The marketing of gender roles

Photographer JeongMee Yoon did an excellent photo project where she photographed children with their toys and accessories to show how striking the pink and blue contrast is between girls’ and boys’ things. It’s called The Pink and Blue project and you can see it here.

blue and pink

Yoon writes an excellent analysis of what is happening in these photos on her site:

“My current work, The Pink and Blue Projects are the topic of my thesis. This project explores the trends in cultural preferences and the differences in the tastes of children (and their parents) from diverse cultures, ethnic groups as well as gender socialization and identity. The work also raises other issues, such as the relationship between gender and consumerism, urbanization, the globalization of consumerism and the new capitalism.

The Pink and Blue Projects were initiated by my five-year-old daughter, who loves the color pink so much that she wanted to wear only pink clothes and play with only pink toys and objects. I discovered that my daughter’s case was not unusual. In the United States, South Korea and elsewhere, most young girls love pink clothing, accessories and toys. This phenomenon is widespread among children of various ethnic groups regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. Girls train subconsciously and unconsciously to wear the color pink in order to look feminine.”

She goes on from there and also analyzes the change in colours during the 20th century. Before World War II, the colours were pink for boys and blue for girls. It’s obvious these colours are an arbitrary social construction and not an innate preference when you consider that the colours used to be exactly the opposite. She also talks about how the manufacturers of children’s toys teach girls to develop an interest in makeup, beauty and domestic chores and teach boys to develop an interest in science, robots and industry.

Her analysis is spot-on. She identifies that gender roles are being taught by marketing and consumer products, which are coming from globalized capitalism, and that they are successfully teaching young people their “gender,” right from the early years. She identifies that many children will grow out of wanting everything pink or blue as they get older, although a few of them keep this preference.

This all seems very obvious to me. As I write this blog post I’m thinking that I’m really not saying anything new and I’m probably beating a dead horse. But there are people out there who think that a little girl’s love for pink is an innate preference that has nothing to do with socialization, and that a little girl’s love for blue and science/sports toys makes her innately a boy. These people have obviously had their brains completely swallowed up by marketing. Any adult should have the media literacy skills to realize when they’re being marketed to, and to resist the messages coming from capitalism to buy more stuff. Responsible adults should know that buying stuff is not the key to happiness and that marketers will sell you a pack of lies to get you to buy their stuff. It seems to me this is really basic knowledge that everyone needs to exist in the world. The fact that people cannot see through a marketing campaign and cannot name it as capitalist propaganda designed to sell stuff means that neo-liberalism and capitalism are indeed winning. (Of course, we already knew that.) I try to analyze culture a lot on this blog, because that’s one of the things we have to do as lefties is analyze the culture that capitalism is creating. Step one in fighting back is analyzing the situation. Unfortunately, we never seem to get beyond step one, because so many people are invested in the notion of consumer choice as a path to liberation.

Children’s play doesn’t actually have to involve consumer products. I can’t believe that even needs explaining, but it does. There are tons of games and activities that don’t require any stuff at all, like tag, hide-and-go-seek, climbing a tree, or looking for insects in the yard. There are many games to be played with ordinary household objects, like building forts, or playing “school” or “house.” Kids have excellent imaginations and can turn anything into anything. A cardboard box can be a space ship that you can use to travel through space, and a couch can be a pirate ship under siege. Tables and chairs can be buildings and a living room can be an entire city. The fewer consumer products kids are playing with, the better. Consumer products kill the imagination because they tell you exactly how you should play.

I still have some photos of when I was ten and we had the best day ever flooding the backyard garden. It was a warm day in early spring and there was nothing planted yet, and we were allowed to put water in the dirt pile to make mud. We built little islands out of mud and brought out plastic toy boats and we drove the boats through the muddy water around the islands. Two girls and two boys did this and we had a great time and got all muddy. It would have been incomprehensible to me to call this a “boys’ activity.” It’s just an activity.

These kids with their rigid gender roles and “innate” love of certain consumer products would really benefit from being allowed to go outside and play.

28 thoughts on “The marketing of gender roles

  1. I used to use my mom’s piano bench (nobody in our house knew how to really play more than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but we had a piano because mom really wanted to learn). It was a desk when I wanted to play school. It was a carriage when we played Puss in Boots. There was also an old stool that was my pretend horse on a regular basis. Or a drum when we pretended to be musicians.

    Even making toys can be a form of play. My granny taught me how to make corn husk dolls, grass dolls (so fun to make them from clover flowers!), yarn dolls, and even dolls made from old pantyhose. I sewed, embroidered, and crocheted things for dolls as a teaching thing to learn each of those skills.

    I also used to climb trees to find tree snakes to chase my brother around with. And play Tarzan swinging from a rope over the gorge out back. Or be an archaeologist by looking for ammonite fossils in the limestone outcroppings back there. I also had a scratch plate and other stuff to play geologist but since our entire property boiled down to lignite and limestone, that wasn’t as fun. And dad took all the chemicals in my chem set, so I couldn’t even drop dilute sulphuric acid on the limestone 😡

    But after I read My Side of the Mountain, we built a little bracken shelter down in the gorge. I helped build the fire pit and line it with stone. I could turn a green twig into a marshmallow stick with my folding knife (a gift for my 8th birthday – but because you should never give a knife as an outright gift or it will try to cut the relationship, my dad made me pay a penny for it.)

    And of course, many of my “toys” we’re just cut down versions of adult farm tools – a little hoe with a wicked sharp edge, a rake with a smaller head, still made of iron and wood, just not as heavy as the ones my parents used. A shovel and spade and buckets, all cut down for my smaller hands. I actually still use a cut down broom in my kitchen.

    I did have a toy train (in theory. Dad also liked trains and had a habit of buying me “gifts” he wanted to play with. See also the chemistry set.) and a dress up trunk (an old footlocker filled with cloth scraps, an old wig, bits of dance outfits and homemade Halloween costumes) and stole sports equipment from my brother on the regular (to be clear, as an adult, I apologized to my brother. He blinked and said he didn’t remember that but okay, apology accepted – and apologized for stealing my books on the regular, which I hadn’t remembered.)

    Liked by 8 people

      • We had a creek (admittedly polluted, but we played in it anyway), a pasture where one could find dried cow flop (which is a really gross toy, guaranteed to appeal to 9 year old children), and a bit of woodland with an actual gorge in it.

        Liked by 5 people

    • As a chemist, I am sorry to hear about your chemistry set. Too many parents are overly cautious. Yes, kids need to learn the dangers, and parents should go over safety before kids start playing with the set. But after that, they should get a chance to experiment responsibly.

      But, it sounds like you had a lot of fun even with the missing chemicals!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Safety was an excuse. I love my dad, but I know why he took them. He took them to play with them as though he didn’t have his own experiments going in the old chicken shed. For mercy’s sake, I was swinging on a rope swing over a limestone gorge on the regular, riding on the power take-off on the tractor if my brother was also going (he got the step. I got the power take off. I look back and wonder if my family was trying to kill me off.)

        How do I know this? It wasn’t just the chemicals. It was also my nerf fencing set, my toy train, my solar powered radio – they all required “adult supervision” in the form of letting dad play with them. When I buy dad gifts as an adult, I just go to Edmunds and buy a toy.

        Liked by 6 people

        • And that “fencing set”? Basically pool noodles. Yeah dad, I notice how dangerous they are. Much worse than when little brother and I pull dried reeds from the creek and fence with those. Yep.

          To be fair to him, he did play with the set with us in the room. But if he were honest, he would admit that he was having too much fun to turn it over.

          Liked by 4 people

    • Oh my God it sounds wonderful! If you had limestone you didn’t need the sulphuric acid, you could’ve used vinegar…

      Also: a yarn doll is it being who narrowly escaped being a tassel. True fact.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I did want one toy – very badly – that wasn’t made then and the adult version is a pain to find now – even as a pattern! All the old women who taught me stuff had proper canning aprons that wrapped all the way around so you could cook without messing up your clothes. It is one of the few feminine articles of clothing that I unreservedly approve of. And I can’t find that design anymore.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. My boss’s two year old daughter’s two favorite toys are a fake shopping cart with plastic fruit that she can walk around with, and a fake vacuum cleaner. I’ve watched her throw tantrums when she’s deprived of these two toys. The most frustrating thing about it is that the toys make sense for a kid her age – she’s learning how to walk and likes holding on to something that can roll along with her. But she can barely speak, let alone comprehend marketing and gender stereotypes! Sometimes I watch her fake vacuum cleaning and feel like I’m watching someone get brainwashed.

    Liked by 7 people

    • You ARE seeing someone get brainwashed. Could that shopping cart be a wheeled dinosaur? Or the vacuum be a lawn mower? Of course it could, and if the kid were a boy, probably would be. The thing is both boys and girls should have both vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers. (And dinosaurs of course!) but by differentiating, Hasbro knows that the toy can’t be handed down to a little brother without social fuss.

      Liked by 9 people

      • Given the fairy princess soup I was raised in it sometimes feels remarkable that I ever found or was open to feminism. I can only imagine how hard it will be for girls today to discover it given how much worse their gender conditioning has gotten.

        Liked by 3 people

        • …and all this leads to the burning question in my mind. Why is this strict gender policing happening now? I was a youngster in the early-mid 1970s, and I had Tonka trucks, Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, Legos, books, and sports equipment. How is it, that despite the real world progress towards women’s full equality with men, women younger than me, grew up in this “fairy princess soup”? Is it just marketing, Disney, and too much stuff? Is it a backlash against progress toward equality? Was it simply a parental preference or social norm? How did parents, not raised this way, come around to raising their own kids in such a strictly gendered fashion?

          Liked by 3 people

        • I tend to look at gender within the larger cultural context, which is that it functions as a huge distraction from large and scary problems that we are nowhere near adequately addressing. I am reminded of the Indian tribes who, upon facing their own decimation, invented the Ghost Dance. Identity politics seems like a Ghost Dance to me. And gender enforcement is about control, for people who are feeling that things are generally out of control.

          But it also has a strong current of hatred of homosexuality, which is pure patriarchy. I think the message there is that zombie patriarchy is awfully hard to kill.

          Liked by 4 people

        • Yes, gender is a distraction, but why has this particular one developed? Why the “ghost dance” of gender and not some other ghost dance?

          Liked by 1 person

        • I would call identity politics the ghost dance. It takes the form of gender at times because gender is a key problem and identity politics provides the illusion that it can be easily resolved without addressing its hierarchal nature. It’s sort of like people thinking the destruction of natural communities and rampant extinction can be resolved by recycling.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, Miep I think you’re right about trans being a Ghost Dance, a desperate attempt to find salvation and survival by transforming the self. Maybe a better analogy would be the millennial movements of the Middle Ages, when everything is breaking down and there is no realistic hope for a better world, it makes sense to find something that is all encompassing and has a radical new world view. Eh, what we are doing observing this trans trend, this legal erasure of women as female people, that’s a Ghost Dance too, but maybe that’s what you were referring to.


        • The legal erasure of women is, I think, opportunistic in this context. It is not the ghost dance, but it is gender in action taking advantage of opportunities the ghost dance provides.

          Liked by 1 person

      • My son had a toy vacuum cleaner, which he also loved. It had previously belonged to a neighbour’s daughter who was a couple of years older. We met them one day when they were taking stuff to the charity shop and my son chose the vacuum cleaner. It was in very good condition because the little girl didn’t like it.

        Liked by 4 people

  4. We had board games and tinker toys. I can remember rearranging the furniture and holding wars with the tinker toys. I believe we threw them at each other. Also we had a game in the back yard where I apportioned parts of the yard and equipment thereon by lot (we would take turns choosing) and then no one could go on anybody else’s property without permission and if they did you would yell “get off my property!” Also you could trade property by agreement.

    And my younger brother and I had a game called “lion tamer” where he was the lion and I would train him with an imaginary whip.

    When I was a teenager we moved to the country and I had an 80 foot pine tree and several acres of woods and a decaying root cellar and a lake. That was all pretty fine. We used to trespass on a neighbor’s meadow at night (this did not meet with her approval) and when cars went by we would yell “hit the dirt!” and throw ourselves on the ground. And another neighbor’s barn had a ghost. Good times.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. The people I was living with (my mother and two other people) were running an early childhood education consultancy startup and money was pretty tight. One of our main sources of entertainment was the auction. This was about an hour south of Boston in the early 70’s and there was great stuff at the auctions for a pittance. Basically that was how they were furnishing the house. We also did a lot of paint stripping.

    The big fascination, though, was the box lots. The adults had an eye out for the stranger ones that nobody else bid on and we got a lot of of mileage out of making up stories about what obscure surgical tools were for, etc.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. This post has made me nostalgic for my own childhood in the 1970s. All the kids on my street played together, no matter whether we were girls or boys. We rode bikes, had lemonade stands, explored the woods and creek, played chase, “tackle the man with the ball” and red rover, played house and school, pretended to go camping, made pillow forts, listened to records and danced — it was all such fun. I did settle in on a close relationship with a neighbor girl, and when she and I played without the others, we usually built a cardboard box town for our stuffed animals or choreographed elaborate roller skating routines.

    I remember having only one doll that had a human form — the only reason I wanted it was for the novelty that her hair would “grow” longer if you pulled on it. Yes — this one was advertised on TV and because of that commercial I thought I just had to have it, although I never played with it once the novelty of the pulling her hair wore off. Her clothes were red and blue — not pink — imagine that! My most beloved stuffed animal was a brown rabbit which had a yellow dress. I also was quite attached to a soft, fuzzy, orange pig. My first bike was red; when I “upgraded” to a banana-seat bike with chopper-style handlebars, it was bright green. My bedroom was mostly green and orange. My favorite clothes were Levi’s jeans and t-shirts with Adidas track shoes.

    I don’t think I ever owned anything pink as a kid, be it clothing, toys or room décor. I never had a costume princess dress or a tiara — and guess what? I grew up to be a very average, ordinary, well adjusted woman. And heavens to Betsy, on top of that I am heterosexual! Egad — with no princess dress as a child! Who’d have thunk it, with all that red, blue, brown, orange and green stuff I owned and loved.

    Liked by 3 people

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