Gender Socialization in Mass Market Retail
Gender socialization in modern American society is a social construct that applies gender roles and expectations to people starting the day they are born (Soc 1001 Lecture 7). This is commonly done through giving babies pink clothes if they are a girl and blue if they are a boy, or giving female children toys related to the traditional “submissive female” stereotype (such as toy kitchens, baby dolls, or princess-related items) and offering sports- and action-related toys (like trucks, toy guns, and superheroes). This imposes ideals on children about gender roles at a very early age, before they have the mental capacity to understand why there is a difference. Some of the more common agents of socialization that participate in these efforts, whether consciously or not, are family, friends, the media, school, and even religion. Despite some feminist-driven efforts to reduce the enforcement of gender roles on mass marketed products and other aspects of society (e.g. Target’s “de-gendering” campaign from earlier this year), it seems as though it has intensified in recent years. This may be partially due to the surge in media attention over the past two decades: through internet and TV, competition within mass marketing has come to focus strongly on gender in its advertising. Regardless, gender socialization tells children from birth what is expected of them and what they are supposed to be in regards to their sex.
The three stores that I visited to observe the way children’s products were gendered were Target, Ikea, and the Toys R Us website. The baby clothes and toy sections in Target were where the difference was most present. There were separated sections for boys and girls in the clothes section; the boys’ almost entirely various shades of blue and darker colors, and the girls’ overwhelmingly pink. Many of the boys’ shirts donned stereotypically masculine symbols, such as monster trucks and superheroes. Additionally, boys’ clothes were more likely to bear a camouflage pattern rather than polka dots and florals. On the other hand, toddler girls also seem to be much more fashion-forward than their same-age male counterparts, dressing in brightly-colored skirts and leggings, lace dresses, blouses, and bedazzled denim jackets where their male playdates can get away with a dinosaur hoodie. This was expected, because I had seen children’s clothes before, but I had never paid attention to detail so much, and I expected more deviance from the stereotype than I found. There were no gender-neutral clothes in the entire department – all of them were differentiated by color or purpose. In essence, males’ clothes are designed for purpose while women’s are designed for fashion, because women dress to look good while males dress to be active (Soc 1001 Lecture 7).
In both Target’s toy aisles and in Toys R Us, the separation between boys’ and girls’ toys was just as clear as the clothes, for the most part. Girls’ toys, evident by their bright pink packaging, tend to be centered mainly around the theme of domesticity – toy kitchens, dollhouses, doctors’ kits, and baby dolls. Girls begin learning how to take care of children before they learn to read. Boys, on the other hand, have a bit of a wider range of interests: they are allowed all different kinds of sports, from football to car racing, and then superhero-related items. Additionally, boys were offered toys that are related to jobs like firefighting and construction. Like the clothes section at Target, this was somewhat expected, just slightly more intense than what I had envisioned. However, Toys R Us (and Target, to a point) did have some gender-neutral options, like some of their electronics, board games, and many of the toys meant for babies.
The differences in the products at Target and Toys R Us is not coincidental. They represent ideals that children accept without question but may never come to understand; for example, violence and physical strength are encouraged in boys while girls become accustomed to being sexualized before they can even pronounce the word “objectification.” Based on the toys offered to girls, they are also encouraged to be more creative than boys – journals and drawing kits often target young girls, while sports are marketed mainly for boys. As we get older, this doesn’t change: it’s never a boy pouring his heart out into his diary in teen movies, just as there aren’t any women on major-league sports teams. Males are taught since early childhood to display unwavering physical and emotional strength, while females are taught to be domestic, caring and doting, therein enforcing the traditional gender roles that feminists are currently attempting to eradicate. It is evident from details as minor as the patterns on our clothes to who we’re taught to idolize as children. For example, depending on the nature of the camouflage that is common in boys’ clothes, it either represents hunting as a sport or the U.S. military, both of which allude to males’ inherent nature to kill. Little girls are given Barbie dolls to play with, resulting in an idolization of someone whose body and lifestyle are both desirable yet completely unattainable, while boys are told to look up to muscular men who save women for a living.
As a whole, the way that toys, clothes, and other items are marketed to children enforces the ideals of hegemonic masculinity and the centralization of the patriarchy in American society (Conley 2015:287-288). In other words, the male sex has the upper hand over women, and gender socialization perpetuates that. The way that gender is advertised enforces the traditional gender roles of domesticity in women and virility in males. These themes are taught to children from the day they are born and are only strengthened as they get older, which applies to the bigger picture in that children are likely to pursue a career in something they are familiar with, and there is no better way to familiarize a child with something than to start giving it to them during their developmental stages.
Conley, Dalton. “Chapter 8: Gender.” You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. 275-317. Print.