With Santa on his way we ask can marketing send inhibiting messages about gender

Bombarded with the idea that there are toys for girls and for boys, Andrea Mara finds out why gendered marketing matters

My four-year-old son wants a Barbie Town House for Christmas, and I have mixed feelings — partly as it’s a little large for Santa’s sack, partly because it’s a little large for our small house, and mostly because I just don’t love Barbie.

But the fact that it’s a toy normally marketed to girls hasn’t registered with my son, and that’s the bit I love — he’s almost five now, and he still hasn’t succumbed to the supposed gender rules of toys.

Even starting school didn’t change his mind about liking My Little Pony every bit as much as toy cars, though I know the day will come when he’ll say Barbie is for girls, and he no longer wants his hand-me-down pink scooter. I’ll do my best to explain that all toys are for everyone — but realistically, it will be an uphill struggle.

And the question is, does this gender divide matter?

Yes it does, and very much so, as explained by Debbie Ging, lecturer in the School of Communications at Dublin City University.

“The main negative impact is that children are straightjacketed into highly restrictive gender roles and interests from a very young age. Aggressive, gender-specific marketing has normalised the idea that boys are from Mars and girls are from Venus, even though they are more alike than they are different.”

Andrea Mara with Matthew, 4, Nia, 7, and Elissa, 9. The message that all toys are for everyone can be hard to get across in the face of relentless gendered advertising. Picture: Moya Nolan

She gives some concrete examples.

“If you look at toys aimed at boys, they generally revolve around action, construction, strategising, hand-eye co-ordination, and often violence, whereas toys stereotypically marketed at girls tend to reinforce passivity, domestic role-play, consumerism, creativity, and appearance. So they are reinforcing in very crass ways what a traditional, heteronormative society expects of men and women, despite the fact that men’s and women’s roles have changed considerably, and continue to do so.”

Deirdre Cowman, psychologist and kids’ author (magnificentlyu.com) points out that children learn by playing with all kinds of toys.

“Dividing toys into pink and blue aisles sends messages that some activities are for boys and others are for girls. There is no good reason to limit the toys and games that children have access to based on their gender. Playing with dolls and playing house can help boys and girls to practice social and language skills, and playing with blocks and puzzles can help them with spatial skills.”

There’s also a risk that children who go against the grain will be made to feel there’s something wrong, says Megan Perryman, campaigner with Let Toys Be Toys, a group advocating for gender-free toy marketing.

“We think that promoting gender stereotypes can lead to bullying and to children being made to feel different. If a boy who plays with Barbies sees advertising that indicate only girls play with Barbies, there’s potentially a problem. Young children understand rules very clearly and they can be made to feel they’ve done something wrong.”

This is backed up by research — a 2007 study commissioned by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission found that the predominant message being repeated in marketing strategies aimed at children was that there were limited options available to the individual child, beyond what was deemed appropriate to their gender. Indeed, when I looked through a toy catalogue recently, all the images of dolls and domestic toys showed only girls playing with them, whereas the pictures of cars and building toys showed boys. Why do toy manufacturers do this?

Dr Ging feels it’s to increase sales.

“The logic is that families with children of each sex will buy twice the toys.”

Many parents now make the effort to ensure their children know they can play with any toy they like, but outside influences can be difficult to overcome.

Mum of two Emily encourages her daughters to play with a wide variety of toys.

“I don’t discourage traditionally ‘girl’ toys like dolls, but they are given cars and construction sets too. However my four-year-old has come home from crèche regularly upset because little boys there have told her she’s not allowed to play with dinosaurs or she can’t be Chase when they play Paw Patrol because she’s a girl.”

Karen, who has one little boy, has had a similar experience.

“We have an ‘all toys are toys’ rule in our house and don’t differentiate based on gender. My son has toys that would be considered more ‘girly’, such as a kitchen and a shopping trolley, and he loves them. He recently started preschool and mentioned something about a certain game only being for girls and that boys have to play a different game; one of the other children had told him this. I told him that that wasn’t the case, that all toys and all games are for all kids and that he could play whatever game he liked.”

Nicola has two boys, and though she actively tells her children that all toys are for everyone, she finds that advertising has an influence.

“My four-year-old occasionally says something is ‘just a girl’s toy’ or ‘just a boy’s toy’. I ask him why he thinks that and he says: ‘Well, on the telly only girls were playing with it.’ I always say that what’s on the TV isn’t always right, and anyone can play with any toy they like.”

So, anecdotally, there’s a move towards removing stereotypes, but is anything changing on a wider level?

Jess Day, campaigner with Let Toys Be Toys believes there is.

“I think there is a real shift in parents’ outlook on this. Increasingly parents are realising that there’s no good reason to limit children’s choices by gender, though people often feel under pressure to fit in with what’s seen as a social norm — a parent might happily give their own son a doll or a kitchen toy, but would feel obliged to offer something conventional to a boy they didn’t know so well. Research from Kids Industries shows parents are in general a lot more comfortable with girls crossing boundaries than boys and much of this is tied up with concern about ‘what other people will think’ rather than any true anxiety about it. Which means it’s ripe for challenge!”

And of course, just as there are lots of boys who love playing with dolls, there are many who naturally gravitate towards cars too. Mum of four Yvonne has found this to be the case.

“In our house we have an ‘all toys are toys’ rule. Over the years I’ve noticed that my two boys always go for the typical boy toys and my two girls spend all day pushing buggies around!”

And that’s exactly it — nobody is saying girls shouldn’t play with dolls. Dolls are great, and everyone — boys and girls — can play with them. It’s not about steering children away from certain toys any more than it is about steering them towards others — it’s about giving them the choice to play with anything they want, free from inhibiting messages about gender. Just as we’d like them to feel free to choose any career they’d like — again free from inhibiting messages about gender.

In the meantime, my four-year-old has also been talking about asking Santa for Lego, My Little Pony, and indeed everything at his eye-level on a recent toy-shop visit. I told him to pick one thing and to put it in his letter to Santa. And part of me still hopes it’s not the Barbie Town House — no offence Barbie, it’s not because you’re marketed to girls; my house just isn’t big enough for yours.


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