Sociology of Family: Toys R Us—Engendering Children Are Us.

When you walk into a Toys R Us store you can quickly see how toy stores teach gender through messages sent as an agent of socialization for children. The boy’s section of toys is separate and distinctive from that of the girl’s toys. Model cars, trucks, trains, building blocks, sporting goods and action figures stock the rows of boy’s toys and are brilliant and bold in their highly saturated colors of blue, red, and green. Meanwhile, Barbie’s, dress up dolls, house play sets, hair salon setups, stuffed animals and art & crafts supplies are flirty in pink, purple and passive pastel hues that cleanly segregate out the girl’s section.

Even where toys by function are marketed to both boys and girls you see the clear messages sent of gender. What boy would be caught dead on a pink “Barbie” bike with colored tassels, and what girl would associate herself with the black bike with red “Hot Rod” flames? Even in solid colors you can walk through the bikes and determine which color is for which gender… blue, black, green, yellow and red – all boys. Pink (lots of pink!), purple, pastels, anything pretty – these are for girls.

Stepping back from the massive collection of toys, another thing that seems to jump out to me is that boys are being sent messages to socialize them to become strong, aggressive, and daring, while young girls are learning how to care for the home, cook and clean, look pretty with makeup, nails and hair salon sets, and care for a child all while in passive and demure tones. Even the clothing reflects the same display of gender based messages… Boys shirts feature skull and cross bones, skateboarders, trucks and cars, and various sports, and bad attitude and rude slogans – “My sister is a witch”. While girls have 3 times as many clothes to choose from they all seem to feature flowers, bunnies, butterflies and hearts with ‘cute’ and flirty slogans such as “Ok I’m perfect – but stop staring” or “It’s hard being this cute”.

Products that promote gender neutrality seem to be trying to reclaim the primary, highly saturated colors as being gender neutral as opposed to boy’s colors. However even in brand such as Hasbro’s Playskool which I formerly would have believed to be gender neutral based on my past experience there is a clear separation of boys and girls. They feature cell phones and mp3 players as role playing items each in two color schemes… one blue for boys and pink for girls. They also have “Rumblin’ Rollers” trucks for boys and girls, each sold separately, but only one of the four is distinctly styled in the pink and purple we’ve come to associate with girl gendered toys while the other three are the more boy-to-neutral gendered colors.

There are four signifigant theories used to explain gender in our culture – Biology, Psychoanalytic, Social Learning, and Cognitive Learning. Let’s see how the principles of these theories apply to my field observations.

First, biology and its effect on gender socialization. This theory tells us that during fetal development we’re exposed to different hormones which lead to variations that account for the behavioral differences between the genders. I believe there are elements of truth behind the theory of biology and gender socialization because hormones during development account for all kinds of other differences in genders, so why wouldn’t they also affect our behaviors? We see evidence of hormones affecting behavior in adult life, with folks who are highly emotional and are therefore called ‘chemically imbalanced’ in laymen’s terms. However, since my observation was of a toy store I don’t have evidence that directly supports this theory.

Second, the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud… His theory was that your primary parent imprints upon your personality. This is usually the mother, therefore if you happen to be a boy at some point you must break off from that connection in order to define their male ego. While I believe in the bond between mother and child, as well as the role the mother plays in the development of a child’s behavior, I do not believe that this accounts for the largest portion of gender socialization. Again, no evidence supporting this theory was found in my field observation.

Third is the social learning theory or behaviorism. This theory asserts that behaviors are social constructed by positive and negative reinforcement. If a child behaves according to socially prescribed acceptable behavior then they receive positive reinforcement. However, if they behave against the norm they receive negative reinforcement… for instance a boy wearing a dress, or who enjoys playing with dolls, may be ridiculed by his older siblings and chastised by his father. I believe that my ethnographic observations support this theory. Boys and girls toys are just that, made specifically for boys, or girls. They are engendered and there is protocol for what toys and play are appropriate for each sex. Messages sent through the toy store support girls playing with Barbie dolls, playing dress up and other traditionally girl oriented play. Boys are encouraged to play aggressively with toys that reenact warfare, focus on sports, or promote mental development with building blocks and models.

Finally, fourth, cognitive learning complements the evidence found for social learning. Cognitive learning is similar to social learning in that both are learned from being within a culture and learning the norms of that culture – however the learning style is different. While social learning happens through social reinforcement cognitive learning does not require interaction. Instead children observe and build schemas that inform behavior and help them to understand the world around them. In the toy store the toys that line the shelves help inform little girls as to what is expected of them. If they see toys like hair salon, makeup and nail play sets, and miniature kitchens and doll houses that must be cared for it paints a picture of what is expected of them. Again, hand-in-hand with social learning, these messages from the toy store shelves which inform their cognitive learning schemas also assist in their modeling (from social learning) their same-sex parent’s behaviors.

I believe that gender norms have come about because of the cyclical cycle of life… at some point in the very beginning someone decided the roles of men and women, then over time this standard was perpetuated then by social learning (learning from those around you and through positive reinforcement for conforming behavior and modeling) and cognitive learning (learning by observing and creating a set of rules and guidelines known as schemas). Over the years these behaviors become the norm by the essence of time and consistency. More and more people buy into the principles and suddenly you have standard behavior which is considered “normal”. The norm is very hard to change for the same reason. Trying to change the norm is like trying to change an entire society’s collective social mind.


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