Selling gender stereotypes to teens and pre-teens

Elle, PhD noticed a little something (ok, a big something) about how some science kits are marketed to kids:

(Image via Elle, PhD)

She notes:

And while the “boy’s” kit promises to boost your brain… the “girl’s” kit promise to relax you and let you experiment with different fragrances. The boy’s box is also covered with words like “go wild” and “erupt” and “blow your mind,”while the only thing that promises to be exciting about the girl’s is the foaming and frothing of bubbles.

Then reader Maggie sent along a link to One-A-Day vitamins for teens:

It says, under the picture:

- Healthy muscle function with Magnesium (for Him)
- Healthy skin with Vitamins A and C, Copper, and Iron (for Her)

(Emphasis mine.) These are only two examples — things I’d probably just roll my eyes at in the store and walk on by — but it’s worth pausing sometimes and thinking about how pervasive this messaging is. These aren’t even cosmetic products! They’re selling science kits and vitamins on the stereotype that girls want to smell nice and have soft skin, not strong muscles and big brains.


Heels for Babies: Not Funny.

Who needs credit cards when you have a junior vagina?

Barbie Girls and the culture of consumption

Because you’re never too young to start adhering to patriarchal norms

Padded bras for six year-olds

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown

Then to cheer yourself up, check out New Moon and Teen Voices, which provide non-stereotype-laden takes on girlhood today.

Join the Conversation

  • alixana

    I just saw that vitamin ad the other day, on TV I think, and I turned to my dad and squawked, “Why the fuck do they think girls don’t care about healthy muscles, too?” On the flip side (I lift weights, so my intial reaction was pretty self-focused), I imagine that teenage boys faced with acne have skin concerns, too. These are soooo not issues that need to be gendered.

  • rachelhelen

    Oh please, girls don’t need chemistry! Well, except to mix fragrance and hair dye ;)
    And since when is muscle function required to sit around and look pretty?

  • justinc

    huh thats messed up. for now on when ever im in a store im going to look for gendered stereotyped products. the only thing that i can think of is mighty max for boys and pocket princess for girls.
    as for the vitiamins, as far as i know there are different nutritional neeeds for young men and women.

  • inallsincerity

    I found a site that sells the kit.
    My favorite part is:”The best way to get girls interested in science (We all know research indicates girls become less interested in math and science at puberty) is to engage them in activities they are interested in. So what could be better than SPA SCIENCE?”

  • cordi

    I’m going to pretend I don’t see the science one, but as for the vitamins: yes, teen boys and teen girls need different formulas (see: mild anemia due to iron deficiency, etc. due to mensturation), heck every individual probably needs a formula specific for their own needs, but making 6 billion different varieties would be… problematic, at least for now. Emphasis on muscle and skin? Fail.

  • newyorkred1

    Somewhat related, at least in terms of vitamins and marketing, is the difference between regular vitamins and “prenatal” vitamins. Women’s One a Day vitamins contain practically the same vitamins that One a Day Prenatal vitamins do–and yet the prenatal ones cost twice as much. Wtf?

  • Sidewriter

    The vitamin ad also manages to reinforce the idea that women, not men, are responsible for the care of offspring.
    “…to address the top health concerns of moms and teens”
    Because only moms care about kids’ nutritional needs. Why not just say “parents”?

  • alixana

    Yes, men and women do have different nutritional needs, but other marketing campaigns have made sense – such bone density formulas for women (please correct me if I’m mistaken, but we suffer from low bone density at a much higher rate than men) and prostate health formulas for men.
    It’s just a total logic fail to try to peg muscle heath and skin health as things only one sex is worried about, especially in teens where I haven’t seen ANYTHING showing that girls have a specific problem with their skin, or that boys have a specific problem with their muscles.

  • MoodyStarr

    Why not just say “parents”?
    Yes, Sidewriter, I am so tired of seeing “mom” instead of “parent.”
    I am an education student, and we were discussing gender in toys, and this is one of my big concerns as a future educator. I mentioned that book, “Packaging Girlhood” and some of the ways marketers are targeting kids with narrow gender stereotypes. I got a bunch of blank stares and some gushing about Disney Princesses.
    I am so disappointed in my classmates. I am glad that I can come here and see that I am not the only one gives a hoot.

  • Femgineer

    First, the vitamins thing with the male muscles vs. female skin is crap.
    Second, and most importantly, is the issue of the science kits. On the website that sells these particular products, there are other science kits that are not gendered. There’s a geology kit, a weather kit, fun with your dog, fun with your cat, airplane kit, rocket kit, mystery detective kit and a magic science kit. I would hope that if one of these kits is given to a kid, that the giver is doing it based on what the child likes. At eight years old I would have prefered the magic kit or the rocket kit to the spa kit. However, I was interested in science at a young age anyway (thanks grandmainallsincerity pointed out, The best way to get girls interested in science (We all know research indicates girls become less interested in math and science at puberty) is to engage them in activities they are interested in. So what could be better than SPA SCIENCE? Because all girls are interested in SPA science and it is hormones that lead to less interest in science among girls when they hit puberty.

  • Av0gadro

    Women’s One a Day vitamins contain practically the same vitamins that One a Day Prenatal vitamins do–and yet the prenatal ones cost twice as much. Wtf?
    They probably do more quality control testing on prenatal vitamins. The question of whether the FDA has jurisdiction over OTC prenatal vitamins is a gray area (because they’re claiming to be equivalent to prescription brands which the FDA does regulate). Between that fact and the potential PR nightmare, prenatal vitamins are probably produced more carefully and tested more stringently than the plain women’s vitamins.
    Independent labs that test vitamins have found shocking amounts of things like lead in vitamins, which are mostly unregulated. I’m willing to pay more for my prenatals even when I’m not pregnant, nursing, or getting ready to conceive if I’m getting additional safety.

  • elle_g

    Femgineer, I saw the kits in a store without all the other ones you mentioned (there was one other one). And note that the kit in the store does not say spa “science” kit, which was b.s. to me as well.
    Yes, guys can be interested in spas, but as I noted in comments at my place, “There are other messages built into this, too. In my experience with children, when we go into toy stores girls “know” to go for the stuff with girls on the wrapping and the soft pastel colors. Boys reach for “boy” stuff with bolder, darker colors. That stood out to me, too. These pics are snapped with a camera phone, so the colors aren’t all that wonderful, but they fit the pattern I mentioned.”
    Children are socialized each and every day into what products, what colors, what interests are supposed to be representative of their gender, and I stand by my assertion that these kits reinforce that.

  • AVies

    They wouldn’t do things like this if it didn’t work (or more grown-up stereotypes, like linking women to shoes and men to sports).
    Ads are a form of applied science. As with all social sciences they cannot observe a system without changing it, but they are not the root cause.

  • Danyell

    I used to work in a toy store and we sold those stupid kits. All the boy ones were volcanoes and electro-magents and the girl ones were make up and perfume. It made me sick then and worse now.
    And since when do teen boys NOT worry about their skin too?! And I’m pretty sure that they have sports for girls in jr. high and high school…right?
    It’s always the case with gendered toys. I did half of my senior thesis on it (it was an art thesis, so the rest was more personal). Walk into any toy store and see how it’s divided.
    And has anyone seen the new “career” Barbie dolls? They’re all girly and some don’t even exist or are dumbed down. Like “I want to be a baby doctor.” Um, you mean a pediatrician? Or “I want to be an animal baby sitter!” Or they have a soccer coach one, where the instructor and the little girls have mini skirts instead of shorts!!

  • Lauren

    I take the Longs-brand version of Women’s One-A-Days because it more extra calcium and iron than the non-women’s type. Every single time I have offered them to a male friend or boyfriend when we were eating breakfast together, the response has been, “I don’t know…is it going to make me grow tits?” It’s a vitamin, not a birth control pill, for Chrissakes! How much stigma is there about femaleness when men are literally afraid to take women’s vitamins?
    By the way, my sister’s ex-boyfriend refused to take the vitamins even when my sister and I had made it clear it had no hormones or anything like that. His explanation: “I just don’t want to take women’s vitamins. I know it won’t make me grow tits, I just don’t want to take them.”

  • Ariel

    It really gets me that some of my otherwise enlightened friends buy into this marketing as “trying to sell to the demographics”. Bull shit! They are gendering things that don’t need a gender. This same friend told me that in Europe, they have (hold on to your seats) Puffs kleenexes for MEN. Because, you know, men totally sneeze in a different way compared to women…riight. He later elaborated that it’s because of the box designs. Really? If they want to sell more boxes, then stop feminizing the damn boxes with flowers and pinks and actually put an art design on the friggin’ thing. Honestly, Puffs for Men.

  • Misspelled

    Gendered health issues is a whole new level of fucked up.

  • profoundsarcasm

    I understand why there might be a need for different vitamins – body chemistry is different for males and females. But the way it’s marketed is very much NOT alright.
    The science/spa thing? Uuuuuugh. I’d rather have the science kit any day.

  • Katie

    Heh.. I work at a toy store and I love the science section. It’s my forte. Any time someone even steps foot into it, I have them walking away with a kit.
    We sell the “girly” “science” kits. Spa Science, Perfumery, French Body Lotion… I always try to steer clear of selling those kits to people who are shopping for girls. “Look! A weather kit!” is always met with “but she’s a girl!”
    It’s also bad when shopping for infants. “I want a toy for a 3 month old girl.”
    WHAT? At that age, they barely know their thumb from their nose! She won’t notice if her rattle isn’t glittery and pink. *mad*

  • annimal

    I’m a PhD chemist. As a kid I’m sure I would’ve wanted both of those chemistry kits. (I probably also would’ve mixed them in unrecommended ways, yielding a perfumed explosion or worse) As an adult, I cringe at all the gender specific marketing for kids and babies, and this is no exception. Still, even though it’s cringeworthy I’m still somewhat less bothered by it than, say, Disney princesses, since it does teach kids that chemistry is all around us and not just stuff that people in lab coats do.
    On a related note, is it just me or is the gender-specific kids stuff even more prevalent now than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago?

  • aleks

    I was teaching in Korea and my girls were OBSESSED with Disney princesses. Eyes off them for a moment and they’re folding tiaras and drawing princesses.
    On the plus side, Lauren once said “Teacher is boy Snow White.” It was the best compliment of my life.

  • artdyke

    This is the kind of insidious shit that drives me NUTS! even when I was a little kid, i hated it. I would buy the boy’s “whatever” on purpose. It’s horrible because it IS so little, we just roll our eyes and walk on by, or worse, don’t even notice. All the while it’s spreading the message of biodeterminism and the idea that men and women should thus be treated differently. I find this almost worse than the blatant sexism we encounter all the time…

  • Flippy

    It’s a real chicken-and-the-egg thing. On the one hand, there are lots of people out there who need something like “Wow, spas and beauty” to get into kits and stuff (why don’t high school physics classes talk about guitars and amplification?). On the other hand, while we do know that ads play on things in the culture, there is a lot of stuff that they just make up: problems, wants, needs, entitlements. Much of it is actually made up by the advertisers.

  • Judith Jewcakes

    The science kit: just gross. The One-A-Day vitamins…obviously their particular ad campaign is offensive, but on a not-about-sexism level I’m also pissed off that they’re even marketing these to teens, because teens don’t need multivitamins. In fact, research indicates that nobody needs multivitamins, and they might actually harm us. We need highly nutritional food. We need not-McDonald’s, but you can’t sell grocery-store smarts. You can, however, sell the promise of health in pill form.
    Companies that produce vitamins are scammers. One-A-Day has apparently picked out two more demographics to rip off.