COUTO: Gender roles in society lead to assumed limitations


Opinions Column: Through the Looking Glass


As a young girl, my favorite toys were Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets. My brother, on the other hand, was given monster trucks and action figures. I never questioned why girls were assigned a certain set of toys to their gender, and boys another. That’s just the way the world works, right? I’d like to think that I would have naturally gravitated towards “girly” toys regardless of the interpersonal and societal pressures to do so that were present in my life — I enjoyed having imaginary tea parties with my stuffed animals and dressing up in glittery princess costumes. But not every girl feels the same. 

Gender-based marketing restricts children. It prohibits them from discovering their interests and defining their passions, particularly if said interests and passions are not present in their designated aisle of the toy store. This probably sounds like a load of codswallop to some of you— how can toys define and restrict children in such a way? It all sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought myself when I was first presented with this argument, but upon doing more research on this topic, I began to feel differently. 

Emanuella Grinberg, in her article for CNN, “Let toys be toys: the case for gender-neutral marketing,” writes that “there's no denying men and women are biologically different. When it comes to psychological traits and abilities, time and again, the evidence has suggested men and women, as well as boys and girls, are more alike than they are different.” For example, “The most recent meta-analysis of (studies that examine the impact of gender on personality traits), published in 2005 in American Psychologist, found that 78 percent of the magnitude of gender differences were in the small or close-to-zero range.” So what does this have to do with toys and gender-neutral marketing? For starters, gender-neutral marketing — particularly geared toward young audiences who have years of emotional and cognitive development ahead of them — removes the limitations placed on children as to what they are capable of accomplishing and how they view themselves. In other words, it presents the possibility of choice: girls can be scientists or athletes or superheroes, and boys are allowed to acknowledge that they can be sensitive and nurturing — qualities that are associated as inherently female characteristics, and often discouraged amongst men. "When we tell children dolls are for girls and trucks are for boys, we're telling them not only are you a boy or a girl, but that being a boy or a girl is going to determine how you think and act and the skills you will develop," said University of Kentucky psychology Professor Christia Spears Brown, author of "Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Kids Free of Gender.” 

As a society, we’re promoting an idea that girls and boys have very clear, separate paths that they must take: girls must follow the aisle that leads to baby dolls and kitchen sets — which just screams “future-mommy-in-training” — whereas boys are confronted with shelves of BB guns and sports equipment. Neither kind of toy promotes a negative concept per se — except maybe the guns — but assigning toys based on gender most definitely does. The same goes for gender-neutral clothing. The most recent event in what has been deemed “the gender wars” occurred when Asda, a British supermarket retailer, “came under criticism for selling T-shirts for boys featuring slogans like ‘Future Scientist,’ while their T-shirts for girls proclaimed ‘Hey Cutie!’ and ‘Ponies Rock,'” writes The New York Times reporter Dan Bilefsky. We’re all capable of inhibiting and experiencing traits that are deemed both “feminine” and “masculine” regardless of our gender, so why do we continue to subject ourselves and our children to a limitation that prevents us from accepting that all feelings — no matter the gendered-label assigned to them — are valid? Do you want an explanation as to why, according to the Happiness Index, American happiness is rated as 31 out of 100? Start with how we teach our children that they are limited to a certain set of ambitions and personality traits — that regardless of their potential and innate desires they must conform to the outdated idea that girls belong in the pink aisle, and boys in the blue aisle. I’m not trying to impose that parents should refrain from introducing their daughters to Barbies and frilly dresses — some girls, like myself, might genuinely enjoy those things.  But I don’t think parents should limit their daughters to just Barbies and frilly dresses: girls — and boys — should be encouraged by their parents and other authority figures to play with whatever they naturally gravitate towards, whether that’s dolls, trucks or both.

Ana Couto is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Through the Looking Glass," runs on alternate Mondays.


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Ana Couto

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