By Sam Guenther
It is well known that gender ideologies are naturalized through institutions such the family, the church and the media. Schemas are cognitive frameworks that help organize and interpret information give rise to gender stereotypes (Gorham, 12/10/09). Of particular concern is the way such schemas and stereotypes are learned. One important way is through children’s play. Television is an important and pervasive educator for young children and much concern has been placed on commercials targeted at children’s toys. In this paper I will consider several recent commercials for popular toys. I will compare how they construct masculinity and femininity.
Quite simply, the toy commercials are a cultural pedagogy. Toys have long been used to teach children about gender roles. For example, little girl’s dollhouses have “taught” young girls how to be good house wives and homemakers. By taking care of their pretend home (doing the dishes, baking, playing dress up) girls grow up learning that accelerating at these chores should be their goal in life. Modern day toy commercials continue to “teach” children gender roles. While some facets of the media have evolved to showing more equality among gender, toy commercials have continued to differentiate male and female toys to the extreme. Utilizing a textual analysis of various commercials for children, one can easily witness stereotyped gender roles and various ideologies.
In Hasbro’s commercial for the Rose Petal Cottage, an excited little girl is shown doing housework in her playhouse. The pastel-colored house comes equipped with a washer and dryer, an oven with plastic muffins, and a crib and rocking chair to rock your baby doll. In addition, the tune that is playing in the background sings, “I love my laundry it gets so clean. Taking care of my home is a dream, dream, dream!” The content in this commercial suggests that a little girl’s only ambition is to grow up to be a homemaker concerned with baking and doing laundry. This commercial also establishes the deeply rooted ideology that a woman needs no other skills than homemaking because her husband is the bread winner.
While the Rose Petal doll house teaches girls how to be good homemakers, Mattel’s Barbie Shopping Boutique teaches them how to dress to please a man.
In this commercial, little girls have a spinning wardrobe in which they can mix and match outfits and a check-out counter for their purchases. Every plastic piece, including the credit card, is painted pink. The Barbie dolls shown are all blonde with big busts, tiny waists, and long legs. Mattel’s commercial emphasizes that the main activity little girls should be concerned with is shopping and buying clothes. Also, this introduces young girls to the ideology that to be happy, girls must have a great wardrobe and be skinny and blonde.
There is a striking difference between commercials aimed at girls and those aimed at boys. In the commercial for G.I. Joe toys, for example, little boys play with the jet fighter, “Hurricane,” and the Humvee, “Hammer.” Both toys come equipped with either plastic missiles or launching foam missiles. The commercial consists of both boys firing missiles at each other while destroying the surrounding by running the “Hammer” into things. Much different from little girl toys, this commercial focuses on violence and physical activities, whereas the commercials for young girls focus on nurturance and stationary activities. Commercials for young boys such as the G.I. Joe commercial introduce young boys to the stereotyped gender roles of males. They are expected to enjoy violence and rough play.
Another commercial also features violent role models. This one, for WWF Stretch Wrestlers toys, pictures two boys playing with stretchable action figures of their favorite WWF wrestlers. They are shown in a miniature fighting ring as both boys smack their figures against the other. The actual WWF wrestler is standing above his own figure saying, “Your stretching me into a wimp!” Unlike girls, the boys are engaged in physical activity as well as competition among one another. The toys in which they play with are called “action figures,” not “dolls” and once again violence and toughness are shown to be vital components in young boys play.
Katherine E. Barnett (2004) states that, “gender is a social construct, meaning that what we thing males and females should do or how we think males and females should behave is not based on one’s biological sex” (185). In other words, Barnett suggests that institutions such as the media and in specific, commercials, can easily teach children how they should think and act through its content. Commercials themselves are part of a cultural pedagogy and the information they teach to children can have detrimental consequences.
Beginning at this stage, children are beginning to establish their identities as an individual, as well as a male or female. To form identities, they often look to television or commercial contexts and identify with the stereotyped media constructions of people. Jean Kilborne (2004) agrees that the media exposes young girls to unattainable ideals of physical perfection and the ideology that women are less powerful than men. The ramifications of these images and ideals cause a significant drop in a young girl’s self-esteem and can culminate in desperate attempts to emulate physical perfection and be wanted by males. Girls can form drinking problems, be subjected to date rape, or form eating disorders.
Likewise, Jackson Katz (2000) speaks on the effects media has on young boys. Katz focuses on the strong correlation between media featuring aggressive, beefed up, vulgar men and violence in males. He insists that the media is raising generations of young males in a society that “glorifies sexually aggressive masculinity and considers as normal the degradation and objectification of women.” For example, Katz considers sexually explicit rap and hip-hop videos as well as entertainers such as Howard Stern and professional wrestling. While Stern, according to Katz, orients his show around pornography and the commodification of women’s bodies, professional wrestling focuses around crude male dominance and violence. Katz insists that the effects the media constructed images of men are becoming increasingly dangerous and violent.
While the exact effects of such commercials cannot be determined, it is likely that they have negative cumulative effects on, not only individual boys and girls, but upon the culture in which almost all American children live.
Barnett, Katherine E. “Destructive and Constructive Characterizations of Women in
Disney’s Mulan.” Race/Gender/Media : Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2004. 184-90. Print.
Gorham, Bradley W. “The Social Psychology of Stereotypes: Implications for Media
Audiences.” Race/Gender/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2004. 14-22. Print.
Katz, Jackson, and Sut Jhally. "Put the Blame Where it Belongs: On Men." Los Angeles
Times 25 June 2000, Commentary M5 sec. Print.
Kilborne, Jean. “The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down To
Size In Advertising.” Race/Gender/Media : Considering Diversity Across
Audiences, Content, and Producers. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2004. 103-109. Print.
About BMC 277: Media and Diversity
This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.