The Pro-Youth Pages
© 2012, Pro-Youth Pages

Toy Store Sexism

How Marketing Sexism Hurts Girls and Boys Alike

Why is every toy marketed either as "for boys" or "for girls"? Toy stores tell us girls should own and play with only pink items, and the items should involve fluffy animals, jewelry, housework, or princesses; boys must have only toys that celebrate either building things or destroying things, and those toys are to be blue, black, or gun metal gray.

laptop for boys, laptop for girls
If a job at a construction company were advertised as being only for men, the company would draw both lawsuits and boycotts. Our society does not tolerate such discrimination among adults. Yet Fisher-Price sells a baby's rattle in the shape of a saw and puts right on the packaging "For a Busy Baby Boy." (Their rattle advertised "For a Sweet Baby Girl" is in the shape of a pink diamond ring.)

Toy packaging shows pictures of the toy being enjoyed by delighted girls or by enthusiastic boys, but almost never by both. Again and again, the message sent to children is "Boys and girls cannot play together. Boys and girls have nothing in common and are not to be friends."

Pushing Sexism Supports Ageism, Too

The most likely motive for toy companies is their desire to boost sales. Discouraging boys and girls from playing together with the same toys encourages the purchase of separate toys and therefore more toys. The little boy won't settle for his big sister's hand-me-down playthings, and the parents shell out for a blue play set that may be no better than the pink play set now gathering dust.

But the effects of pushing sexism on children cause all children to suffer.

One way that oppressors keep the oppressed weak is to turn the oppressed against one another. When employers, for example, want to kill a strike, they offer something that benefits 51% of the unionized workers while cheating the other 49%, then let the unionized workers vote on whether to accept that offer.

Divide and conquer is sometimes a conscious strategy. Other times it is little more than a subconscious wish of the ruling class, which they then promote is subtle ways, such as through the use of popular culture.

In 1915, the world saw its first full-length motion picture, Birth of a Nation. The film — criticized even then as racist for the way it depicts Reconstruction and the way it champions the Ku Klux Klan — does not vilify all blacks. Indeed, it rallies behind "good" blacks who oppose radical ideas such as letting blacks vote. The film urges its audience to cheer on a black woman who resembles Aunt Jemima and who uses her rolling pin to whomp a black organizer in the head as she tells the movie-goers, "Them northern niggers sho' is peculiar!" That satisfied white movie-goers who had a conscious or subconscious wish to see blacks divided, and it provided an example for black movie-goers to follow.

In more modern times, the film Fatal Attraction was rightly criticized for promoting misogyny, and it, too, offers women turned against each other, climaxing with the protagonist's wife (the "good" woman) standing by her cheating man and killing the "bad" woman — the out-of-control mistress who refuses to just be used by the man and forgotten.

Today's popular culture especially loves to depict youth fighting each other. Every sit-com about a family seems to depict the children inflicting cruelties on each other they don't dare inflict on their parents or other adults, and these programs usually present such cruelty as the norm, urging children in the audience to follow that example. "If you're angry," they whisper to children, "don't fight back against your parents or teachers or other adults making you angry. Take it out instead on your sister or your brother. That is your enemy. That is the person you are supposed to hurt."

Every bookstore's Young Adult section is packed with horror novels in which the villains stalking and killing teenagers almost always turn out to be other teenagers, even though FBI statistics show teenagers in real life are far more likely to be murdered by adults than by peers. Book publishers often feel reality is not the "responsible" thing to offer young readers. They must offer instead obedient "good" teenagers fighting against the "bad kids" who break laws to hurt other youth but rarely do the unthinkable act of harming an adult. Fun is fun, after all, but they don't want to give young readers any ideas.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote the exceptional novel Foxfire, in which teenagers are mostly united in fighting against adults. While most schools keep this prestigious literature away from young readers, Hollywood made a movie version marketed to young audiences. The biggest change they made in the story: instead of showing youth united against ageist adults, the film shows teenagers divided along gender lines, the evil male teenagers siding with a molesting teacher and against the female victims. In the film's conclusion, even the teenaged girls are divided against each other, with the "good" girls standing up for an abusive father and against their friend who is "going too far" by defying patriarchy.

When toy companies tell us their toys are only for boys or only for girls, their main motive is to boost profits. But they must know that one effect of instructing boys and girls not to play together is to divide them against each other. Boys and girls who grow up seeing each other as separate groups cannot see that they are equally victims of oppression in the classroom and in the household. They grow up less able to embrace one another as potential allies against their common problems. They grow up isolated and remain vulnerable.

The adults who run these corporations encourage division, and they don't see a problem with it. They will be happy to keep right on doing it until they hear some complaints from the people who do the buying. When children and parents and other purchasers refuse to shop at toy stores where every item is labeled either a boy's toy or a girl's toy, companies may finally see something wrong with pushing sexism on our nation's children.