The extent of how gender constructions shape childhood is to this day an essential argument by many sociologists. Think about it; it’s clear there is a gendered difference between boys and girls in childhood, right? When we look at the costumes of trick-or-treaters, this gendered split is shown. Pink or blue, Action Man or Barbie, princess or superhero. Gender reveal parties which are the hot thing to do at the moment; literally, all fundamentally have the same reveal: pink equals girl, blue equals boy. But why is there this gendered difference? Is it biological, or do external factors play an essential role in the development of these differences?
Toys play a vital role in the lives of children. By stimulating play, children develop cognitive skills and encourage social play; however, they are incredibly gendered. This post intends to scrutinise the toy industry, from looking at the colours used to what they symbolise to find the socialisation children receive from toys. Moreover, a large portion of childhood is spent in the school environment. A comprehensive look at school life will ensue, discovering any gendered teachings and uncovering the gender differences displayed in both the classroom and the playground.
In today’s society, gender is becoming a more scrutinised topic. I think it is a significant area to discuss and discover whether childhood is moulded by constructions of gender, as many scholars and psychologists argue.
What is gender?
You might think this seems a relatively simple question to answer. Still, there are a plethora of definitions used for gender among sociologists. Firstly, let’s quickly differentiate between sex and gender, as these ideas are commonly used interchangeably, which is not correct. Sex refers to a set of biological attributes in humans and animals. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. Simples.
Now let’s look at gender specifically. Well, if in doubt, always check with Goffman, who has one of the fundamental understandings. He argued gender is a display, meaning femininity and masculinity are regarded as “prototypes of essential expression”. Taking this idea and running with it, West and Zimmerman described gender as a set of traits, not a variable or role, but rather the product of social doings. Gender differences provide the basis for cultural metaphors and representations, regardless of body parts. Gender is, therefore, a performance performed culturally and socially rather than biologically. The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler stated that gender is continually created through performances and repetitive acts. These “constitute the illusion of a ‘proper’, ‘natural’ or ‘fixed’ gender”.
Toys and childhood
When looking at history, there was an evident dissimilarity in childhood when comparing boys and girls. Think back to my post on the Sociology of Shopping and how we buy items based on our position within society. I want to highlight a couple of Sears advert from the 1920s.
The above advert represents a toy broom-and-mop set targeted at little girls. The tagline at the beginning proclaims, “Mothers! Here is a real practical toy for little girls. Every little girl likes to play house, to sweep, and to do mother’s work for her”. Although I want to tear into this advert’s bigotry ruthlessly, let’s take a little look at the advert targeted at boys.
“Every boy likes to tinker around and try to build things”. Very different. These adverts highlight society’s views from this era—the male role as the “breadwinner” and the female role as the “homemaker”. Thankfully, today, beliefs have changed, and everyday gender inequality continues to diminish. Think of the hell that would break loose if these adverts existed today! Well, many aspects of childhood remain to exhibit these traditional views. Modern-day adverts of toys no longer relyon explicit sexism. However, the use of society’s inherent gender cues, such as colour, and fantasy-based gender roles, such as the princess or the action hero, is obvious.
Pink and Blue
Toys are vital tools to create gender boundaries for children. Through the use of colour, a clear gender divide is created. Carol Auster and Claire Mansbach revealed that bold colours were used for boys’ only toys. In contrast, pastel colours, such as pink, were predominately used for girls’ only toys. Furthermore, girls’ Lego world and Barbie’s social world are both dominated by pink, not to mention the pink Power Ranger is the only female character.
Think back to your childhood and the colours that surrounded you; what were they? Why do we smoother a boy in blue or a girl in pink when they are born? Especially considering Jadva and colleagues discovered that there are no apparent sex differences in colour preferences evident before 24 months. Yet, as kids grow older, a study found that 95% of children identified pink as a colour for girls, whereas blue was associated with boys.
The preference of colour
There is a distinct difference in colour to categorise both boys and girls. Ultimately, children begin to prefer the colours that correspond with their gender due to this socialisation. In their book, “Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry“, Stern and Schoenhaus reported that “when a girls’ toy is failing, [toy marketers] try ‘pinking it up’ to make it more popular”. They reported this in 1990; however, I do not imagine this is any different 30 years on. It is not the colours but also what the toys symbolise that shape childhood by constructions of gender. In a study completed in 2011, boys overwhelmingly selected a pink colouring booklet with Batman on its cover. Similarly, the majority of girls chose a blue colouring booklet with a Bratz doll on its cover. Can someone reach out to Christian Bale asking to reboot the Batman trilogy with a pink suit, please?
What toys represent
An apparent disparity can be seen when analysing the symbolism of both girls’ and boys’ toys. Girls’ toys represent grooming, childcare, and domesticity. Boys’ toys epitomise action and domination. Moreover, there is an unmistakable contrast between an emphasis on violence and aggression in toys for boys and appearance, grooming, clothing, and hairstyles is a priority for toys for girls. The socialisation children are receiving from toys is a very apparent misogynistic viewpoint.
Cynthia Miller found that boys’ toys inspired more fantasy play that was removed from daily domestic life compared to girls’ toys, which encouraged fantasy play centred on domestic life. Although this study might be considered outdated, it is still extremely relevant today. Girls are 12 times more likely to be seen with a doll, and 97% of children pictured with guns or war toys are male. In a society making huge strides towards gender equality, it seems almost paradoxical that archaic and discriminatory teachings still surround its children through toys and their marketisation.
But are we sure gender isn’t biological?
Many psychologists have argued that boys and girls gravitate towards gender-stereotyped toys naturally. Some research has shown differences in preferences for stereotyped masculine and feminine toys, even among young nonhuman primates. When studying the biology of toy preference, children who are exposed to high levels of adrenal androgens, such as testosterone, prenatally, show greater aggression. So, it makes sense as to why boys prefer action toys more than girls. To add to this, girls exposed to more adrenal androgens prenatally typically favoured toys designed for boys. Furthermore, (science alert) the magnocellular cell, found in males, consistent with hunting, could explain why boys enjoy toys that symbolise action and domination. On the other hand, the parvocellular cell, found in females, promotes child care, giving a possible reason why young girls gravitate towards dolls more so than boys.
“He likes pink, and I try not to encourage him to like pink just because, you know, he’s not a girl”
However, this isn’t as simple as if you have a penis; you like Action Men. If you have a vagina, you like Barbie dolls. Just writing that, I knew it was a ridiculously primitive viewpoint. Therefore, the understanding that gender is not binary and should be seen as more of a spectrum. As we saw, some girls preferred “boys” toys when they had more adrenal androgens. We need better public education and structural changes regarding this to end sex and gender-based discrimination. When asked about his son liking pink, a father stated, “he likes pink, and I try not to encourage him to like pink just because, you know, he’s not a girl.” Childhood shaped by the constructions of gender is a lot more complicated than just biological interpretation.
School life and gender
Besides toys, school life is considered another part of childhood that helps create the visible gender split. Emma Renold describes primary schools as critical cultural arenas to produce and reproduce sexuality and sexual identities. As Lia Karsten states, “playgrounds are the first arenas in which girls and boys learn to negotiate their behaviour in public”. Let’s think back; gendered activities were noticeable in all playgrounds. Girls would engage in activities such as gymnastics, hopscotch, playing on the swings. Us boys dominated the astroturf to play football. Sure, girls played football with us, but they were “tomboys”. This exemplifies this gender divide. If a girl engages in “boy” activities, they are regarded as more masculine than other girls. The fact girls are seen as “tomboys” and feel the need to explain themselves when engaging in “boy” activities at school shines a light on the school playground’s embedded inequality.
Our classrooms were gendered
Whilst schools have a gendered playground, the classroom still shows areas where it furthers the construction of a gendered childhood. Karin Martin identified 82% of all formal behaviours observed in these classrooms were done by girls and only 18% by boys. However, 80% of the actions coded as relaxed were boys’ behaviours. Sadker and Sadker support these findings in their book, “Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls“. They noticed a similar result concerning hand-raising; girls were more likely to raise their hand to answer a question than boys, who would more likely shout out. Additionally, being academically oriented, for a boy, is often devalued and disparaged by other boys due to its comparison with femininity. Therefore, many boys go to great lengths to avoid studious behaviour and use humour to deter from being labelled academic and consequently feminine.
Yet, despite studious behaviour being viewed as feminine, girls lack the confidence to choose A-level subjects that are considered as most challenging, such as maths and physics, regardless of outperforming boys overall in school. Moreover, teachers were found more likely to manage girls and comment on their clothing. Such management often puts girls’ bodies under the control of another and ultimately calls their attention to their appearances. All of this shows an absolute difference in boys and girls’ school life through the way they are treated by teachers and the way they act. Thus, the classroom offers another area of constructing childhood gender.
Although there is an abundance of research that signifies the constructions of gender shape the multiple different childhood areas, there is an increasing amount of support for childhood gender neutrality. Several successful campaigns fight to reduce the practical use of gender in toy stores. For instance, the “Let Toys Be Toys” campaign advocated removing gender labels from toy stores in the UK. To add to this, many parents are raising their children as gender-neutral.
Sweden has introduced gender-neutral preschools, where teachers avoid using the pronouns “him” and “her” when talking to the children. In some cases within the United Kingdom, children as young as four years old are asked to choose what gender they want to be, rather than what society tells them they should be. These are attempts to encourage free thought and remove any gendered limitations; however, there is still a great distance to remove the gender constructions that still are being embedded into the minds of children.
There is undoubtedly an immense difference between the childhood of boys and girls. There is an extensive list of things that identify childhood, and it is shaped by social constructions of gender. Regardless of preference for toys argued on a biological level, it is undeniable that children are showered with gender-stereotyped toys. These begin to mould their minds with traditional and unequal gender views. My favourite toy was my action man, and I enjoyed playing WW2 games with my friends at school.
Furthermore, school life plays an essential role in expanding these gender-stereotyped views from the playground to the classroom. This essay focuses exclusively on Western societies. Thus, to better understand whether all childhoods are gendered, further research on other cultures is necessary.
Strive to dismantle ingrained gender construction within children
However, considering there are tremendous strides towards gender equality, it seems fundamental to teach gender-equal views and beliefs to children rather than contradictory concepts. Despite the wave of campaigns fighting gender neutrality, a change in the marketisation of toys and internal and external teachings is vital to begin dismantling this ingrained gender construction within children.