Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Miles of Aisles of Sexism"- Taking a Second Look at Children's Toys

I remember being a child and have a million different plastic toys that I played with. We actually had an office/room in the house dedicated to toy storage. The room was a constant disaster, a mix of piles of blue and pink, red and green. It looked similar to the photo above. There were toy guns, Nintendo video games, My Little Pony characters and even an Easy Bake Oven! My brother and I constantly got in trouble for leaving the room a mess. The way my parents handled the cleaning process was by sweeping all of the toys into the center of the room and telling us to pick out the ones we wanted to keep. Whatever was left in the pile was either getting donated or thrown away. At the time this felt traumatic, how could we ever decide which to keep and which to get rid of? Ultimately, as we got older, I remember lots of large black trash bags coming out of that room. The amount of petroleum wasted on plastic bags and toys could probably fuel my car for a year.

Looking back at this time I realize how fortunate my brother and I were, just the fact that we had a playroom is pretty cool. What's unfortunate though, is the fact that in that playroom I knew which toys belonged to me and which belonged to my brother. There was a very sharp contrast in boys toys and girls toys. I never really thought about the differences between the toys and the implications of these differences until I entered graduate school. I had a really great opportunity to see a local guest speaker named Hannah Tessitore, who talked about the differences between these toys and how the production and distribution of "boys" toys and "girls" toys has had a tremendous impact on the adult experiences and lives of many men and women.

In reading further about this topic, I came across an article by Sudie Hofmann called "Miles of Aisles of Sexism." Hofmann's article is part of a number of contributions made to the book published by Rethinking Schools, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. In this piece the author reveals the fact that toy stores and toy companies lag far behind much of the progress that's been made in children's media. Although we are a changing society and we've seem some strides towards gender equality, toys have remained as tools used to hinder this progress.

Hofmann describes visiting a variety of toy stores and analyzing the aisles and boxes for different toys. What she found was that there is still a huge separation in terms of colors for boys and colors for girls. Boys products are still mainly blue and green, whereas girls toys are pink and purple. This may not seem overly harmful at first sight, but Hofmann digs deeper. Upon looking more critically at the types of toys produced, she found that there were some clear messages about who should be doing what. Boys toys taught that violence, in the form of weapons and machinery should be their main playtime goal (and maybe ultimately should be their life's goal). Girls toys were overwhelmingly dominated by cooking and cleaning sets.

Hofmann rhetorically asks "are toys providing innocent fun, or are children being socialized in ways that could ultimately influence career and life choices?" It seems the answer is the latter. As Hofmann explored further, she found that there was a serious lack of educational toys in the girls section of the toy store. One example she provides is that of a science kit. The science kits were only available in the boys department and none of the boxes featured a female player. Furthermore, in the same educational toy section (again, only found in the boys aisle) there were games such as chess, and challenging board games. None of these were found in the girl aisle. The girl aisle was dominated by "vanity mirrors, combs, brushes, nail kits, makeup, and polyester hair extensions."

This research was conducted in 2005, not 1985. It's amazing to see that there is such segregation STILL happening when it comes to little girls and little boys. The toys of 2005 look pretty much the same as the toys piled in my playroom in 1995 and I'd be willing to bet that toy aisles today still look very similar. Although toys may seem like an innocent, unimportant part of a child's upbringing, they are an important part of the socialization process. These gender specific toys contribute to the stereotype that men are to be strong, disconnected defenders and women belong at home cooking and taking care of the household. This is yet another arena in which we must stop and question the messages we want to send to children. I played with these gender specific toys as a child, but I also played outside in the dirt with my brother, this was a point of resistance or a "crack in the glass" as Dr. Bogad likes to say. Girls and boys must be provided with a variety of social stories in order to formulate their own ideas of what a "true" woman or a "true" man looks like. If we leave it up to the toy companies to make these decisions for us, the toy aisle will probably look the same in 2050.

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