by Jessamyn Neuhaus
As media scholar Rebecca Hains has written, parents face the “princess problem” when navigating today’s toy market. According to Hains’ recent article in the Boston Globe, toys are “divided by gender at historically unprecedented levels.” Hains describes how a tsunami of boy and girl-targeted toys emerged after 1980s advertising deregulation and the rise of cable TV. Hains also reports that there’s mounting consumer and parent backlash (like the No Gender December campaign) against a marketplace where a completely gender neutral toy like a bag of blocks must be prettified before it can be placed in the Toys “R” Us “girls” aisle.
The gender-assigning of toys is not simply the result of greedy manufacturers capitalizing on growing markets. These toys powerfully reinforce gender norms—what we think a boy should be and do and what a girl should be and do. They mirror the way our culture narrowly defines gender-appropriate appearance, behavior, and sociopolitical roles. Scholars and critics like Susan J. Douglas, Michael Kimmel, Ariel Levy, and C. J. Pascoe demonstrate that while the twenty-first century has seen decided progress towards gender equality, contemporary popular culture reflects reinvigorated and restrictive sex and gender norms. The rigid defining of toys as “boys’” or “girls’” is just the tip of the gender ideology iceberg.
As a pop culture scholar and teacher, lifelong feminist, and parent, I applaud the authors and professors quoted in Hains’ article who call for parents to fight our society’s “obsession for assigning gender to playthings” by acting as media literacy educators to their children. Rather than attempting to censor or denounce all media, you can teach your children to recognize gender stereotypes in popular culture by seizing teachable moments when watching a TV show or a commercial and asking leading questions or making pointed comments: “Do you think all boys like playing mega weapon robot war?” “In our family we think boys and girls can play dress up princess beauty parlor/dump truck earth mover construction site.”
But the parent-as-cultural-critic tactic has its limitations. First, its efficacy depends on the individual child’s receptiveness to parental efforts to school them in cultural critique—receptiveness which almost certainly plummets during the teen years, when children arguably most need to cultivate media literacy skills. My semi-regular efforts to point out gender stereotypes in pop culture to my fourteen year old son are met with epic eye-rolling and a vehement “I know, I know, you don’t have to keep telling me.” It’s hard to say if I’m making him a more critical media consumer or just adding to his list of grievances about how he’s being raised.
Second, although Hains’ article doesn’t read this way, its advice could be construed as yet another way contemporary American culture sets impossibly high standards for what constitutes good parenting, and mothering specifically. When “being a good mom” is already so laden with guilt-inducing and impossible-to-achieve ideals, we should be cognizant of adding yet another “Good moms always….” statement to the national discourse about parenting.
Finally, in this discussion there’s two occasionally overlooked and directly linked aspects of toys and consumer culture: 1.) these toys are fun and 2.) parents are tired. We can call out Disney for being the crap-shilling monolith it is, but playing princess and Nerf gun warfare is deeply pleasurable for many children. This pleasure and desire may or may not be purely commercially-created but in any case, good parenting is mostly a long series of accommodations and compromises around disciplining your child’s desire for pleasure. And it’s exhausting. In the interminable battle with your toddler over, well, everything, you may well welcome the few minutes of respite a glitzy tiara-wearing ball-gowned unicorn gives you, no matter what your misgivings as a feminist. In real life, good moms and dads have to choose their battles, and for some parents, a toy that reinforces stupid gender stereotypes might not rate a fight—with the child or play date parent or daycare worker or indulgent grandparent who can’t see what the big deal is.
I’m not suggesting that Hains doesn’t know this or that these problems render the article’s suggested parental media literacy tactics useless. You have to start somewhere when you’re conveying feminist values to your children. But any discussion about media literacy needs to recognize certain realities about parenting, kids, and the pleasures of consumption.
And hey, there’s always dinosaurs: last time I checked the toy aisle, not a single dinosaur was wearing makeup or a football helmet.
Jessamyn Neuhaus is a professor of U.S. history and popular culture at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America and Housework and Housewives in American Advertising: Married to the Mop.