex now they explain!
Modern commercials still do restrict/severely limit the young male and female gender I note-
“To play with toys demonstrating that boys and girls have different social roles and skills that are highly stereotyped and just outright sexist”-I quote.
In all societies (not the US alone) teach boys to be in control/ conquer having power and destroy things on command-
Haven’t you noticed that the more deviant terrorist male dominated societies took heavily that stand?
Countries that are known for that don’t need any name calling doesn’t the world now know them by name?
Nurturing the impressionable youngsters with extreme violence (sending them for summer camps just for that) isn’t any game.
These future terrorists groomed at a very young aren’t taught nurturing or caring-
Their media over there is one for terroristic indoctrination that’s always blaring.
Wondering why it’s still a male world before modern media made its appearance-
Was the ‘go for it girls equality’ always/now considered an ‘accidental interference’?
Media ads only encourage boys towards creative imaginations building a new world as their battle to victory-
Construction solely of activating their successful building blocks for adult lives by nurturing their creative and fulfilling goals you see.
By the same token girl’s toy ads don’t have that same success message so it’s something that’s lacking-
Focusing heavily on popularity, self imaged beauty obsession, homemaking/ child rearing in general are their only backing.
As a mother (once that impressionable child myself) with 3 grown children having gained parental wisdom to know-
Girl advertisements are restrictive, stalling constructive/ creative imagination for building and controlling an environment for a future woman so.
Everything’s geared only on beauty…beauty… who is now/not now in some social popularity race-
Then you wonder why female juvenile depressions go steadily into place.
The ‘Moon Sand’ product is even marketed with different grammatical intonations-
For both sexes with different thought explanations!
Words being buildable, demolishable for boys is amazing and carefully taught-
For girls this same product words being holdable and decoratable is sought!
For all presentations of recent neuroscience studies money’s available for the appealing, developing mind-
A dangerous media controls development knowing children don’t understand proper gender roles needing to be defined.
Thinking almost full nudity of well known pop figures shown happily to children of any impressionable age-
Or what about adult themes of sexual connotations that even affect elementary year aged children at their young age?
Manipulative, so carefully crafted (with strong brilliance in advertizing) that’s embedded even adults we don’t pick subliminal things up-
Do you really want your little girl looking/behaving like a child prostitute?
Some little girl’s dolls/toys give those messages that they secretly constitute.
What about boy’ constitutes toys making them behaving as that bully so very tough?
Or even sexual connotations making boys NOT REPSPECT FEMALES THAT EVIDENTLY ENOUGH.
Have you thought of gender differences in marketing for boy and girls in things dealt with computers today?
Because small percentages in the technological field have women in it as recent statistics do say.
A noted excellent remix workshop with Jonathan McIntosh some female youth got back and the media they did with glory!
Video/ audio swapping audio swapping with gendered commercials done by Reel Grrls towards resisting messages of media harm was their story!
These results changed one’s noticeable gendered impressions they did evoke-
Leaving the finished results being imaginative, illuminating so hilarious with every technological stroke!
Antiliberal — September 22, 2011
The amount of wussies in this thread is mind-bogging. Stop worrying about what the hell your child plays with, and just let them grow up. Playing with G.I. Joe does not mean that they will be damaged for life, going to college and learning all of this liberal bullshit will.
Life — December 12, 2011
[...] lot has already been written on gendered toys and the princess culture (see here and here and here). I always found this culture upsetting, even infuriating, but I also thought I [...]