Selling gender: Exploiting stereotypes for profit


Selling gender: Exploiting stereotypes for profit

Experts warn lack of media literacy leaves youth vulnerable to gendered toy marketing that stunts emotional growth

Toys are more gendered than ever, experts say, and a lack of media literacy training is leaving American youth vulnerable to gender-coded ads that segregate play, stunt intellectual growth and encourage sexist stereotypes that lead to bullying.

“At no point during the 20th century did toy marketing resemble what it’s become today,” said Elizabeth Sweet, a doctoral candidate who studies gender and toys at the University of California, Davis.

“What we see happening is way more extreme than even periods in our history when gender inequality was at its greatest levels,” Sweet said.

Earlier this month, toy giant Mattel pulled its book “Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer” after facing widespread backlash for featuring Barbie as an engineer who needed the help of men to develop software. Barbie, opponents charged, left the technical work to the boys.

The book spurred a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #FeministHackerBarbie. It also inspired a site called Feminist Hacker Barbie, which allows people to rewrite the story using pages from the original book.

Mattel apologized, saying in a statement, “The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits.”

But even if Barbie hadn’t needed the help, her aesthetic would have perpetuated gender norms, Sweet said. “Even at her best, she still has to wear pink, conform to a beauty ideal and use a different set of tools than the boys. I don’t think that’s the best tool to get girls thinking they can play on a level playing field.”

Cradle-to-grave consumers

Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of “Redefining Girly” about what parents can do in a society where young girls are stereotyped and sexualized, blamed not just the toys themselves but also the advertising for solidifying gender norms.

“Gendered toy marketing divides a child’s ability to learn about the world based on gender constructions that are culturally determined,” she said. “When all of the marketing consistently revolves around gender, it teaches our kids to look at the opposite sex as a different species, because in order to market gendered toys, you have to point out the difference and not the similarities.”

The rise of gendered toys and the marketing campaigns that sell them can be traced back to 1981, when Congress prohibited the Federal Trade Commission from regulating ads aimed at children, following intense lobbying efforts by the toy industry, according to Wardy.

“Deregulation paved the way for cradle-to-the-grave marketing,” said Wardy, a mother of two. “Toy companies now spend billions of dollars a year studying children and understanding how a child behaves as a consumer.”

Leading U.S. toy manufacturer Hasbro’s “girls” category raked in $300 million roughly a decade ago. In 2013, the category earned a record-breaking $1 billion, according to a company performance review.

Toys marketed to girls usually revolve around beauty and domesticity, while toys designed for boys often related to building, adventure and aggression, Wardy explained.

“Limiting girls’ play to princesses, mommies and makeup artists gives girls the message that their worth comes from their appearance. Meanwhile, boys are taught through play to be brave, adventurous and smart,” Wardy said.

Persistent stereotypes in academia are at the core of inequality in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, Sweet said.

“Because we know that gender stereotypes have profound social implications, it seems very irresponsible to exploit these stereotypes for profit,” Sweet said.

Despite efforts to promote gender equality in the science and tech sectors, the percentage of STEM jobs held women was about the same in 2009 as it was in 2000, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Currently, only a seventh of all engineers is female, and women hold just 27 percent of all computer science jobs, according to that same report.

“Any time a girl is told what she should like, all her diverse interests get truncated, and she gets pushed out of things she might normally pursue. When we tell 50 percent of the population that certain activities and toys — like a building set — are off limits, then we are limiting the skills and capacity of half of the population,” Sweet said.

But Ken Seiter, a representative for the Toy Industry Association (TIA), a not-for-profit trade association, told Al Jazeera that there are a diverse group of toys on the market that are gender neutral. That includes toys that encourage girls to engage activities that in the past were only directed to boys.

“For example, LEGO friends and GoldieBlox have been created to appeal to girls and have been very successful,” he said.

Goldieblox is the brainchild of Stanford graduate and engineer Debbie Sterling, who says she developed the toy construction set with the aim of introducing girls “to the joy of engineering.”

“We believe there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. We think GoldieBlox can show them the way,” says the Goldieblox website.

Despite the GoldieBlox mission, Wardy said the toy line still plays on stereotypes to sell its product.

“It’s supposed to be STEM-boosting, but when you look at the toy, it’s not that complex of a toy. We should ask ourselves, do we really need to gender science in order to get girls interested? When we raise girls with the belief that the engineer is already inside of them, we don’t need to buy all these plastic gendered products to save girls from the dearth of STEM positions.”

Part of the reason for why there hasn’t been greater pushback against toy companies for playing on stereotypes lies with a deeper issue in our culture, said Sweet.

“While the public generally supports the idea that we should have gender equality, polls reveal an increase in the number of people who believe that essential gender differences exist,” she said.

But the scientific data shows that at most, there are only slight biological differences that are amplified by cultural forces, Sweet said.

“In reality, it’s impossible to separate out what’s biological as opposed to what’s cultural.  When young children respond to gender stereotypes, it’s their way of trying to understand what it means to be a girl or a boy. It’s essentially a simplifying mechanism: ‘Pink is for girls, and I’m a girl, so I like pink,'” Sweet said. “Children who don’t conform to these cultural expectations face real social sanctions, like bullying.”

When children’s play is not limited by gender, research has found that children, particularly girls, actually play in more complex ways. And it doesn’t require a fancy toy or savvy marketing to pique the child’s interest, according to Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, an education professor at Eastern Connecticut State University who conducts research at the university’s Center for Early Childhood Education.

“Last year, we had a small wooden tool set that boys were slightly more drawn to at first. But once girls used them, they outperformed the boys on the rating system and displayed extremely elaborate play. We saw similar findings with boys who played with dolls and tea sets,” he said.

Gender norms also affect boys, who can become targets for bullying by crossing into the pink aisle for toys. One 11-year-old boy, Michael Morones, attempted suicide this year after being the target of homophobic slurs for enjoying toys deemed too feminine for boy.

“I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony,” Michael told his mother the day he tried to hang himself, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

For boys, toys and their advertising can also contribute to unrealistic body images as well as celebrate violence. Many figurines designed for boys have impossibly bulging muscles. Similar to the way Barbie has become thinner and bustier over the years, G.I. Joe figures have become more muscled, according to Harrison G. Pope Jr., a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Plus, action figures—and the advertising of them—effectively equate muscles with heroic masculinity, say experts. In “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity,” Jackson Katz, founder of the education program Mentors in Violence Prevention, argues that advertising often explicitly ties muscles to violent power, glamorizing the use of physical violence to achieve and assert “manhood.”

Media literacy

With ads now a ubiquitous part of a child’s life, there have been increasing calls for the inclusion of media literacy in school curriculums.

Currently, the U.S. has no national standards for media literacy in schools. Media education however is quite common in other industrialized nations.

Canada has media literacy requirements for all K-12 students, while 70 to 80 percent of all European students receive some form of media literacy training, according to Kennisnet, a Dutch organization that focuses on educational training.

In the summer of 2006, then Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Michael Copps recommended national media literacy standards, stating, “The more I grasp the pervasive influence of media on our children, the more I worry about the media literacy gap in our nation’s educational curriculum.  We need a sustained K-12 media literacy program—something to teach kids not only how to use the media but how the media uses them.”

In the absence of media training in the classroom, experts say that parents can step up and teach their children to question media advertising.

“Ultimately, parents need to help their kids decode messages that are on toy packaging and advertising. That involves constantly having a conversation about the deeper messages behind ads,” Sweet said.

Wardy calls media messaging a “national children’s health issue.”

“Teaching kids critical thinking and media literacy is just as easy as teaching them manners and ABC’s,” Wardy said. “When we don’t pressure our children to perform their gender and let them just experience the world on their own terms, we really see beautiful things happen.”

She added, “Kids are naturally curious about the world and see it as a magical place. To take half of that away because of their gender is a really tragic thing.”

Social Determinism Versus the Essentialism of “Cis Privilege” Theory

Sex matters.

The politics of gender have always implicated the politics of sex. The politics of sex and gender are inseparable by social design because one of two “gendered” social roles are assigned according to the genital “sex” of each individual’s body at birth. This seems an obvious truth, but many people are still seduced by the idea that gender is somehow “programmed from within.” I will explain how the increasingly popular theory of “cisgender” and “cis privilege” takes advantage of our pluralistic ignorance to reinscribe a fundamentally conservative ideology of gender role essentialism.fausto-sterling SOCIAL DETERMINISM

I am fond of using the graphic above to illustrate the mechanics of social role determinism and its relationship to the presence (or absence) of a phallus at birth. The image is featured in Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book, Sexing the Body. [i] She provides the following context:

As a teaching tool in their struggle to change…

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A Letter To The New Girlfriend



You don’t know me – at least not in person – but I am sure your new boyfriend (or perhaps he has already persuaded you to call him “girlfriend”?)has told you about me. Priming you for the possible eventuality that our paths might cross. I’m sure he has you well prepared, just as he did with all the others that came before you. All those well meaning young women.
You look young. Maybe fifteen, perhaps twenty years younger than him? He likes young women. In his head his “female self” is a young woman, crazy about clothes, make-up, partying and music. Thats probably why you have a great time with him – he has all the interests of some young women, women un-burdened by the life experiences accrued over 5 decades of a female existence in a world that hates women. He won’t ever be bored with “girlie talk”…

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There is a new trend. It stems from queer theory. Like other queer theory approaches, it attempts to obscure the fact that men, as a class, systematically oppress and exploit women, as a class. And it leaves the door wide open for MPAs (Male Privileged Agitators)  to come bursting into the feminist domain.

MPAs (Male Privileged Agitators) are a tiny minority of men who formally organise to express their hatred of women, and particularly, feminists. They present themselves as being reasonable and a “human rights” group. In this liberal world where the rhetoric of fairness and equality saturates beyond meaning, they steal the language of social justice to argue that, far from being a class of oppressors, men, in fact, are the victims. They say they are victimised because it is really women, particularly feminists, who have the true power in society and that they, alone, must stand up to…

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Samir “Sammie” Carvalho (Brazil)

Gender Identity Watch


Samir Carvalho is a Men’s Rights Activist who recently decided he identifies as a Woman. He draws a cartoon called Sasha the Lioness in which he regales readers with tales of how Women are transphobic for knowing he is male. He frequently compares Women to Nazis and members of the KKK for knowing he is male, as depicted here:


Calling Women Nazis or KKK members is a silencing tactic that intends to discourage Women from speaking out about the harmful impact of gender identity. Women are in fact neither Nazis or KKK members for understanding that gender is oppressive and that Samir is male.


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GUEST POST: You are not a feminist

You think I just don't understand, but I don't believe you.

Stop coopting the term “feminist.”

If you privilege trans concerns over woman-born-women’s concerns, you are not a feminist.

If you believe that the question of “what does it mean to be a woman?” has been settled, and that the only legitimate answer is that a woman is anyone who declares that identity, you are not a feminist.

If you regard a love of pink, frills, makeup, and high heels as evidence that a person is really female deep inside, you are not a feminist.

If you believe that being a woman is based on personal conviction, and that body, genetics, and socialization are irrelevant, you are not a feminist.

If you use the phrase “radical feminist” as an ugly epithet, you are not a feminist.

If you uncritically believe in “brain sex,” you are not a feminist.

If you insist that everyone who self-identifies as a woman must be one…

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Houston, We Have A Problem


Satellite_450x350It has been a while since I wrote anything for this blog. I went through a period of needing to step away. I hadn’t realised when I started this that doing this would have quite the emotional impact on me that it has. I started and abandoned several posts, but needed to take that space to concentrate on other things – to avoid being consumed again.
For years my life revolved around someone else’s emotional comfort. Someone else’s want’s, wishes and desires. I became a tiny satellite in orbit around planet Gender. Unable to pull away from it’s gravity, spinning around and around, sending the occasional signal out into the universe, never really being heard. Believing that nothing or no one was hearing my distress signal. Sometimes the signal would be picked up, only to be reflected back at me with a message saying that my message was faulty, that…

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Endangered Species: Actual Lesbians

Pretendbians: Exactly Like Lesbians, Except Not

Here is the audio of the interview I granted to Milly Shaw of Lesbilicious. Instead of writing an objective article that fairly presented both sides, Ms. Shaw decided to write anti-lesbian propaganda.

So, here’s the audio. You can listen for yourself. Please also enjoy the view of my chair. I will wait for the anti-lesbian trolls to talk about how annoying my voice is. You will also hear my dogs.


Here is the screenshot of the email from a woman who was at the bar that night and saw what actually happened.

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 7.11.46 AM

Lesbians, you are becoming an endangered species. Hope you wake up before it’s too late.

Links referenced in the interview: UN Letter, Dyke March video, CounterPunch article, Bar Wotever video, and the Cotton Ceiling.

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