How Do Toys Affect Gender Roles?
If you’re concerned about how your child’s toys might impact their perception of gender roles, look no further. In this article, we’ll investigate the way that play — creative or otherwise — helps your children to find their place in the gendered world.
By the end, you’ll have a few ideas about how to foster positive gender norms among your children so that they will be more emotionally healthy and contribute to a more just world.
The first and most obvious way that toys shape gender roles is that toys set the framing of gender roles for your child.
This process begins when your child is at the toy store and looking at the racks of toys; in nearly every case, toys are divided among toys for boys and toys for girls. As soon as your child sees the toy display, the toys are impacting their perception of gender.
The gender normative frames offered by toys impact:
- Kinds of play
- Subjects worthy of play
- Materials of play
- Role of others in play
- Actions of play
Toys intended for boys are typically framed as active, and often violent. Many observers have noted that action figures are stereotypically muscular, beyond any realistic male figure — this, too, is framing.
The frame of the toy determines how your child will play with it. Toys like guns or swords are marketed towards boys, and their mode of play is active pretending. In contrast, toys like building blocks are more imaginative and don’t evoke the same gender stereotypes.
Toys intended for active use build the idea that male children are meant to be wild and unruly, whereas other toys like action figures provide your child with unreachable ideals of male behavior and anatomy.
Your boy will see the action figure and identify that it is a toy intended for them, and he will also see that the toy is of a particular physical cut. In contrast, if you have a little girl, they’re likely to see the same action figure as less symbolic because they may not be as interested.
Instead, little girls are left to the frames provided by the toys intended for them. It doesn’t take a genius to observe that the toys marketed to girls have the frames of domesticity and aesthetic appeal nearly ubiquitously.
In short, when given lemons, your children will make lemonade when it comes to the impact of toys on the formation of their ideas about gender. You need to be thoughtful when it comes to supplying your child with toys, lest they grow up stuck in the wrong frame of mind.
These frames matter because they implicitly provide your child with a certain viewpoint to play within. This framing is part of the formation of gender norms because it implies that certain things are only “for” one gender or another.
Once your child has purchased a toy, the real gender role formation begins. Even when a toy isn’t being played with, it still occupies space in your home where it serves as a reminder for your child.
Likewise, if your child has a collection of toys which are hyper-gendered, it’ll be nearly impossible for them to avoid the prospect of internalizing the gender norms which the toys imply when they are displayed in your house.
Remember, it takes two stimuli for your child to internalize an idea. The first might come from you, or from your child’s teachers. The second may come from their toys — or potentially their playmates.
Roleplaying is an excellent form of imaginative play for your children, but it’s also critical in gender norm formation. Toys enable roleplaying, but also define the frame of roleplay, which is just one of the ways it impacts gender norm formation.
Many toys enable your child to roleplay in situations like:
- Being a superhero
- Being a princess
- Being an engineer
- Being a baker
You can probably already tell that these roles are not gender-neutral in practice, even if they “should” be.
Try to separate the notion of “should” from your thinking about this issue — even if something should be equitable, your child will get exposed to the widespread gender norms which are very unequal.
Rather than fight against the norms that are already established, you should build fresh and equitable norms from scratch with the help of your child’s toy selection.
Superheroes and engineers are primarily assumed to be male, whereas bakers and princesses are typically females.
Your child will learn these assumptions whether or not you try to convince them otherwise, so you should help them pick toys which help to build a new norm — like that superheroes are people rather than males.
It isn’t very effective to offer a counterexample once the rule of “superheroes are males” has already been built, so try to make sure the rule is built in your child’s mind in a way that is equitable.
This process is much harder than it may seem with respect to children’s toys.
The toys enable your child to play these roles, but they also dictate the possible roles which your child can roleplay as. For instance, your child would have a very hard time roleplaying being a princess if the toy is a wrench.
You may need to hop in and help your child out in these situations, however. Don’t try to make your little princess use a wrench. But encourage them to be an engineer for a session. Likewise, don’t make your little boy pretend to be a princess. But a hairdresser or homemaker might be appropriate.
In this way, the toys further narrow your child’s gender role, forcing your child to play in a way which recapitulates the currently dominant gender norms. These norms might not be the healthiest for your child.
When your child is faced with the gender norms dictated by their roleplaying play toys, they don’t necessarily realize what is going on. It’s very hard to trace exactly where individual gender norms originate from in our personal history because they’re built slowly over time.
They may be playing with their superhero toy and saving the day in their imagination without understanding that it is not always the job of a male to save the day and have all eyes on them. If you don’t help them to understand this fact early on, it’ll be harder to learn it later.
Likewise, when your little girl is playing with her dollhouse, she may not recognize that she could be having fun with superhero toys, too. Instead, she’ll be building up the idea that women are concerned mostly with domestic matters.
It’s okay for her to play this way, but make sure she understands she could be a superhero, too.
At their core, gender norms are sets of expectations that people in society have about people who present as certain genders.
Examples might include:
- Males are the only ones who perform an activity
- Females behave in a certain way when addressed by each other
- Adults of different genders relate to each other in a certain way
You likely have plenty of these expectations and subconsciously communicate them to your child. Your child’s toys perform the same function.
The more your child identifies with the role or the activity implied by their toy, the more they cement that toy’s depiction of gender roles.
Superhero toys reinforce the idea that men must take on responsibly without complaint. Dolls reinforce the idea that women must attend to their appearance. What’s more, when your child sees children of other genders playing with their toys, she will get ideas about their roles too.
This process is how expectations are formed early on. After these early expectations are cemented, children will begin to police these gender norms and punish those who deviate.
The consequence of gender norm enforcement is that your child will probably need to have gender-appropriate toys if they want to avoid getting bullied.
As harsh as it is, if you give your child toys of the wrong gender, they’ll get picked on for violating the gender expectations of the other children.
If you want to prevent your child from getting picked on while also giving them gender appropriate toys, you can probably do so. Female superhero toys exist, as do male dolls.
What Should You Do?
Luckily, there are many different toys and play activities which are not gendered. These activities include:
You should hook your child up with at least a few of these non-gender-biased toys or activities because they’re good for your child’s creative and intellectual development. Furthermore, these activities are often lower stress than playing with other toys.
No matter what policy you end up taking with regard to regulating your child’s toys, your child needs all of your love and attention.
Perhaps the best lesson with regard to carefully crafting your child’s conception of gender roles, however, is to be attentive to your behavior and words. Your child will take their gender cues directly from you, whether they have a preference for a certain kind of toy or not.