Gender roles for sale
Feminism is no longer necessary. Little girls are being taught that they can do anything that little boys can. Little boys are taught that they don't have to be confined to stereotyped male behaviour or interests. The next generation is growing up free of much of the gender-role conditioning that has plagued society until now.
Right? Well, you obviously haven't been watching much children's television lately.
Channel flicking on a rainy day recently, I caught a fair bit of advertising during the "children's" television timeslot. I am unhappy to report that gender stereotyping is alive and well in the toy shops. Television advertising targeting the children's market gives an eye-opening insight into how much things have not changed.
The programs squeezed between the ads during the 3.30-5pm timeslot seem to be getting better. Kids' drama is not too bad; there are some OK roles for girls; the game shows are still corny, but girls and boys often do equally well; wildlife shows seem to be fairly safe, although it is frightening to see how much gender role stereotyping can be introduced into documentaries on animal behaviour.
But it is the bread and butter of the television networks — the advertising — that is truly appalling. Just one hour of viewing included enough images of home-making bliss for girls to turn my stomach and leave it in an unnatural position for a week.
It started with Miss Party Surprise, a doll (in four varieties) whose enormous skirt opens to reveal all of the components of a successful party — smaller toys and props. I only saw two Miss Surprises, one hosting a baby party, the other a pet party, but both seemed to be training guides for young girls to care for babies and animals.
Baby Splash and Shiver is totally unambiguous in its intent. It is a toy baby designed to be bathed, but if it is left wet for too long it shivers until "mummy" dries it.
Little girls' toys are not restricted to developing the nurturing side; there is fashion as well. Happening Hair Barbie has unbelievably long, blonde hair that can be temporarily coloured by some mechanism which escapes me. While the ad showed three Happening Barbies, one dark-skinned and another medium-toned, the focus was on the traditional blue-eyed blonde and, needless to say, we never saw the others again.
But where were the boys? In the garage, of course. Mechanics are a new set of toy cars that junior mechanics can change into larger, more impressive vehicles. Any girls in the picture? No, despite more young women moving into mechanical work in the real world.
Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to see the World Wrestling Federation circus on television will recognise some of the toy characters you can play rough with if you are lucky enough to get a pair (or more) of Grip and Flip Wrestlers. Magnetised hands temporarily link (knuckle to knuckle only — no touchy-feely stuff here) long enough to flip the opponent into the air and on to the ground in a manner designed to thrill.
Action toy advertising is a girl-free zone. While boy's dolls, sorry, action toys, could probably be used in a variety of ways, the only recommended activity seems to be combat.
Playing with dolls can be useful for developing social skills and acting out human interaction, as a way of training for adulthood and the complex social situations that growing up brings. But that is why I found this television so disturbing.
While many gains have been made in breaking down the barriers that 30 or 40 years ago stopped women and girls from doing all sorts of things, and while female and male attitudes toward gender roles are changing, the children's entertainment industry is making billions of dollars reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Toys, movies, electronic games — some are getting better. But, overwhelmingly, our children are still being taught that there are girls' things and there are boys' things, and never the twain shall meet.
Even parents who are extremely conscious of this gender role conditioning are under enormous pressure from children who are extremely vulnerable to cool advertising combined with the peer pressure to acquire the latest toys.
We need to do more than try to boycott these play things. While sexist attitudes remain in wider society, the manufacture of these types of toys and the "training" they provide will continue.
Recognising that the women's liberation movement is still necessary, and doing what you can to help strengthen it, are the crucial steps. Feminism is not a dirty word — it is as relevant as ever.
By Margaret Allum