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Greg Tarr The Influence of Toys on Gender Roles While walking through a toy store recently, I watched a young boy pick up a pink box that had a doll inside. Immediately the boy’s older sister swiped it out of his hands saying, “Boys don’t play with Barbies.” The boy’s mother then grabbed him by the hand, led him to the next aisle and handed him a blue box that had a different doll inside called Bob the Builder. I began to wonder, what is the difference between the two dolls? Should it matter that the boy liked the pink one better? I now know that various agents of socialization influence gender roles, including toys. Toys influence certain aspects of masculinity such as dominance and activeness in boys, while influencing feminine aspects, like caring about your appearance, in girls. I would like to explore how toy color, name, and types of toys influence gender roles throughout the early, middle, and late stages of childhood. In early childhood (ages one to four) we can begin to see subtle differences in the toys children play with. The types of toys are mostly dolls, action figures, trucks and trains. Not only do the types of toys differ, but the color and names differ as well. Girls’ toys are usually pink or yellow and named after a female whereas boys’ toys are usually light blue and named after a male character. The girls learn to take care of the doll just like a mother should, while the boys learn to play with mechanical vehicles. At this stage, the toys teach little to the children about how they should act or what society expects of them. The obvious thing the toys do teach however is that they are different. Girls are supposed to play with the pinks and yellows and the boys are supposed to play with the blues and reds. This may not seem like a big deal, but teaching children that boys and Greg Tarr girls are supposed to be different serves as the starting point for femininity and masculinity. This starting point rapidly evolves in the stages of middle childhood. Toys for children in middle childhood (ages 5-13) become extremely gender specific. The types of toys for girls and boys both change. While there are still dolls, now we begin to see pink Easy-Bake Ovens, and mini kitchen sets with yellow frills. Some dolls are even made specifically for girls to put makeup on, or to cut their hair. These toys oddly seem to reflect the stereotypical expectations of a female later in life. It is as if the toys in middle childhood are preparing girls for a life of cooking, cleaning, and worrying about appearance. For boys in middle childhood, the lack of accessorizing dolls and playing house is replaced with toys mainly centered on violence. While there are Legos, which influence spatial organization and construction, there are mostly action figures of male wrestlers and superheroes. You can tell which aisles are for the boys by the colors on the packaging and the toys themselves. In middle childhood, toys for boys have darker colors of blue, green, and red. The color differences present in early childhood are still present in middle childhood. This may act to keep the children on track with their gender as the types of toys change throughout childhood. Also present in the “boys’ aisles,” was team sports equipment. Sports and the other toys for boys in middle childhood influence competition, dominance, and violence. The stage of middle childhood seems to influence and teach gender roles the most, but late childhood enforces those teachings. In late childhood (ages 14 and older) the toys seem to prepare children to enter a society based on gender differences. Overall, there were more gender neutral toys for the older children. Puzzles and board games, for the most part, seem to appeal to girls and Greg Tarr boys at this age. Although, I did notice that there were significantly more toys that were aimed just at boys. The girls’ toys, while there were still dolls, now mostly involved the use or application of makeup. The products were still packaged in lighter colors like pink and yellow and the packaging showed only girls playing with them. The boys’ toys now included Nerf Guns, paintball guns, and erector sets. Their colors remained dark and the packaging seemed to encourage physical activity. For the boys, not only did the types of toys change but they became more intricate. It seemed as though the boys’ toys now taught that violence, or the domination of others achieved through violence, was acceptable and normal. The toys for the girls seem to reiterate the importance of appearance. In general, throughout childhood, the colors assigned to each gender stayed the same but the types of toys changed for girls and boys in each stage. The color of the toys is important in preventing any confusion of which gender is supposed to play with which toy. Also, the process of advertising only boys playing with “boys’ toys” and just girls playing with “girls’ toys” also helps prevent any gender confusion in the toys. Teaching girls to play house, cook, clean, and accessorize is what the toys emphasize to the girls. Girls’ toys also seem to stress the importance of appearance. Boys, on the other hand, are taught first, the importance of playing with “boys’ toys.” They learn to be active, build things, be competitive, and are taught the importance of dominance over others. So when the young boy I watched in the toy store grows up, he not only will have learned how to be masculine from his parents and peers, he will have learned from the toys he played with throughout childhood too.
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