My toys never meant anything to me. They were mere instruments for my enjoyment, devoid of any semblance of a meaning. Toys were not social constructions with messages; the only message I received from my toys were that I should not be "afraid of no ghost." Yet at a young age I was cognizant of the idea that certain toys were for boys and certain toys were for girls. For example: guns were for boys and Mall Madness was for girls. Wrestling figures for the young dudes and Barbie dolls for the young gals. Creepy Crawlers for the little boys, and EZ Bake ovens were supposed to be for…you guessed it: little ladies. And obese little boys. The distinctions were clear from the start about which toys were admissible for me to play with. The only time I considered it acceptable for me to play with what could be considered a doll is when I would mash it together with Batman, celebrating his success in saving the world with simulated, hard plastic coitus. If I were caught with one of these dolls in my possession, the owner of the doll (usually my cousin Louise) would claim that I shouldn't be playing with Skipper because dolls are for girls, and then she would call me a girl. At the time, it seemed like nothing more than childhood teasing from a cruel, Angelica Pickles-type cousin, but in retrospect one could derive a lot of meaning from that one instance. While toys are a way for children to use their imaginations, toys are also used by children to understand the world around them. In this case, toys were used to define gender. Without knowing it, children shape their definitions of which values are considered masculine and feminine based on what they play with. What children do not realize when they are playing is that toys are tools used within society to fit children into molded, traditional, definitions of gender.
In The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior, Henley and Freeman state that "Environmental cues set the stage on which the power relationships of the sexes are acted out and the assigned status of each sex is reinforced" (85). As an integral part of any child's environment, toys are important in assigning status within the sexes to children. Toys are used within a society to ingrain at an early age what is valued, and what is to be expected from a child. For a young boy, action figures of superheroes and larger than life characters embody the physical strength as well as the emotional strength expected from males within the society. Not only do these characters have idealized physical prowess, but these toys symbolize the bravery, aggressiveness, leadership, and toughness that is considered "masculine" within society. For females, the idealized images presented to females are a bit different.
Upon doing my toy shopping for a ten year old girl, the first toy on the list was a virtual pet. And so I went about looking up the most popular virtual pet there is: the Tamagotchi. While ostensibly being gender neutral toy, Tamagotchi had a primarily female consumer base, at least 60% according to www.tamagotchi-connection-virtual-pet.com. At face value the Tamagotchi is nothing more than another Japanese import that kids gravitate to, but has no social ramifications, much like Hello Kitty Doll's, karaoke, or the bird flu. Yet at a closer look the Tamagotchi provides young girls with a very powerful message about what their role should be in society.
A Tamagotchi, while considered a "virtual pet" could easily be interpreted as a "virtual child." It has to be fed, played with, put to sleep, changed when they virtual poop, and generally maintained or else they die. And so in order to play with a Tamagotchi, one had to keep it alive by nurturing the tiny electronic bundle of joy. As a plaything, the Tamagotchi teaches girls that it is important for a girl to be maternal. Girls are taught that it is a very important to be able to take care of a helpless little being. Ultimately the Tamagotchi is a training ground for young girls in order to fulfill their future in the traditional role in society as a mother. The importance of maternal values are stressed in this toy, so much so, that if one stops simply paying attention to this toy, the Tamagotchi dies. In a weird type of way, the Tamagotchi not only advocates maternal values, but it also seems to be a proponent of young girls growing up to be stay at home moms. A message is sent to these girls that if they don't keep a constantly vigilant and if they pursue other activities, their little electronic mistake may cease to live. Now compared to the messages boys receive from their toys, the gender roles endorsed by the Tamagotchi is a bit more subdued. While the playthings of boys preach aggressiveness and strength, the Tamagotchi's domestic message preaches a type of submissiveness that is tied to being a good wife or mother, a certain acceptance of one's maternal duties as the definition of a female's life.
In the case of the Tamagotchi, toys dictate to children what is to be expected from them in adulthood, and which gender defined values would be acceptable to society. But toys also define gender by teaching children which characteristics within society they should value. Plastic manifestations of people define to children what the ideal male or female look like. Action figures are not made in all shapes and sizes. Almost all action figures depictions of men (with the exception of Antonin Scalia dolls) are made to look muscular, defined, and rippling in a bathing suit. To a young boy, this toy is what a real man should look like. Meanwhile, females live in the tall, leggy, svelte shadow of the Barbie doll. Like many age appropriate girls, the girl I must shop for played with Barbie. While it is specified that Barbie was played with, with the intentions of popping off her head, she none the less had these dolls. For generations of girls, Barbie dolls defined what a beautiful woman looked like. Heck, as an eight year old boy who didn't know anything about girls, I knew that Barbie had terrific legs. Much like the action figures for the boys, the Barbie doll sends a message to girls that there is a concrete definition of what a woman should look like, and Barbie encompasses that look. For girls it creates what Gilman calls an "aesthetic obsession" (73). And so it is no surprise that upon adulthood many girls dye their hair blonde, and get physical enhancements. While they don't necessarily undergo these "improvements" with the notion of looking like Barbie, the end result of these "enhancements" leave them looking closer to Barbie's definition of what is aesthetically pleasing than anything else. Ultimately, children are taught that identification within their gender is tied into looking like their toys. In order to be considered a real man, boys must grow up looking gruff and toned like a G.I. Joe, while in order to be a beautiful woman, a girl must grow up looking like they are smuggling Christmas hams in their shorts and traffic cones in their blouse.
While Barbie may not have been designed as a self-esteem assassin to little girls with a terrible message for little girls, and Tamagotchi's weren't designed to mold young girls into June Cleavers, these toys do represent cultural values that accepted within society. These values go unnoticed to a child, and slowly these toys begin to shape the way a child thinks about gender. While seemingly innocuous, toys play a large part in the development of a child, as they mold children's definitions of gender through the various messages they send.
- Gilman, S. J. (2000) Klaus Barbie, and Other Dolls I'd Like to See
- Henley, N. , Freeman, J. The Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior