Every year, millions of people from the United States wake up extra early on the morning after Thanksgiving (or they never go to sleep) to buy gifts, electronics, toys, and other goods at a discounted price. Black Friday is a strange, but not at all surprising, practice indirectly commemorating the eradication of a population; this “holiday” celebrates genocide with discounted goods, unethical labor practices, and angry customer altercations over the latest Furby. Since Black Friday is upon us, retailers have been busy marketing the newest toys for the holiday season, giving those of us interested in gender and socialization an opportunity to evaluate the gendering of toys marketed to children.
After a review of the early Black Friday ads, I can share with you the predictable conclusion that not much has changed in the gendering of children’s toys. Most of the ads support traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, leaving little room for diverse gender representations. By prescribing some toys based on gender, we create and reinforce gender norms that prevent children from expressing a wide range of abilities, behaviors, emotions, and talents. For more reading, there is a substantial literature that addresses the the content and impact of gendered toys on children’s socialization, but I like this Feminist Frequency video because it is witty and uses visual media to make the point.
If we were to take the Black Friday advertisements seriously, it would seem that boys are the more active gender. Boys are typically shown in action, playing, riding, or building. In some ads, boys wield weapon toys, such as guns or, in the case of this ad from target.com, a ninja turtle sword.In addition to being more active and potentially more violent, the ads for boys’ toys are more likely to imply a setting outside the home. In other words, the dominant image of masculinity presented through the advertising of boys’ toys is one that is active and in the public sphere.
Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to be involved with domestic activities, like cooking in the kitchen, vacuuming, or taking care of the children. If the girls are not shown with toys about home upkeep, they are likely to be featured with makeup and princess attire.In the world of girls’ toys, fashion and princesses reign supreme. All of these activities presumably happen inside in the home. In other words, the dominant image of femininity is domestic, obsessed with appearance, and in the private sphere.
While toys overwhelmingly seem to conform to the traditional gendered expectations of masculinity and femininity, there are some instances in which a child plays with an unexpected toy. For example, in this target.com ad, a girl is quite actively playing table tennis. However, it seems that the examples of gender nonconformity in toy advertising are usually those in which girls play with toys typically for boys. I have yet to encounter an ad from the U.S. in which a boy plays with princesses or fashion. I can think of one exception from Sweden. Last year, the Swedish version of the Toys R Us catalog featured boys and girls participating in both masculine and feminine activities, meaning boys also played with dolls and makeup.
I am interested to see if others have encountered ads in which boys participate in a gender nonconforming activity or play with a traditionally feminine toy. If you find one, please post it below!
Kane, Emily. 2012. The Gender Trap: Parents and The Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls. New York: NYU Press.
Williams, Christine. 2006. Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality. Los Angeles: UC Press.
Cheryl Llewellyn is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Stony Brook University. Her research addresses disparities in immigration policies, particularly asylum and refugee status, across gender, sexuality, race, and nationality.