5 Ways Kids' Toys Are Shockingly Good At Teaching Sexism
In my experience, kids are pretty dumb, so it seems like getting them to buy something should be simple: Make it a bright color, attach a speaker that plays loud noises, and all the kids in the store will fall over themselves in an attempt to swallow it. Then they'll demand a 3 a.m. trip to the emergency room. So why do marketers insist on dividing toys based on gender to such an insane degree? And why, even though we're moving closer and closer to equality every day, are toys more gender-divided now than they ever have been? Are boys and girls getting more different? Just what the hell is going on?
Well, it turns out that this whole thing is more complicated than anyone seems to realize, because ...
Boys And Girls Actually Do Prefer Different Toys
When I first started digging into this issue, I was pretty sure I was going to discover that this stuff:
... was a bunch of crap, that baby boys and girls had way more similar brains, and that this whole dichotomy was just the product of toy companies trying to brainwash kids into different camps for marketing reasons or whatever. Just because in my experience having conversations with girls, I've found that they're just as likely to be really into cars, video games, and blowing stuff up as they are to be into horses, makeup and France. So I was pretty surprised to learn that our childhood preferences for different trucks and dolls might actually be biological after all.
In a study of baby vervet monkeys (a type of monkey I refuse to Google, because I misread them as "velvet monkeys" the first time and now have a wonderful image in my head that I never want to lose), scientists found that when offered trucks or dolls to play with, female monkeys tended to prefer the dolls, while the male monkeys (to a slightly lesser degree) tended to prefer the trucks. Similarly, in the wild, baby female Kanyawara chimpanzees (a monkey I refuse to Google because I don't want to know I'm pronouncing it wrong) have been observed building dolls and pretending to raise them -- and while males occasionally indulged in this play as well, it was far more rare.
Even though this study is generally used to argue that boy-girl toy divisions are natural, to me the far crazier point is how the fuck does a boy monkey know that trucks are stereotypically manly? He's never seen Mad Max: Fury Road, right? Are we showing that movie to monkeys now? If we are I'm shockingly okay with it, but I guess I just thought I'd be among the first to know.
Actually a bad example because Charlize Theron drives the truck
in that movie, but you get my point.
The answer isn't clear, but it probably has something to do with what other studies have found: In humans, baby boys prefer looking at mechanical motion (gears, wheels, rigid shapes), while baby girls prefer looking at biological motion. A boy toddler will stare at a video of moving cars, while baby girls will stare longer at videos of moving faces.
So, yeah, female brains and male brains are different. Which, OK, you probably already knew that, but what's crazy is what we've decided to do with that information.
The Way We Assign Gender To Toys Is Insane
Like I said a minute ago, here's where a lot of commenters stop reading and scroll down to scream about how these differences are natural and men and women should be segregated into different districts like in The Hunger Games (fun fact about those movies: I have no idea what they're about). The problem is that the way we've decided to assign these toys has virtually nothing to do with the inherent differences in male and female brains.
One study found that toys classified as masculine tended to be themed around fighting, aggression, and violence ...
You may not realize this, but "Nerfs" are actually modeled to look like guns.
... while toys designed for girls were built around improving your appearance and domestic duties ...
The difference between "fun" and "chores" is the level of pink, apparently.
Now, what do those things have to do with dolls and trucks? Kinda sorta nothing, it seems to me. So, even when we acknowledge the inherent difference between boys and girls, the toys themselves embrace an insane, perverted version of it. Like at the 2015 Toy Fair, where the "Boy Toy Of The Year" was a robot dinosaur that responds to your voice and hand motions, while the "Girl Toy Of The Year" was a toy checkout counter, with real working treadmill register.
That's right: We're giving boys a pretend animal, and the girls get a toy based on mechanical motion -- the exact opposite of what the goddamn science says their goddamn brains prefer. So even when the science backs up differences between gender, the people selling us the toys ignore it in favor of reinforcing arbitrary stereotypes. Why? Well..
Stereotyping Kids is Good For Business
Let me give you one more example of a weird boy-girl toy problem. One of the coolest scenes in the new Avengers movie is when Captain America is fighting Ultron on the back of a truck, and Black Widow drops her electric Harley-Davidson out of the quinjet to go back him up. Is that... is that sentence gibberish? Okay, try this: "Scarlet Johansson drives a motorcycle out of a fighter jet."
And she's not even wearing a helmet.
But when the toys based on that scene came out, they pretended that it was Captain America dropping out of the quinjet. To go ... rescue himself?
In the LEGO version she gets to drive the jet. In the action-figure version,
she's not even there.
This isn't the first time we've noticed Marvel ignoring women: Even the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has called them out on Twitter for not making Black Widow toys, Marvel Cinematic Universe Overlord Kevin Feige keeps dancing around the issue during interviews, and, most obviously, we're getting a movie about the guy who beat his wife before we get a movie with a female title character.
Why? Because Marvel doesn't care about marketing to women. Not because they're sexist (or, at least not just because of that) but because that's literally not their job. According to this anonymous insider article, Disney bought Marvel (and, we can assume, Lucasfilm) specifically to target boys. They already have the female market on freaking lockdown with the unstoppable juggernaut that is their Disney Princess "universe," and they wanted a way to get their greasy little demon-claws on the brains of teenage boys as well.
"According to the enchanted rose, we're really moving the needle with our new key demo."
This is actually a really simple marketing technique called market segmentation: They corral you into your little group, and then hype up the stuff they want you to want, so you buy it. This is why the boy and girl sections in stores are divided: If they know exactly where little boys are going in a store, they can control what kind of hyped-up toys they see and control what they want to buy next. This is also why Avengers: Age Of Ultron had a Batman V Superman trailer in front of it instead of one for Pitch Perfect 2.
See, the people who sell us shit know that we only want what they tell us to want. So the more they divide us, and the stronger those divisions are, the more they can sell us. If they know what you like, they always know where you are, and if they always know where you are, they always know what to sell you, so they always know what you like.
And here's where it gets creepy ...
Kids Can't Escape It
Most parents make some effort to control what their kids are exposed to when they're young, making sure that they don't get corrupted by the exact stuff I've been talking about this whole time. Some parents might put parental locks on their TVs, or not let kids go to a certain concert, or dress them in anime shirts to ensure they never make any friends. The problem is none of that works, because you cannot hide from this shit.
"Your stealth powers have failed you, little one."
All the socialized differences between genders aren't just forced on children; kids actually go out of their way to self-socialize. Most kids instinctively want to know what groups (like gender) they belong to, and once they figure it out, will steadfastly defend their position like it's fucking Helm's Deep.
Why? Because they're worried if they don't, they might change. Children understand the intangible parts of gender before they understand the concrete parts: A little girl who's been told that boys have short hair might believe that if she cuts her hair short, she will become a boy, or that a boy who plays with a Barbie will become a girl, and that can be terrifying, because it means adopting a whole new identity and joining a whole new group. So they learn as much as they can about what gender they belong to as fast as they can.
"When we touch foreheads, the transformation will begin!"
This is why, when I point out that most "boy" toys are about violence and most "girl" toys are about looking pretty, I think it's fucked up, because I know that this stuff is being built into these kids' understanding of who they are. They're being told what a fundamental part of their "me" is, and they're going to want to defend it. And the girl who grows up thinking being a very specific type of pretty is the most important part of being a woman -- and the boy who grows up thinking being violent is the most important part of being a man -- are not gonna end up being awesome people. They're going to be the type of people who go see a Transformers movie and say, "yeah. That's good cinema." Probably worse things, too, but that's my main concern.
But the weirdest part of all of this is that we're not even talking about traditional gender roles here, since it turns out ...
All This Division Is ... New
"But this is the way it's always been!" a lot of you are shouting. "Boys and girls always grew up different, and society has gotten by pretty OK so far, right?" You're probably imagining the good ol' 1950s, when Barbies and G.I. Joes were invented (probably?), and real men were real men and real women were etc., end of sentence. But, like I said in the intro to this article, toys are more divided by gender now than they ever have been in history, so that's all bullshit. We didn't bother with this hard-line blue/pink division shit until the 1980s. Why? Well, a part of it is the popularity of the Ultrasound: before that, parents didn't know what their kid's junk looked like until it was born, so all your pre-baby purchases had to be gender non-specific out of necessity. But once parents were suddenly able to plan out their gender binary indoctrination ahead of time, the toy marketers were really able to kick their black-magic mind control into high gear.
"Al'takuhl! Shivrak! Akh'Tan Guth!" And so on.
In the 1980s, Nielsen ratings (the system that ad agencies use to learn how many TVs are watching a given show) introduced a system allowing Nielsen Families to say which people in the house were watching TV -- meaning that, for the first time, ad companies knew what kids were watching on TV and when. Around that same time, the FCC also abolished rules saying that TV stations had to have a minimum amount of educational programming, meaning that TV stations could create as much entertainment content as they wanted (though the Children's Television Act of 1990 created some new requirements in that area). By the end of the decade, Disney revolutionized the game by segmenting their demos into boys and girls with the creation of their Disney Princess license after the release of The Little Mermaid. Since then, the Disney Princess brand has become the No. 2 licensed property in the U.S. and Canada.
I've talked before about how most gender stereotypes are recent inventions, specifically the pink-blue dichotomy (in fact, pink used to be considered a manly color). But it's even weirder than that, because for a while we were dividing toys based on eye-color: One scientist wrote, "Through the 1920s and '30s ... the pattern was blue for blue-eyed children and pink for brown-eyed children. There were lots and lots of little brown-eyed boys who got pink presents for their birthday." Companies love making up rules about how different we all are, because that is a great trick for getting us to part with our money.
"Can you guys stop integrating so well? It's making it really hard for us to sell you shit."
My point here is that the people defending the boy-girl toy division are suckers. They've been played by a massive, multi-billion-dollar marketing campaign explicitly and overtly designed to brainwash you into becoming the type of person who buys more of that company's shit. Your choices, your beliefs, and every facet of your identity down to the supposedly immutable aspects of your gender are just cogs in a massive machine that was built to suck as much life out of you as possible while still keeping you more or less alive, if not totally conscious.
Until you get too old to buy toys; then you're allowed to die however you want. So at least there's that to look forward to.
JF Sargent is an editor and columnist for Cracked who can be reached on Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Ways To Relax That Secretly Just Stress You Out and 5 Insane Lies You Probably Believe About American Families.
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