Society’s expectations of gender binary begin as early as childhood. Although gender is based on the biology of certain chromosomes, there are many human produced categories that form the foundation for gender roles in society. Society’s ideals and concepts as basic as tradition, morals, and conceptions of stereotype, proper protocol, and etiquette construct the ideas of what women should be and what men should be. There are many “underlying societal beliefs about the relative roles of men and women. To mother a child is to nurture, coddle, and protect that child; to father a child is simply to fertilize an egg, (Newman, 79). Children are exposed to these seemingly simple societal concepts in their environment every day. Because of this, even before they have a choice in the matter, children develop gender due to these influences of society.
Toys especially facilitate the understanding of normative gender roles and stereotypes in childhood. Toys as simple as dolls and water guns represent powerful methods of information dissemination. “A quick glance at Saturday morning television commercials or a toy manufacturer’s catalog or web site reveals that toys and games remain solidly segregated along gender lines,” (Newman, 112). They spread basic ideas on how to be a girl and how to be a boy. Girls are encouraged to be more emotional and nurturing with their baby dolls, while boys are encouraged to engage in aggressive play with their trucks and action figures. These ideas are embedded into society and promulgated through the market, “teaching” children how to fulfill their proper gender roles based on society’s expectations. As consumers of these toys, children are being “trained” and socialized into their prospective roles by playing with the toys and watching how other children play with the toys in their environment and on the media.
A task as simple as searching for a gender-neutral toy is no longer as easy as it used to be, because gender-neutral toys are no longer predominant in the market. Board games such as Scrabble and Connect Four are not played as often. Simple apparatuses such as Bop-it are no longer in style. The popularity of these gender-neutral toys has dissipated. Although basic toys such as balls still exist, they do not fail in their surreptitious effort to influence gender. Parents tend to buy the pink balls for their girls and male-oriented colored balls, such as blue, for their boys. The main toys that exist in the market send obvious messages in shaping certain aspects of gender roles in adulthood and society. Toys such as dolls, dresses, and kitchen sets are marketed toward girls, influencing them to become care-takers, domestic, and nurturing. Trucks, action figures, Lego blocks, video games, and Nerf guns, on the other hand, are marketed toward boys. These toys influence boys to explore and become aggressive, strategic, and logical. Now, toys that promote gender typing, such as those mentioned, play an important role, and flood the toy market with masculinity and femininity expectations for the consumer.
The Hannah Montana product line, in particular, sold in many toy stores such as Toys “R” Us, sends messages on gender typing and underlying societal expectations of female values of adulthood. The Hannah Montana product line includes many dolls resembling the actress Miley Cyrus from the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana. The protagonist of the series is a teenage girl who has a dual identity of being a famous pop star at night. Many of the dolls in this product line come with several different doll outfits so the children who play with the toy can delight in changing their dolls’ clothes. Some even include plastic mini hairdryers and mini brushes.
Here is a YouTube video showing some toys included in the Hannah Montana product line:
Although the plethora of accessories that these dolls come with promote creativity and design when deciding how to dress the doll and how to style the doll’s hair, these products also tend to promote ideas of limited feminine roles in society. According to the ideals of the product line, girls should focus on body and beauty. The Hannah Montana makeover set, taken from the Toys "R" Us website and featured in the picture, will help girls learn how to properly put eye shadow and lip gloss, while the dress-up set and closet will help girls figure out the latest fashion and look good according to society standards. There is no doubt that the toys in this product line are used for entertainment purposes and children have fun playing with them, but their underlying messages limit girls in learning about their female place in today’s culture. Is the non-stop dance party Hannah Montana CD solely for young girls to sing, dance, and enjoy themselves, or does it also enforce girls to exercise, sing, and stay fit? These toys encourage ideas of glamour, selling items that focus on enhancing the looks of hair, nails, and overall image. Having the dolls come with mirrors, several outfits, and numerous accessories promote creativity, as well as vanity and ideal attractiveness, which shape feminine gender typing for young girls.
Unlike girls’ toys, boys’ toys tend to encourage curiosity and exploration. Boys’ toys include action figures and video games. On the Toys “R” Us website, a category entitled “Learning and Science” even shows boy models exploring and using the toys; whereas, girls solely play with dolls and carriages. Many toys for boys encourage boys to be aggressive, build logic, and engage in outdoor games. In a study conducted by Michael A. Messner, it was discovered that many men believed that aggressive play and sports were just what boys did; it was merely a social norm.
“Many of the men… said that during childhood they played sports because ‘it’s just what everybody did,’ they of course meant that is was just what boys did. They were introduced to organized sports by older brothers and fathers, and once involved, found themselves playing within an exclusively male world. though the separate (and unequal) gendered worlds of boys and girls came to appear as ‘natural,’ they were in fact socially constructed,” (Messner, 127).
The ideas that boys play sports and engaged in outdoor activity are constructed by society and the way society views gender roles. According to this paradigm, boys play with water guns to promote aggressive play and strategy, while girls play with dolls to promote domestic nurturing. Boys and girls should follow their prospective roles because it is the norm; it is what society has promoted and still continues to promote through many different mediums, including toys and the consumer market.
In conclusion, gender and the particular roles that genders play in society are governed by many things, including the environment, media, parents, families, and children’s toys. Expectations of gender roles begin as early as childhood, as children are exposed to the media, advertisements promoting how girls should act and carry themselves and how boys should act and carry themselves, and even toys that their parents and other adults purchase for them. Play guns and strategic video games are made for boys to be consumers, while Hannah Montana dolls, make up sets, and dress up sets are made for girls. Girls are expected to act proper and not play with the aggressive toys made for boys. Girls are encouraged to continue their role as the nurturing, beautiful care-takers. The number of different mediums used as sources of laying a foundation for “proper” societal gender identity, whether beneficial or not, is endless, and they continue to have a strong influence on culture and society in the every day world.
"Hannah Montana - Toys "R" Us." ToysRUs. 19 May 2008
"Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus Dolls and More." YouTube. 20 May 2008
Messner, Michael A. "Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities." Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (1990): 120-137.
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. 71-145.