Growing up, I have always been surrounded by girls. With three little sisters and almost all female cousins, it would be an understatement to say that I stumble upon the color pink from time to time. In fact, I constantly find myself in a sea of the cheery hue: magenta dresses, cotton-candy blankets, and dolls with rosy red cheeks fill my sisters’ bedrooms. Most would agree that this is normal for little girls; however, as society becomes increasingly liberal, we have seen a public outcry concerning the topic of gender shaping. A handful of parents are trying to steer away from the stereotypes that we have fallen victim to, usually by avoiding gender-specific colors (like pink and blue) and opting for more neutral colors (like yellow) when purchasing items for their children. They similarly turn to figures that they believe to be empowering, like “Dora the Explorer,” a cartoon girl who, according to the Morning Sentinel, is known for her “insatiable interest in science, cartography, adventure and problem solving.” However, in recent news, Dora has unfortunately traded in her shorts and sneakers for jewelry and a frilly dress complete with delicate ballet slippers, as seen in the image above right. Infuriated parents are arguing that her new mature look is a downright mistake, as it goes against the very nature of Dora. Blogger Amy Jussel (Shaping Youth) claims, “it cues girls to an even worse message by conveying that girls can start out as unique, brave, active, indie spirits, but behaviorally, by the time they edge into tweenage years, they’d better march like lemmings into the beauty biz.” Given the fresh outcry on the discussion of gender stereotypes and toys, this week while exploring the blogosphere I decided to comment on a blog post, “Barbie is Freakishly Thin, Sure, But She’s a Toy Not a Role Model” by Tina Kells from NowPublic, to discuss the effect of toys as role models for children. Next, as this spurred my interest in analyzing the marketing side of the argument, I commented on another blog post, “Stereotypes are Alive and Well in Your Toystore” by the Fairly Odd Mother on her blog (Fairly Odd Mother). Each comment appears below and on the respective blogs as well.
“Barbie is Freakishly Thin, Sure, But She’s a Toy Not a Role Model"
Seeing that you are writing about toys being interpreted as role models, I am sure you have encountered the recent controversy surrounding the Nickelodeon character, “Dora the Explorer.” A once spunky, shorts-wearing adventurer, this little character’s makers are now aging her into a tween. Parents are irate and have quickly conjured up petitions to end the evolution of Dora, who they claim is a positive influence for their children. I admire your blog post since you are one of the few people whose unique view collides with the ideal that toys are influential role models. In fact, your opinion may actually serve to reassure many concerned mothers and fathers, because while you worshipped Barbie at one point in time, you have managed to maintain a healthy perception of body image throughout your life. I do agree with you that “it is too simple to blame a 50 year old toy doll.” Indeed, more tangible factors (like real women) probably have a stronger impact on a girl’s idea of what she should aspire to be like. However, I do not think it is completely far-fetched to consider that Barbie may actually wield the power to engender negative thought patterns into young girl’s minds. In one study, Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5-8 Year Olds, author Suzan Ive states, “dolls provide a tangible image of the body that can be internalized as part of the child’s developing self-concept and body image.” In Ive’s study, she discovered that in other recent research, it has been found that girls’ desire for thinness emerges around age 6 and that dolls like Barbie, because of their iconic status, are likely to act as salient role models, at least for very young girls. In carrying out her study, Ive was correct. She states in the Discussion and Conclusion section of her research, “[Findings] showed that very young girls experience heightened body dissatisfaction after exposure to Barbie doll images but not after exposure to Emme doll (or control) images.” In other psychology studies in the past, it has similarly been found that children who play violent video games are later proven to be more aggressive, even though they are merely playing a “game” and not reenacting reality. Unfortunately though, not all children are able to separate fantasy play from realism as you did, and so I just hope you do not underestimate the power of social images, even if they are simply toys. With the studies presented, do you still believe people are crazy to blame a 50 year old doll?
“Stereotypes are Alive and Well in Your Toystore”
Fairly Odd Mother,
I appreciate your thoroughly dedicated post concerning the twisted marketing strategies that even young children are the targets of today. As our culture has become more freethinking and tolerant, we have been reassured that girls are just as good as boys and that they too can do anything. However, the very sociocultural message that we pride ourselves on in the name of equality is not so much a truth in our marketing campaigns and super-stores—not even our own homes. As you make clear in the images in your post, advertisements narrow-mindedly depict girls as dainty, fashion-obsessed, and mothers-to-be, while boys are portrayed as competitive, sports-loving, and noisy (see image left). At home, parents only serve to either push their children into more “appropriate” gender-play roles, or the opposite, such as the mother “quaking in fear that her young son had asked for a toy kitchen.” I agree with you that parents are partly to blame, for they are the ones that continue to buy their daughters dollhouses and their sons toy guns. And, since you so candidly point out Target’s Spring 2009 catalog in your blog, you too realize the role that marketing strategists play in this ongoing battle. Just recently, as discussed in a blog called Shaping Youth, Viacom bought the rights to “Dora The Explorer,” and decided to morph her science-loving character into a girly-girl. Doctors Lyn Mikel-Brown and Sharon Lamb (Packaging Girlhood) mourn this decision, saying that now “a bunch of greedy corporate execs own [Dora] and can use her image, re-MAKE her image, in any way they see fit to make money. But we know the truth. If the original Dora grew up… She’d develop her map reading skills and imagine the places she could go.”
According to an article titled Playing Fair by Dorothy Lepkowska of The Guardian, “there has never been greater gender stereotyping in the production and marketing of toys than now.” Intriguingly though, the author introduces a third contender in the who-is-to-blame game, and that is biology. “The levels of male and female hormones in an expectant mother may result in children being born predisposed to certain play preferences,” says psychologist professor Melissa Hines. In my personal opinion, I think these various hypotheses are all valid to some degree. Children may be born with an inclined desire for gender specific toys, but with big corporations so adamant on catering separately towards boys and girls, and parents topping the cake by buying these gender delineated toys, we are trapped in a cycle. My question to you is, how do you think we can break free from this cycle? And, what do you suppose is the most influential of the factors to blame?