Why Gender-Specific Toys Are Harming Girls

The majority of the Toys R Us Lego Isle is a very familiar shade of blue, copyrighted and trademarked, and gleaming under the florescent lights. In one brightly lit section, however, pink reigns supreme: the section full of toys marketed to little girls. Most of these toys can be placed in at least one of three categories: luxury play (play that seems to serve no other purpose than to stimulate the girls’ imaginations in settings of extreme opulence and wealth), housework play (in which a child mimics doing household chores, including anything from an Easy Bake Oven to a baby doll to a plastic kitchenette), or interpersonal relationship play (in which a child is meant to identify with a doll of some kind, and she and other “dolls” are meant to interact). Many of these toys reinforce sexist and harmful ideas in girls that invariably inculcates passivity and conformism in adult women.

A classic example of sexist toys can be found in the "household maintenance" aisle of Toys R Us, win which things like toy brooms and dustpans are marketed specifically to girls. Such housework toys send the message that housework is traditionally feminine and expected of wives and mothers. Girls can use toy brooms to pretend they're cleaning their family’s house or pretend to make her family dinner in a toy kitchentte. The fact that these toys exist is not an issue: some children (boys and girls alike) may actually enjoy pretending to cook or sweep. The problem lies in the fact that the vast majority of these items are being marketed to girls, not boys.

But it's not just that gender-specific toys indoctrinate girls to do gendered work: many also teach young girls to covet lives of luxury, status, and indolence, which invariably set them up for failure, defeat, and despair. These "luxury" toys reinforce the disparity between what girls are taught to want and what they actually receive or are able to achieve. Girls are practically trained to expect these lavish lifestyles when the reality is that they will more than likely end up working for the rest of their lives, both at home and in the workforce. That is not to say that parents either have the choice of buying their children things like toy yachts or sitting their children to explain the details about living in abject poverty. Rather, especially given that in comparison to the rest of the world most Americans are incredibly blessed and privileged, the ideal lifestyle luxury toys encourage girls to aspire to is disproportionate to how most Americans actually live and could in fact be detrimental to the way girls view society and shape their own goals.

There is another key point in the despair for modern young women, however, and that is the ideal of beauty. Teaching young girls to admire and desire opulence is one thing, but the messages that other products like Bratz dolls, or the new “Monster High” dolls send are equally insidious. Monster High dolls are a new commodity on the market. They are Barbie-esque dolls that are reminiscent of popular monster tales, such as the classics of Dracula and Frankenstein. They have pithy names like Frankie Stein and Draculaura, and their impossibly long legs are highlighted by their incredibly short skirts. While their bodies seem to be more proportionate than Barbies or Bratz, they are still impossibly wafer-thin, with tiny waists and noticeable and often exposed breasts.

These standards all feed into what Americans consider to be the ideal beauty. Women and girls are taught to seek this perfect ideal of beauty, and in turn taught that being beautiful is one of the most important aspects of their very existence. Typically, as shown in these Monster High dolls, the ideal of beauty is predominantly white and able bodied. This ideal reinforces sexism, sizeism, racism, ableism, and ageism. The idea that women have to seek out perfection, while most men are perfectly acceptable as they are is simply sexist.

The sad fact is that children take note of the messages sent through things like gendered toys and the results can be shocking. Instilling this image of “perfection” on young girls has been shown to have disastrous consequences, like eating disorders. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association conducted studies that showed that 42 % of children from first to third grade wished they were thinner, and 51% of nine and ten year old girls felt better about their bodies when they were on diets. People may see eating disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and body dimorphic disorder as adult problems, but the fact of the matter is that these diagnoses are being given to children at younger and younger ages. It is not uncommon for eight-year-old girls to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. But these toys do not just negatively impact girl’s self-images: sexist toys also impact girls’ feelings of self-worth. As children, this may be as benign as not wanting to raise their hands in class. In adult women, it leads to not asking for a promotion, not wanting to achieve as much as men, and ultimately taking as subservient role in a male-dominated society.

Look at the types of toys girls are told to buy: one exhibits opulence and wealth, another other exhibits traditional femininity and motherhood while still another established an unattainable standard of beauty. If these are the messages being sent to little girls, it is no wonder we're seeing generation after generation of women wanting to “have it all" and feeling like they fail to measure up in all realms. These toys all enforce negative messages about women that can harm girls’ self-esteems, future prospects, and even careers.

Other sources of influence besides toys (including the media, home lives, and education) certainly influence girls in these realms, but toys are a significant (and often overlooked) part of the problem. Play time should be the safest time in the world for children. It is a time to discover, and learn, and imagine. When there are messages regarding gender and gender norms, however, play time can become dangerous.

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Clarissa D
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