In a society where consumers are constantly bombarded by the relentless onslaught of advertisements and media images, it becomes hard to identify all but the most blatant forms of gender construction. These obvious attempts to segregate the sexes into their specific genders are not the real threat, but instead are the scapegoats which allow many other more insidious gender construction systems to pervade our world. The construction of gender based on children’s experiences with their toys represents one of these covert systems that methodically shapes the once clean slates of children into the normative gender role associated with their sex. Newman states that, “Toys and games that parents provide for their children are another source of influential gender information.“ (112). Specifically, toys for male children reinforce hegemonic masculinity and prepare young boys for their task of competing in society and oppressing the female counterpart.
Keith, an eight year old boy from Milltown, New Jersey had asked me for a couple things for his birthday. Like most adults who were shopping for an eight year old, I decided to head to Toys R Us. He had indicated that he was into soccer and I thought a soccer ball would be an easy gift to quickly pick up. Little did I realize that soccer balls now come in a variety of sizes, colors, and themes. Black and white soccer balls gave way to a parade of blue, pink, orange, skull and cross bones, and Disney Princess soccer balls. The choices were overwhelming to say the least. It seemed that there were clear choices for girls in the pink soccer balls and the Disney one. Boy choices appeared to be blue and had the images of bones and skulls on them. These soccer balls were called “Sizzlin’ Cool”.
Not only were the soccer balls creating a gender dichotomy with their appearance alone, but the entire system of childhood sports continually reinforces gender stereotypes and inundates young males with the ideals of hegemonic masculinity. The soccer ball itself was probably not the biggest problem for Keith’s development at this point, but rather the actual sport was. The gendered world of competitive sports teaches young boys about what it means to masculine and stresses the importance of physical skill, strength, and aggression. “This kind of experience teaches boys that it is not "just being out there with the guys- being friends" that ensures the kind of attention and connection that they crave; it is being better than the other guys- beating them that is the key to acceptance.” (Messner 129). This suggests to me that boys who are seeking relationships and intimacy with other human beings, end up being programmed to associate their relationships with the ideas of conflict, competition, superiority, and winning. These learned behavior patterns carry over into the futures of these young males and contribute to the dominance they exert over others and especially women. It was learned that interacting in this way was perfectly acceptable, even desirable, and as such it poses no problem to be dealt with by men as they become older.
Keith got his soccer ball anyway as I wasn’t about to face the serious societal backlash associated with fighting against hegemonic masculinity. Seeing that he also enjoyed playing with guns and using in particular, Nerf guns, I entered the aisle and found it only marketed to males. Every box had an almost maniacally gleaming young boy on it. He was giddy as he aimed down the barrel of his new Nerf N Strike Stampede Blaster, probably preparing to deliver the “kill shot” to another of his male friends that he’s playing with. Other boxes show slightly older boys with cool cut off denim jackets and sport style sunglasses adorning their head while they dual wild guns resembling glocks.
These ideas about men and guns are everywhere from commercials to movies and throughout the toy world. “The mass media uniquely introduce elements into individual consciousness that would not otherwise appear there, but will not be rejected by consciousness because they are so commonly shared in the cultural community.” (Lull, 62). Almost every boy growing up played guns with the local neighborhood boys and was taught that guns and aggression were natural, fun, and part of a male only world. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an instance of local girls playing guns with the boys on a long summer night. This prepares young boys for a lifetime of being in power, owning guns, and joining the military. This natural rite of passage for boys seems so natural that no one questions just how violent “playing” guns is. In a country with a higher homicide rate than most other developed nations and an overkill militaristic mindset, this childhood fascination with guns is a perfect example of hegemony.
The final item on Keith’s list seemed considerably more gender neutral than the previous ones. The only problem was that it was far too expensive for me to purchase it for him. Instead of getting him a mini drivable jeep, I decided to get him a new video game for his handheld system. This isle was as segregated as any I’d been down previously. It was as if none of the games were made to be played by both boys and girls. My Little Pony: Pinkie Pie's Party, Pinkalicious, and Barbie Groom and Glam Pups were games that were covered in pink and glamorous cartoon versions of “feminine women”. Transformers and Bakugen: Battle Brawlers had covers that included more than just one color. They utilized reds, blues, greens, and black rather than simply just pink. One the cover were masculine looking people who seemed prepared to battle or due their duty to save humanity.
What struck me was how divided the topics of these games were. The coloring of the covers and the images on them were there only to entice girls or boys to a game that was “appropriate” for them. Boys games tend focus on one character which is male. This male is normally saving the world and engaging on an epic quest. Throughout this quest he overcomes non stop adversity through strength, skill, intelligence, and sheer never wavering will power. Games marketed toward girls tend to focus on tea parties, make up, fashion and other similar ideas. “In one study, there was significant agreement among adults as to what were the most "male" toys (guns, toy soldiers, boxing gloves, G.l. Joe, and football gear) and the most "female" toys (makeup kit, Barbie, jewelry box, bracelet, doll clothes)”. (Newman, 112). The female toys are preparing girls for a life of servitude and saturating them with it to the point that most will find their role acceptable and unchanging, even natural. The boy games are heroic and prepare boys for the many challenges that they will face and need to overcome in their struggle to dominate and win over everyone else.
Whether parents realize it or not, toys play a major role in constructing a child’s gender. They construct gender in such a way that it conforms the normative ideals that are espoused throughout society. Toys, rather than being the product of what males and females innately desire or gravitate towards, are actually the products that those who support the hegemonic status quo have convinced parents to buy. People believe they are buying toys that exemplify what boys and girls are rather than toys that exemplify what boys and girls are molded to be. Toys for young boys in particular reinforce normative hegemonic masculinity and prepare boys for a life of dominating and ruling.
Lull, James. "Hegemony." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 'Ed'. Gail Dines, Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003. 61-66. Print.
Messner, Michael A. “Boyhood, Organized Sports and the Construction of Masculinities.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Sage Publications, 1990. 120-137. Print.
Newman, David M. “Learning Difference: Families, Schools, and Socialization.” Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. NY: McGraw Hill, 2007. 106-145. Print.
Web. Bakugen: Battle Brawlers. ToysRUs. July 29, 2011. http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3633209
Web. Disney Princess Soccer Ball. ToysRUs. Thursday July 29, 2011. http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3441481
Web. Nerf N Strike Vulcan. ToysRUs. July 29, 2011. http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3145296
Web. Pinkalicious. ToysRUs. Thursday July 29, 2011. http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=11376370
Web. Sizzlin' Cool Soccer Ball. ToysRUs. Thursday July 29, 2011. http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=11287293