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.”
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.”
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."