Imagine a little boy walks into his kindergarten class wearing a pink shirt or carrying a Barbie doll. How do you think the other kids would react? What about the adults? Most likely, they would be caught off-guard by the boy’s actions and find his behavior strange. This is a result of the gender stereotypes that are prevalent throughout our culture. Gender stereotypes are essentially over-generalized beliefs we have about a certain gender in how they should behave and represent themselves. Some common stereotype themes throughout history would be that pink is for girls and blue is for boys, women are the caregivers and men are the breadwinners, women are sensitive and men are strong, etc. Though gender stereotypes are prevalent throughout all spectrums of today’s media, I believe some of the most influential and damaging portrayals of gender can be seen in children’s toy advertisements. I think these advertisements more overtly display gender stereotypes than those aimed at adults. Furthermore, I believe them to be incredibly detrimental to a child’s development because they are directed at an age group that is extremely vulnerable.
Not only can numerous examples of gender stereotypes in children’s advertising be seen today, but so can their effects. In a study done by NPR, it was revealed that a rapid decrease in the number of women involved in the computer science field was largely due to the fact that the very first advertisements for computers were directed almost entirely at boys. As a result, parents were less likely to buy their daughters computers, despite them showing an interest. This resulted in women not pursuing this interest or in them being far less prepared than men when they entered computer science classes in college, leading some to drop out from these courses (NPR, 2014, “When Women Stopped Coding,” para. 1-13).
Children’s advertising has also assisted in the formation of what it means to be ‘masculine’ versus ‘feminine’. For example, in a cross-national analysis on gender stereotypes in advertising on children’s television in the 1990s, it was found that “gender role reinforcement was observed at the level of body language and facial expression; girls were portrayed as shyer, giggly, unlikely to assert control, and less instrumental” (Browne 1998, p. 93). On the other hand, boys are often shown as being loud, more physical, and in control of the situation. This, to me, is particularly concerning because it is teaching kids how they should behave not in accordance with what is appropriate for society, but what is appropriate for their gender. The video below is a great example of gender stereotypes in advertising and their negative effects.
So the question then becomes, what can we do to break down these gender stereotypes that have saturated the media for years?
One theory is that teaching media literacy could help younger viewers to not just passively take in and accept the media they see as fact, but to have them actively involved and questioning what is presented to them. James Potter describes media literacy as
a perspective that we actively use when exposing ourselves to the media in order to interpret the meaning of the messages we encounter. We build our perspectives from knowledge structures. To build our knowledge structures, we need tools and raw material. The tools are our skills. The raw material is information from the media and from the real world. Active use means that we are aware of the messages and are consciously interacting with them. (Potter 2001, p. 4)
With this definition in mind, it has been suggested that we teach our children how to effectively use and interpret the media; otherwise, “they can become more susceptible to the negative influences of the media” (Bullen, 2009, p. 150). Furthermore, we should teach them that “the mass media is a business that is driven by capitalistic demands…” this way they “may better understand the intent behind the messages they are consuming” (Goodall 2012, p. 162). Though I think this approach may be feasible to older children/young adults, I do not think younger children exposed to advertisements filled with gender stereotypes will be able to fully comprehend these concepts. In addition, I believe we should be trying to stop the issue from happening in the first place, not simply finding ways to work around them.
Another theory as to what we can do to lessen advertising’s influence on children is to reduce the time they are exposed to television (Strasburger 2001, p. 186). By doing so, the effects of television would be minimized, such as a decrease in kids asking for toys they have seen advertised as well as reducing weight and aggressive behavior. It is suggested that this be implemented both at school and in the home, as “approximately one quarter of all preschoolers, one half of all older children, and two thirds of all teenagers have a television set in their own bedrooms” (Strasburger 2001, p. 186). Though this study doesn’t specifically mention gender stereotypes/identity, I think the overarching idea that a reduction of television time results in a decrease of observed behaviors would still apply to my issue.
Though some may argue that stereotypes are simply the way it has always been, I believe they need to change. They are influencing our society and telling them what is right or expected of a certain sex. More importantly, these stereotypes are influencing young children when they are vulnerable and still learning who they are as a person. Specifically, I believe children’s toy advertisements display more overt examples of gender stereotypes and are having a negative effect on the development of children. I believe this is an issue that needs to addressed and changed, rather than trying to mend it after the fact.
Browne, B. A. (1998). Gender stereotypes in advertising on children’s television in the 1990s: A cross-national analysis. Journal of Advertising, 27(1), 83-96. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com
Bullen, R. R. (2009). The power and impact of gender specific media literacy. Youth Media Reporter, (4), 149–152.
Feminist Frequency. (2010, November 16). Toy Ads and Learning Gender [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZn_lJoN6PI
Goodall, H. (2012). Media’s Influence on Gender Stereotypes. Media Asia, 39(3), 160-163. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com
Henn, S. (2014, October 21). When Women Stopped Coding. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding
Potter, W. J. (2001). Media Literacy. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Strasburger, V. C. (2001). Children and TV advertising: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics : JDBP, 22(3), 185-187. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/00004703-200106000-00006