Considering some ethics in marketing Children’s Media…
The past few years have seen a drastic increase in the amount of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) programs, products, and especially toys targeted towards girls. As a girl who studied life sciences in university I couldn’t have been happier. This was perfect! What a time to be alive! …at least, that’s what I thought at first.
Now before you shoot me I AM ALL FOR GIRLS IN STEM. Like I said before I was ecstatic at first with all the emerging efforts to bring more inclusion into the field I always had great interest in myself. But as I tend to do, I thought about the issue more and more, and as I tend to do, I began to have some doubts. My doubts aren’t from the idea of making STEM accessible for girls through toys, but rather how we seem to be doing it.
There is a significant under-representation of women in STEM fields. This is not new. It has been repeatedly reported that there are far less women working in STEM fields or even holding STEM-related degrees. The distribution of women actually in STEM is also heavily dependent on the field, with women being more prevalent in biology and heavily lacking in engineering and computer sciences. This pattern has become of great concern in recent years and both the Canadian and American governments have conducted research studies that confirm this disparity.
In the midst of feminist empowerment and diversity movements growing among teenage girls and women all over the world, an army of dolls are also getting in line to expose these issues to the younger demographic. Love it or hate it, Mattel and Netflix are on the forefront trying to make little girls and boys play with different body shapes and skin colours.
The most heated debate is centred on the Barbie Fashionista line. Fans of the blue eyed and blonde haired doll can now play with a tall, curvy or petite Barbie as well as seven skin tones, 22 eye colours and 24 hairstyles. A big discussion on social media, many think this is an “adult hang-up” – an issue too soon to be showed to young girls, while others congratulate the initiative, as shown in this article from Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3422410/Social-media-users-slam-Barbie-s-diverse-makeover.html). Mattel calls it an “evolution of the doll” previously known for unreal waist and body proportions.
“We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand — these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them — the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them,” said Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice-president and global general manager for Barbie, in a press release back in January, when the news about the launch came up.
Even classics need to change. Having grown up knowing only the cheerful 1950 Disney Cinderella cartoon, I fondly remember my confused and horrified reaction to reading The Grimm Brother’s recording of this tale originally known as Aschenputtel.
How could Disney have forgotten to mention that Cinderella’s abuse started while her father was in the house, that praying to a tree that represented her mother would get a bird to produce anything she wanted, that she twice tried to convince her evil stepmother to let her go to the ball before giving up and asking for help, or that she hid from the prince despite having no time limit? But that was the point, wasn’t it? Aschenputtel was based on a religious moral lesson that outweighed its practicality, and was neither suited for children nor for the 1990 culture. Thus, Disney turned it into the musical that we remember.
The internet erupted on March 3rd with outrage over the death of Lexa, a lesbian character on The CW series The 100. Emotions have ranged from fury to misery, but perhaps the most upsetting aspect is the feeling of fatigue. The LGBT community is sadly accustomed to being pulled into a series with the promise of representation, only to have it sent away or worse: killed off. For teens struggling with their sexual identity, this practice of queerbaiting could have potentially devastating consequences.
The 2015 GLAAD report of “Where We Are on TV” shows 4% of TV characters are LGBT+, compared to an estimated 10-20% of the actual population. With so few characters to represent the community, the weight of responsibility is heavier on the writers to give meaningful depictions of queerness. However, due to many factors including network restrictions, lack of queer writers, and a tendency to rely on tropes, queerness is often handled poorly or merely used as a tool to gain a queer following.
Queerbaiting is not a new phenomenon. One of the earlier examples in the teen sphere is the band t.A.T.u.’s 2002 music video for “All the Things She Said,” in which the 17-year-old female singers share a kiss, going on to affirm their heterosexuality in interviews. This is echoed years later by Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (2008) and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” (2014), both of which use homosexuality (in the titles, no less) to draw the listener in, but within the same song reassure them of their heterosexuality. This turns queerness into a gimmick to be exploited to attract attention, yet all are songs are massively popular both in and out of the LGBT+ community. With so few sources of representation to choose from, it’s unsurprising that queer communities rally around even the slimmest examples of queerness, and those marketing to teen audiences are definitely aware of this.
“Do you even lift, brah?”
Yes, you’ve heard it before. It’s a familiar phrase that has made the pop culture rounds. Maybe you’ve heard it at the gym, maybe you’ve seen it on a meme…the two of you have certainly crossed paths before. Oft used in jest, the expression is a colloquialism of condescension – implying illegitimacy in one’s supposed fitness expertise. Poking fun at a lifestyle so imbued with discipline and commitment, is there anyone who could actually take the question seriously?
News Flash: There is. And he’s only seven years old.
On average, 30-34% of American boys aged 6-8 feel some sort of dissatisfaction with their bodies. As most studies surrounding body image issues are female-centric, this alarmingly high number may surprise you. We as a society generally consider the boy psyche to be impenetrable of such ‘vain’ concerns. Turns out, boys are just as susceptible to negative body influences as girls are, but somehow the concern for them fell between the cracks
There is no doubt that digital media is certainly casting its imprint in the kids market. Just think of all the apps designed for kids, not to mention all the online content that is available to them. Despite this, however, “traditional” toys (aka, toys that aren’t on screens) are still very much present in the marketplace. Perhaps one of the most popular toys for ages 5 and up right now is Shopkins.
Shopkins was launched in June 2014 by Moose Toys, an Australian company that specializes in developing, designing, and distributing toy and lifestyle products for kids all around the world. The company found previous success with their collectible figurine toy line for boys called the “Trash Pack”. They decided to make a collectible line that was geared towards girls and the result? A toy line whose motto is: “Once you shop, you can’t stop!” and whose characters live in Shopville.
Shopkins are small figurine-like toys that depict anthropomorphized objects like food, household items, and clothing/accessories. Just imagine a purse with a cute little face on it and you have “Handbag Harriet”. A cookie with a cute face? “Kooky Cookie”. There are also three female human characters, named Bubbleisha, Jessicake, and Poppete. Shopkins can be differentiated by seasons. For instance, the first season of toys features grocery store items like “Fruit & Veg”, “Health & Beauty”, “Bakery”, and “Dairy”. The latest season launched in December 2015, marking the fourth season of the toy line. While the toy line was originally designed for girls, it has also found appeal from boys.
Nostalgia plays a role in each of our lives. From TV shows, movies, songs and celebrities, there are pieces of our earliest memories which cling in our thoughts well into adulthood. I grew up in a very busy home. I participated in piano lessons, gymnastics, lacrosse, painting and sculpting each week from early years until the end of elementary school. This means that I associate certain events, sounds, or even colours with things plucked directly from my early childhood. My parents, both artistic and sporty in their own ways, made sure to raise my younger sister and I in an environment that would challenge our developing minds.
It was not until recently that I was put on the opposite end of this spectrum: I had the opportunity to play the adult watching young children take part in activities which would surely affect their development and their nostalgic memory. At the boutique baby store that I work in part time, we have a weekly group session led by Sally Jaeger and her daughter Erika Webster of Lullabies and LapRhymes. Their sessions consist of teaching new parents songs of their own creation to sing to and with their babies or young children. The songs span on a variety of subjects: there are songs for getting to bed on time, songs for cleaning up your toys, songs for helping out around the house and even songs for mom or dad to sing to help their babies fall asleep. This session boasts a group of varied parents with children spanning from newborn to pre-school.
The future is already here. 2016 has been predicted to be the year when Virtual Reality will explode, with a series of headsets on sale and enormous amounts of games available for download. The most represented demographic for players may be generation Z, our fellows born between late 1990s and the 2010s. Their adoption of the technology can fast forward a futuristic new world to become reality.
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