Micro-Macro Connection

Girls’ Toys and Boys’ Toys

Like most people over the age of 50, I can remember a time when toys played a very different role in children’s lives than they do now. When I was a kid, my friends and I didn’t have many toys, and we usually ended up improvising playthings out of available materials like tree branches, empty boxes, and old stringless tennis rackets. When we did receive a new toy, it was usually a special occasion, like a birthday, a holiday, or a cavity-free dental checkup. Every once in a while we’d save up enough money, walk down to the local toy shop, and buy some toy for ourselves that we’d been coveting for months. The toys were simple and straightforward—wagons, fire engines, dolls, balls, trains, board games—and we’d use them until they broke or wore out. When our parents detected a significant spurt in our maturity, they might get us a toy that required special caution: a chemistry set, an Easy-Bake Oven, an electric racing car set.

Today, toys have changed. They are now a multibillion-dollar business, part of a giant transnational, interconnected industry. It’s virtually impossible to buy a toy these days that’s not linked to some new film, television show, fast food restaurant, or other high-powered marketing campaign. Toy companies now regularly produce TV cartoons based on their own products (C. L. Williams, 2006). Parents find it difficult to resist their children’s wishes, which are likely to be formed by television advertisements. Try taking a small child to McDonald’s without feeling the pressure to buy a Happy Meal with a toy. The quaint, independent toyshop of the past has been replaced by the massive toy mega-warehouse filled with endless aisles stocked from floor to ceiling with boxes sporting eye-popping colors and screaming images. Even serious world events are now linked to toys. Shortly after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, toy companies began to manufacture and market “SEAL Team 6” toys, ranging from posable action figures to plastic weapons.

But the current state of the toy industry is not simply a result of profit-hungry corporations trying to find new ways to exploit the child market (G. Cross, 1997). Toys have always played a significant socializing role in teaching children about the prevailing cultural conceptions of gender. In the 1950s—a time in U.S. history when most adults had endless faith in the goodness of technological progress—Erector Sets and chemistry sets were supposed to encourage boys to be engineers and scientists. Dollhouses and baby dolls taught girls to be modern homemakers and mothers during a time when girls typically assumed they’d occupy those roles in adulthood.

Today, a quick glance at Saturday morning television commercials, toy store shelves, or manufacturers’ Web sites reveals that toys and games remain solidly segregated along gender lines. For instance, the Web site of the retail giant Toys “R” Us gives online shoppers the option of selecting “girls’ toys” or “boys’ toys.” The featured categories for boys include “Action Figures,” while the featured categories for girls include “Dolls” and “Bath, Beauty Accessories.” And although both boys’ and girls’ toys have a category called “Building Sets,” the boys’ sets include a “Star Wars Jedi Interceptor,” a “Call of Duty Half Track Troop Transporter,” and “Monster Fighter Vampire Castle;” the girls’ sets, on the other hand, include “Cinderella’s Romantic Castle,” “Hello Kitty Beach House,” and “Barbie’s Glam House.”

“Girls’ toys” still revolve around themes of domesticity, fashion, and motherhood. They encourage creativity, nurturing, and physical attractiveness. “Boys’ toys” emphasize action and adventure and encourage exploration, competition, and aggression (C. L. Miller, 1987; Renzetti & Curran, 2003). Gender-specific toys foster different traits and skills in children and thereby further separate boys and girls into different patterns of social development.

The iconic and highly stereotypical “Barbie” doll has been one of the best-selling girls’ toys for 50 years. In recent years, competitors such as “American Girl” dolls have gained in popularity, challenging Barbie’s market primacy. These dolls are advertised as celebrating “all that girls can be” and come in a variety of historical characters, each with her own backstory. “Addy Walker” lived in the 19th century and was an escaped slave. “Molly McIntire” grew up during World War II. “Julie Albright” was a fun-loving girl in the 1970s who struggled to adjust to a new school.

Toy manufacturers also continue to make fortunes promoting war toys, competitive games of strategy, and sports paraphernalia for boys. In 1983, the popular action figure G.I. Joe got his own TV show; by 1988, two thirds of American boys between the ages of 5 and 11 owned Joes (G. Cross, 1997). Today, the boys’ toy market is saturated with the plastic descendants of Joe: high-tech soldiers, muscle-bound action figures from popular comic books and movies, and intergalactic warriors. A live-action G.I. Joe film hit the theaters in 2009.

Video and online games have become a particularly lucrative product in recent years. The majority of gamers are young men, who account for nearly 60% of all those who regularly play computer and video games (Statista, 2015). Among those who are “addicted” to Internet gaming, teenage boys outnumber girls 10 to 1 (Spada, 2014).

Not surprisingly, most of these games are designed by males for other males. Female characters in games with titles like Bayonetta, Rapelay, Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, Grand Theft Auto, and Lollipop Chainsaw are provocatively sexual, scantily clad, and voluptuous. Many games portray female characters as prostitutes and strippers who are frequent targets of violence at the hands of psychopathic male characters. In the online game Boneless Girl, players poke, pull, and throw a bikini-wearing girl across the screen to get her through a maze of bubbles. Duke Nukem Forever allows players to slap seminaked women if they don’t cooperate. To promote this game, 2K Games launched an accompanying Web site that contained a flash game in which female targets take off a piece of clothing for every successful shot until they are topless. The gender messages in such games may have a detrimental effect on both boys’ attitudes toward girls and women and their conceptions of appropriate male behavior.

From time to time, toy manufacturers have attempted—usually only halfheartedly—to blur the lines between boys’ and girls’ toys. Several years ago, the Hasbro toy company tried to interest boys in troll dolls, which are traditionally popular among girls. What it came up with were old-fashioned action figures in the shape of a troll, with names like “Troll Warrior” and “Battle Troll” (Lawson, 1993). Other companies have tried to sell girls action figures and building blocks, which are typically the province of boys, but have drifted into traditional gender stereotypes. For instance, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, tried to move away from the doll’s oversexualized, hyperfeminine image in 2012 by introducing a construction set for girls called “Mega Bloks Barbie Build ‘n Style.” However, the set was bubblegum pink and centered on building a dream mega-mansion. Similarly, the popular Lego building blocks that boys have used for decades to make towers and monsters still come in vivid primary colors. But they are also available in more feminine, pastel colors and come in kits that can be used to make jewelry and dollhouses. In addition, Lego recently began promoting the “Friends” line of play systems explicitly for girls, with themes such as “Mia’s Bedroom,” “Bunny and Babies,” and “Heartlake Pet Salon.”

For the most part, toy manufacturers are still quick to exploit the gender-distinct roles children are encouraged to pursue when they become adults. They know full well that the few adults who do object to gender-specific toys will face disappointed children scowling at the sight of some gender-neutral alternative (C. L. Williams, 2006). Fisher-Price offers the “Little Mommy” doll, a soft, cuddly baby that drinks from a bottle and comes with a potty seat for toilet training. Playmates Toys’ “Amazing Amanda” laughs, talks, cries, asks for hugs, and changes facial expressions. Mattel makes a pregnant version of Barbie’s friend Midge (called “Happy Family Midge”). She comes with a distended tummy that, when removed, reveals a 1¾-inch baby nestled in the doll’s plastic uterus. The doll comes with everything a girl needs to play out the birth and care of the new baby, including diapers (pink if it’s a girl, blue if it’s a boy), birth certificate, bottles, rattles, changing table, tub, and crib. All these dolls clearly teach young girls the cultural value of motherhood, a role most girls are encouraged and expected to enter later in life. You’d be hard pressed to find a comparable toy, popular among boys, that prepares them for future roles as fathers.