IMAGINE walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.
If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.
It’s what I keep saying (as do other people) – some things that just jump out at everyone if they’re in racial or ethnic terms, seem just normal in gender terms. Michael Shermer would never say, “it’s more of a white thing.” Lots of people who would never call anyone a “nigger” in anger think nothing of calling a woman a bitch or a cunt in anger. And yes – toys aren’t arranged by race, so why are they arranged by gender?
During my research into the role of gender in Sears catalog toy advertisements over the 20th century, I found that in 1975, very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.
But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.
It’s the Hot New Thing, policing gender. Not policing gender is so last century, so boring, so politically correct.
The ideas about gender roles embedded in toys and marketing reflect how little our beliefs have changed over time, even though they contradict modern reality: over 70 percent of mothers are in the labor force, and in most families domestic responsibilities are shared more equitably than ever before. In an era of increasingly diverse family structures, these ideas push us back toward a more unequal past.
That and all the “Real Housewives.”