Gender essentialist marketing hurts young girls

A really amazing video went viral over the last week featuring a young girl frustrated that all girl’s toys are marketed as pink–going as far as making the connection between companies wanting boys and girls to play with different things.

It’s amazing.

Along with this, Peggy Orenstein has a must-read op-ed in the NY Times taking on some of the nature vs nurture arguments made in support of the idea that girls just like pink (in response to LEGO putting out a new set for girls in pink), weighing both sides of the argument. She writes,

As any developmental psychologist will tell you, those observations are, to a degree, correct. Toy choice among young children is the Big Kahuna of sex differences, one of the largest across the life span. It transcends not only culture but species: in two separate studies of primates, in 2002 and 2008, researchers found that males gravitated toward stereotypically masculine toys (like cars and balls) while females went ape for dolls. Both sexes, incidentally, appreciated stuffed animals and books…..

…..Score one for Lego, right? Not so fast. Preschoolers may be the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police, eager to enforce and embrace the most rigid views. Yet, according Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that’s also the age when their brains are most malleable, most open to influence on the abilities and roles that traditionally go with their sex.

Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry, learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000 3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both girls and boys with older sisters.

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.

Many people blindly defend arguments of nature, without fully taking into consideration the growing amount of research that suggests nurture often exaggerates nature and so many of the things that we think just are–are actually in response to a series of repetitive stimuli we have been exposed to over our lives.

And even if you are 100% in support of the argument that girls “naturally” are drawn to pink things, as adult women we can pretty much all agree that we are capable of doing a lot more than shopping, baking and picking out earrings. While LEGO’s attempts to appeal to girls is laudable–the larger question of the kinds of toys marketed to women and the impact that has on our long-term choices cannot go unheard. Toys we play with early in our life impact what we believe our possibilities are in the future. So then, why in 2012 are we still selling pink mini-kitchenettes to young girls?

(For the record, I used to shave the hair off of my barbie dolls heads–but then again–look how I turned out?!?)

Join the Conversation

  • Miriam
  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I remember mainly favoring toys that involved making something – Legos, tool kits, Play-Doh. I never really thought of those things as gender specific toys. To me it just seems sad that marketers have to take things that were previously considered neutral and pigeonhole them into gendered boxes.

  • Zoe

    I was never one for Legos as a child. Not because they were “boy” toys, but because they were too easy. I much preferred blocks because it was more difficult to make everything balance and they were more versatile. I fucking loved blocks. My family tells stories about how legendary my block creations were and how some were certain it’d parlay into a career in architecture (it didn’t). I remember at one point figuring out that if I lay a k’nex piece on it’s side it could even out two surfaces so that another block could connect them easily.

    I also loved Barbies so eff you, gender conformity.

  • Beck

    A few months ago I was curious as to whether the “pink for girls” bias had some basis in nature. I think the rough sketch in my head was something like hot pink is vaginally evocative, and so became ingrained over time with women as a form of “presenting.”

    When I actually started researching it, well, that premise got torn to shreds.

    Colors for babies is a pretty new concept. Up through the late 19th century, both boys and girls would wear frilly dresses and have shoulder length hair until about the age of 6. While gender roles were certainly paramount in these societies, young children were recognized as fairly gender neutral. The color they wore: white. They were gonna poop in it anyway, and white can be bleached. You can see childhood photos of FDR in just such a pretty white dress with his long hair and sunhat.

    The industrial revolution introduced cheap textiles and pastel dyes, but it’s not like there was an entrenched social understanding yet of what these things meant. Maybe Freud helped to shape the idea that children are intensely gendered, sexual and need to be policed. But…as recently as the 1930s baby books and fashion guides and parenting magazines were advocating pink for boys. The idea was that Red is a powerful, dominant, virile color, a Manly color, and pink, as a diminution of that, is appropriate for young boys. Likewise, a soft sky blue was recommended for girls because of it’s gentle, serene qualities, and because centuries of church tradition had depictions of the Virgin Mary in such blue robes, establishing them as a distinctively feminine color.

    It’s amazing how much the things we take as natural givens are revealed to be entirely social constructions if we can only see outside of the here and now.

    The Smithsonian put together a pretty good article on it if you’d like further reading:

    And here you can see a broad examination of pink’s use in design language across different cultures:

  • Stephanie

    I’m sorry, but I have a problem with this article citing the primate studies that apparently found that male and female monkey have sex-typed toy preferences. I’m a psych major, and I remember hearing that those studies were found to be flawed.

    After all, cars and dolls are human constructs. There is absolutely no way that a monkey could have a preference either way.

    Anyway, I think that this article doesn’t put enough emphasis on nurture. The fact that it cited such a study is evidence of this.

    • unequivocal

      After all, cars and dolls are human constructs. There is absolutely no way that a monkey could have a preference either way.

      Come on now. Just because two things are “human constructs” doesn’t mean that it is impossible for non-humans to express a preference between them. Humans are responsible for both banana cream pie and helicopters; I’m pretty certain that most monkeys will express a clear preference for one and not the other.

      I understand what you’re trying to say, but the argument just doesn’t hold.

      • Stephanie

        It absolutely holds; you just misunderstood.

        Cars and dolls are human constructs, and that means they are also specifically human gendered constructs. There is absolutely no way for an ape, which is outside of the human species, to have a legitimately gendered preference for something that is specifically human.

        That study was found to be flawed. So this article has not done proper research.

      • Stephanie

        Monkeys would probably like banana cream pie–its food, and even though the pie itself is a human construct, food is something that monkeys need and want.

        The point is, if I didn’t express myself clearly before, is that everything that these objects (cars and dolls) represent are human constructions. The meaning attached to cars and dolls are specifically human, specifically gendered (human) meanings. The way that human children play with these toys are gendered, and specifically gendered in a human sense. Its just impossible for an ape to be able to have a legitimate preference for cars and/or dolls.

  • Robert

    Companies advertise based on the demand for their product because they care about making money more than anything. If a specific gender is more likely to buy a toy then they will advertise for that gender. I believe in nature more than nurture. If you believe in nurture more than nature then that opens the door to saying gays were taught to be gay or they chose to be gay. I see nothing wrong with boys and girls preferring different toys, it’s been like that for ages before there was any sort of advertising. Nature is brutally honest and no matter what you do males will have more aggression and strength due to more testosterone. That’s why shooting games and toy guns are so popular with boys. Yes women are capable of more than shopping , baking, and picking out earrings. But go to any mall and the overwhelming majority of shoppers (especially in the jewelry section) will be women. Many behaviors are influenced by testosterone and estrogen. I heard trans people mention how there behaviors and feelings changed based on a change in these two things.

    • Stephanie

      Testosterone doesn’t actually cause aggression. And I know what you are talking about with trans people mentioning how their behaviours changed because of estrogen/testosterone, but I would bet that that has more to do with expectations (placebo effect) than anything.

      • Robert

        I don’t know if I agree with the placebo effect in this case. Testosterone may not cause aggression but it heavily influences it. The biggest reason I believe is many professional athletes and guys I have talked to at the gym take supplements to increase testosterone levels. This makes them more aggressive whether it’s on a playing field or hitting the weights. Considering the supplement industry is worth billions of dollars I would say it works even though I have not taken such supplements myself. I have NEVER heard of someone increasing estrogen levels to be more aggressive. I’m not a medical expert but I don’t know if this is even debatable.

        • Matthew T. Jameson

          “The biggest reason I believe is many professional athletes and guys I have talked to at the gym take supplements to increase testosterone levels. This makes them more aggressive whether it’s on a playing field or hitting the weights.”

          That’s your incontrovertible evidence? Really?

          The research on testosterone presents a very muddy picture of the effect of testosterone on aggression, and the preponderance of the evidence suggests that testosterone is an effect of, rather than a cause of, aggression (the prison literature on this topic is very interesting). When we have studied the direct effects of injecting testosterone on animals, we see little effect on aggression. Your athletes/weight lifters example confuses the effects of testosterone on muscle development with increases in aggression, by the way.

        • Stephanie

          Besides the placebo effect, changes in behaviour could also be explained by their bodies adjusting to new medication.

          There is no established link between testosterone and aggression.

    • Stephanie

      And there definitely is the argument that homosexuality is socially constructed. This, however, doesn’t mean that preference for the same sex was not there at birth.