Targeting Gender

Today, I went to target to purchase a gate for the bottom of my parents’ stairs. My son is determined to climb these stairs any time regardless of adult supervision. He has now started going down stairs, too, using the backwards feel and slide method. A long, slippery set of wood stairs is not what he needs to learn on right now, so I went to get this gate. While at Target, I walked by the toy section where not only the packaging screams out gender, but the backing to the shelves themselves are color coded pink, blue, and even green for outdoors.

What stood out at first was the action figures. I walked by the girl’s section first. Barbie and Ken stared at me vacantly from behind their individual blister packaging. Both are caricatures of men and women. I became interested in what the gender norms for figures of the opposite gender would be for each section. There were several versions of Ken along with other male figures of the different sets. The pink shelving clearly stated that these figures were for girls.

 

One thing that struck me was that these figures seem much younger than the Barbies and Kens of the ’70s and ’80s. They look almost teen/young twenties. Maybe because their hair was just molded plastic, or the clothes they wore were more conservative. It just seems that Ken and Barbie have become younger.

Next I walked the blue boys’ section looking for female action figures. I found one. This was a small scale supporting character for G.I. Joe who stood at attention nearby in his fatigues. His uniform looked fairly convincing. Hers, not so much. The men from the WWE were completely different from the Ken dolls. Though the one with the water bottle seemed almost contemplative while staring at his beverage, the images on the packaging showed the rage and violence that did not appear in the girls’ section.

Looking down the sporting goods aisle, there was a definite place for girls’ gear. You could spot it by the splotch of pink amidst standard gear.

Plenty of people have written eloquently about this phenomenon, and here I am at 11:00, on the road, tired to the bone. What I observed:

  • Men are portrayed as nice and cute in the girls’ section while the boys’ section shows rage, violence, and lots of muscle.
  • Women are shown as breasted versions of men in the boys’ section. In the girls’s section, it seems that men are just another accessory for the bedecked women.
  • Girls can now play sports because there are pink versions of sporting goods for them.
I worry about the self image created by the same gendered toys, but the stereotypes promoted by opposite gender toys are also powerful. Unsurprisingly, none of this stuff is in my house, yet. I want both my children to make their gender observations based on people we know, on my wife and me, and on books and other media we choose for them and that portray complexity and depth for both male and female characters.

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