When Mattel released its ad for its Moschino Barbie, it caused a stir, simply because one of the stars of this video was a young boy. Male Barbie fans were enthused while there were many who were outraged.
When Target announced that it would be getting rid of the “girls” and “boys” signs in its bedding and toys department, it was met with simultaneous praise and outrage. A lot of this outrage is because many conservatives believe that “there are no gender neutral people” (Hains 2015). “Won’t someone think of the children?” cried others. Marketing toys as gender neutral is not trying to make girls and boys the same. Nor is it trying to get rid of toys like Hot Wheels and Barbie. It is a simple redistribution of toys according to theme and interest rather than gender.
So what’s the big deal? Do these labels even matter? Yes, they do. Labels are real and labels can hurt. They can instill a sense of shame in young children who find their interests do not lie with what the labels tell them that they should like. Little boys who want to play with Barbies should not feel ashamed when they walk down the doll aisle to find the one they want. Little girls with a love for Hot Wheels should not be shamed for their toy selection. Parents may worry that letting their son play with dolls will damage him somehow, but letting him play with trucks could also damage him by reinforcing gender stereotypes that could be harmful in his adult life.
I had a conversation with a friend, Steve, who shared with me the fear he had for his two young sons. He told me that he was fine with buying toys that his kids wanted but he told me that more than anything, their interests were decided by their friends. He told me that he had no problem with lack of labels in stores like Target, just so long as it was organized in a comprehensible manner. “Organized by theme. It would be easier that way.”
Steve worries about how other kids will treat his children. He claims that their friends have a greater influence on them than he does. “A lot of other parents need to change their views on ‘gender rules’,” says Steve. “It’s hard to change it on your own.” To reiterate his point, he told me about how he had heard his older son tell his brother that something was “so gay,” a negative implication that had not come from Steve or his wife. Where did it come from? “His friends. We don’t have a TV in our house, so he isn’t influenced by TV shows.”
Gender neutral marketing might make it easier – he would worry less. “I wouldn’t mind buying the toys because they wouldn’t get teased. I have no problems with that stuff.” Steve is most concerned about how are other kids going to treat his kids. “I see more positive reactions from adults, but I don’t know what the kids think,” he said of the infamous Moschino Barbie commercial. “Why give the bullies more ammo?”
Steve believes that it’s important that companies have less gender targeted marketing. “It’s harder to get individuals to make a change. It’s easier when backed up by companies.”
Children’s safety (both physical and mental), are important to their parents. So is their happiness. However, some children’s love of certain toys could elicit bullying from their peers due to perceived notions of gender that they learned thanks to their parents and the media. This puts parents in a difficult place. Should they protect their children but deny them their happiness? Should they take a stand to help make a safer and more accepting environment? It’s hard for individuals to make a change, but with large companies backing them up, perhaps making that change won’t be so difficult. Changing perceptions of gender, getting rid of stereotypes and encouraging our children to follow their interests cannot be done overnight and cannot be done alone. We need to come together, we need to have more companies support this movement in order to make the world a better, more accepting place for our kids. Won’t someone think of the children?
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