If you are a parent who shops at any big box store, you know that most children’s items are gendered, right down to building blocks, baby rattles, sippy cups, diapers, and toothpaste. And hangers! Don’t forget your pink or blue hangers. Why can’t we have rainbow hangers?
Sure you could pick the Spiderman toothpaste for your daughter, or pink hangers for your son, but that is not how they are marketed to our families. Kids take in thousands of advertisements every year. Even if your family does not watch tv commercials, kids receive these messages through color coding of packages and social interactions. Has your daughter ever been handed the Batman sticker at the doctor’s office? Has your son ever been called Prince right after your daughter was greeted with a ”Hi Princess!”? Has your daughter ever been greeted with “Hey All Star!”? Do they ever have robot underwear for girls, or butterflies for boys? Our children are growing up in a highly gendered marketplace.
If you have a preschooler, then you’ve surely heard your kiddo come hopping home from school saying “Such-and-such is for boys” or “Pink is for girls”. As gender permanence happens at this age, those are normal statements for your small person to make. They are trying to figure out what it means to be a boy or girl, and the parameters that define such. The problem is, if we let those statements go unchallenged, if we let them get these ideas from marketers, they’ll be forming very limited and stereotyped versions of boyhood and girlhood. I do not believe in limiting our children. And who doesn’t love a lively debate with a three year old?
Let’s take a look…..
Despite the fact that a lunch bag or ride-on car would be used the exact same way by a boy or a girl, our choices are very clearly gender coded.
Start to notice that girls are rarely depicted *doing* anything. In fact, many times we won’t even see an actual girl on an item, instead she has been turned into hearts, rainbows, flowers, tiaras, and ballet slippers. Here we have a princess frog on the girls’ lunch bag. On the boys’ bag is a dirt bike riding dare devil. Girls are delicate and sit still on lily pads, Boys are FULL OF ADVENTURE!
If you read the captions for these toy catalog photos, the most adventurous thing a girl is doing is watering flowers (“Let me help you garden, Dad!”), but only as an assistant to her watchful father. I think the playhouse is good, and I love me a good tutu, but couldn’t there be a girl knight? Couldn’t two boys be gardening and a girl be the fire fighter? A tutu-wearing female knight?
Of course the answer to all of these questions is yes, but we very rarely see children’s items marketed this way. Marketers help shape our ideas about products, what we think about people who use those products, and how we think people would use them. And all of these messages are limiting our children.
Remember when childhood was just childhood, it is didn’t seem to matter so much if you were a boy or a girl? We got away from that once companies figured out how much money could be made selling families two different versions of childhood. Pink and blue. A family like mine, raising a boy and girl, would be encouraged to buy twice as many things…from baby gear and clothing, to toys and by goodness, the very mattress they lay their sweet little head on at night (photo below).
Take a look at the backpacks and the back-to-school clothes pictures below. What messages are girls getting? What messages are boys getting? What messages are they getting about each other?
Don’t underestimate how powerful those messages can be, even as subtle as they may seem. I don’t think a Tinker Bell lunch bag is going to undo civilization. But what if it is a Tink bag, and a Princess backpack, and a less active/more delicate childhood, and clothing that delivers a message a girl’s chief concern in life is to be sweet and pretty…….it becomes a definition of girlhood, the only version available. Some parents search for alternatives likePigtail Pals, but for others it is a matter of seeing the forest through the trees and realizing we’ve got some problems when it comes to how our culture is defining girlhood.
Pink isn’t the problem. Tutus aren’t the problem. Tiaras aren’t the problem. Limitation – both in action and in thought, is the problem. A big one.
Let’s change the way we thing about our girls.