Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
A pink toy vacuum versus a blue toy vacuum. The only difference being a simple color, but the meaning assigned with the color is forever impactful. This is just one example of the many toys and clothes I observed within a store that catered to children. The development of children can start with the toys they encounter and own, so it is important to critically analyze what messages and symbols are being embedded to children’s minds beginning at the very first stages of their lives.
A walk down the first toy aisle of Toys R Us definitely brought back a ton of memories for me, getting my first Easy Bake oven, collecting different Barbies, and dressing up in princess gowns. These toys brought me joy back then, but looking at them with the knowledge and mindset I have at this age, I now see how limiting these toys were. At a young age, I didn’t exactly understanding how princess gowns and easy bake ovens constructed my gender identity, but now I see how it restricted me to “feminine” roles and trained me for those roles.
At a young age, this can be toxic and very misleading in teaching children their roles in society. For example, as cool and as harmless as an Easy Bake oven may seem, it forces me to always wonder, where is the Easy Bake oven for boys? Why is the Easy Bake oven pink and purple and only located in the “girl’s toys” aisles? I’ve come to learn that the reason for the separation in the aisles in the first place is to maintain and perpetuate gender roles in our society. If one were to look at what is available for exclusively boys and exclusively girls, one can see recurring themes that continue to be perpetuated during and after adolescence. Toys that are specifically for boys are usually more related to sports, violence, construction, and other “masculine” tasks outside of the house. As for girls, their toys are usually catered with tasks inside the house, like cooking, cleaning, taking care of babies, etc. Gender role stereotypes are then perceived by these young children, leading them to believe that this is what their purpose is, and if they deviate from this norm then there’s something wrong with them. This is also known as gender schema, where children learned their “socially assigned roles.” Looking at this through a Social Learning Theory lense will help to further clarify.
By providing children with these symbols and models, we are shaping them for the future. If a girl only plays with toys that involve cooking and cleaning, what role is she eventually going to hold? By associating these tasks with playtime, it becomes normalized.
One characteristic to also note is the colors and symbols in the marketing for clothes. If one were to look at the difference in not only options but also what those options look like versus another. For example, while girls might have a larger selection of clothes and accessories, the marketing around those clothes usually show girls to be less active and productive. They almost encourage them to “sit pretty” and that’s about it. It doesn’t seem to place girls in a position where they have power or mobility. Activewear marketing shows boys playing sports and being active, however girls are playing jump rope at the least, other than laughing, pointing, and just smiling. If they are active, it’s typically them playing with a pink ball or dancing. There is little encouragement to run, play basketball, etc.
The only “gender neutral” items I observed within the the clothes section were socks and in toys were puzzles or learning games. There was little suggesting that boys and girls can enjoy the same items of clothing or toys without it being “too girly” or “too tomboy” for them.
If I were a parent, it would be hard to recognize these roles being forced onto children if I wasn’t aware of gender roles in the first place. For many parents, these toys and clothing items may seem harmless and just enforce “who they are.” However, this is extremely problematic because it is not only ignoring the system that perpetuates inequality, but it allows a parent to throw their child straight into this system at birth. Of course the root of the problem doesn’t stem from a parent’s ignorance, but it definitely plays into it. It is very important that parents realize early on that restricting their children to these toys that socially constructs these gender roles. By doing so, they can begin to educate their children at an early age and eventually change and/or eliminate these gender roles.