The great American holiday, Black Friday, marks the beginning of the holiday shopping frenzy. At the top of most parents’ lists are children’s toys—be it the latest video games, coloring sets, dolls or action figures. Even as the toys and games become more elaborate (and expensive), one thing seems to remain the same: the gendered nature of children’s products. Having grown up in this gendered arena, I was the giddy recipient of many a Barbie doll, baby doll, and flowery art set (to be fair, my parents also gifted me less gendered items geared at learning, which were among my favorite presents). And the guys I know fondly remember unwrapping Tonka trucks, superheroes, and toy guns. But a recent toy catalog, distributed around Sweden, is flipping those standards on their head. The catalog totally reverses gender expectations—its pages contain little girls wielding toy machine guns and wearing blue, boys playing with dolls and wearing Hello Kitty tees. A representative explained that decision to alter the catalog reflects a changing market in Sweden, and a belief that toys don’t have to be for just girls or boys, but can appeal to all children.

While I’m not sure I’d support any child playing with a mock automatic weapon, I can definitely get behind the move to de-gender children’s entertainment. There is no doubt that our worlds are gendered from before we are even born. The announcement that, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” carries incredible weight in our society, where gender appears as a fundamental category of identity and experience. We are so concerned with gender that babies—who generally look the same—must be dressed in clothing that immediately asserts their gender, whether it is through color choice (pink for girls and blue for boys), or cute little slogans (like “Daddy’s princess” or “Little slugger”).

Some might think that it is ok for boys and girls to like different things. Of course it is. But we have to recognize that these preferences don’t emerge out of the unique personality of each child, but rather are molded by the incessant pressures of socializing influences. Moreover, these preferences are not valued equally, and thus, our children are placed into positions of dominance and subordination before they even know those words. Boys’ toys encourage activity, courage, strength, ingenuity and a sense of adventure, all of which carry high social value. These toys prepare them for careers in the public sphere—for leadership roles and science degrees, for example. Girls’ toys, on the other hand, teach girls domesticity, passivity, and superficiality, none of which are socially valued or rewarded. Girls learn that their place is in the home, taking care of husbands, houses, and babies. These differences in (learned) preferences produce different personalities, and encourage differential treatment of boys/men and girls/women by parents, teachers, friends, employers, and mates. In this way, the ways we play have lifelong consequences. (For more on how boys “play,” see here.)

The emphasis on these gendered products comes in part from our gender ideology and part from our capitalist motivations. When corporate geniuses realized that parents having second or third children were <gasp!> reusing baby items, they saw an opening for generating more profits.  Here is the logic we were sold: Baby boys cannot possibly reuse their big sis’s sheets and onesies; dressing him in pink might turn him gay! Little girls should never wear their big bro’s PJs or play with his toys; she might never grow out of that tomboy phase and then become a lesbian. Ok, the messages aren’t quite so obvious, but this fear is imprinted in parents very early on and influences the way we are raised, and the people we become.

I won’t suggest that we can buy our way out of a rigid gender scheme. If capitalism is part of how we got into this mess, it can’t be the long term exit strategy. Indeed, this marketing strategy was probably less a political statement for gender neutrality, and more a new way to generate profits. But I think, in the short term at least, children can benefit from the message this catalog sends. (I’ve discussed the problem of balancing long and short term strategies for dealing with gender inequality here.) If it encourages parents to reward boys’ caretaking instincts, or girls’ sense of adventure, the next generation might be a little better off. And I think it could encourage us all to think of new ways to imagine children’s worlds, to challenge the simplistic binary that has governed us for so many generations, perhaps, even, to make gender nonconformity fun. That’s my Christmas wish.


Further Reading

Auster, Carol J. and Claire S. Mansbach. 2012. The Gender and Marketing of Toys: An Analysis of Color and Type of Toy on the Disney Store Website. Sex Roles 67(7-8): 375-388.

Goldberg, Abbie E., Deborah A. Kashy and JuliAnna Z. Smith. 2012. Gender-Typed Play Behavior in Early Childhood: Adopted Children with Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Parents. Sex Roles 67(9-10): 503-515.

Mendes, Kaitlynn and Cynthia Carter. 2008. Feminist and Gender Media Studies: A Critical Overview. Sociology Compass 2(6): 1701-1718.


By Rachael Liberman

In a recent critique posted on The Huffington Post (18 January), Bestselling Author and Speaker Rebecca Walker (note that this “title” introduction comes from The Huffington Post and fails to include her work as a prolific feminist) poses the following question, which also serves as the title of her article; “Does This Lego Toy Send the Wrong Message to Children?” Stemming from her concern over the possible normalization of the prison-industrial complex,” Walker points out that one of the Lego Group’s toys, the “Prison Transport Vehicle,” presents incarceration as “play,” which is similar to her, and other’s, conceptualization of the way that African Americans are treated in the criminal justice system vis-à-vis the disciplinary power elite. She writes, “But at a time when more African Americans are in the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, the mass incarceration of one – arguably targeted – group is a lot like war, and thus the Prisoner Transport Vehicle most definitely qualifies as making ‘war seem like child’s play’. Or, in this momma’s speak: indoctrinating kids into a for-profit system that often denies citizens adequate legal representation; strips them of basic human rights; criminalizes them for a lifetime; and rarely offers hope of rehabilitation or opportunity for personal, psychological growth.”

Later in the article, Walker calls for “a little more scrutiny” over the Prisoner Transport Vehicle as well as other toys that “normalize incarceration.” So what aspects of incarceration is this toy normalizing? Drawing on Foucault’s reading that the process of normalization creates an effortless dichotomization of “normal” and “abnormal,” it appears that this toy has the potential to make getting transported to jail “normal,” getting handcuffed and arrested “normal,” etc. In other words, it seems that playing with the Prisoner Transport Vehicle allows for children/adults (the website offers products for individuals aged 0-12+) to channel their knowledge about the criminal justice system and incorporate it into “play.” Whether or not these children will incorporate the act of consciously “playing God, symbolically or otherwise,” as Walker suggests, is based on many factors, including their cultural context. That being said, Walker’s concern with the possibility of children combining this particular toy with racist ideologies they’ve learned from their particular socializing bodies is an astute observation. Normalizing practices come in many forms, including the body shape and size of Barbie, as well as the fact that when I went to the LEGO website there was a separate category for “girls” within the sixteen categories available for purchase. more...

by socanonymous

An article in the New York Times demonstrated from anecdotal evidence how many teens are indeed engaging in ‘normal’ teen behaviour – only through the internet. Keeping in touch with friends, maintaining romantic relationships, and looking for information (such as how to install a video card) are a few common examples of what teens typically do during long hours on the internet.

Personal computers and home internet use are quite prevalent today, especially among young people. There have been concerns about the well-being of our young children and teens because of this pervasiveness. Adult concerns are often related to unknowns of the internet and potential threats, such as adult predators, which give way to moral panics. There is an another worry which many adults fear, which is that constant use of the internet and social forms of technology are detrimental to reading, writing, and comprehension skills. In this day and age where use of computing is integral in essentially all types of work, youth are teaching themselves the technical skills that they will find useful later on in life. This is a new form of socialization that is occurring in a unique way because information is democratized and youth have much more influence in what they are exposed to. Socialization is the social process in which people are engaged in throughout experiences in their life, learning the patterns of their culture, including social norms and behaviours. This new way of socialization can link different cultures and generations from all over the world. Perhaps excessive amounts of internet use will facilitate a new generation, tolerant of different cultures in ways which can break down barriers.


Read more…



Georgia Hall on Teens and Technology: Preparing for the Future


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