Miles of Aisles of Sexism

Helping students investigate toy stores

By Sudie Hofmann

Illustrator: PJBF

Photo: PJBF

You sure wouldn’t know our society has experienced almost 40 years of significant changes in the area of gender equity in education after a trip to the mall.

Toy stores are stubbornly resistant to change and remain entrenched in sex-role stereotypes and the unabashed glorification of war. Boys are still blasting, crushing, striking, and pulverizing their way through playtime. And girls are cleaning, diapering, and primping through theirs.

Unfortunately, toy stores continue to support levels of male and female gender bias not unlike what we saw before Title IX was passed in 1972. The aisles of girl toys are designated with pale pink letters and the names of the girl toys are in oval signs framed in purple or pink. The boys‘ aisles are marked with green letters or blue frames — even today in Toys R Us, one of the nation’s leading toy stores. And in many stores, child-sized Dirt Devils and Easy Bake Ovens crowd the girls’ department and plastic power tools fill the boys’.

Some say corporations are just giving consumers what they want by providing friends and family with the products that will put smiles on kids’ faces at weekend birthday parties. Yes, trendy toys and gadgets reflect societal values, habits, and the quest for stimulation. But let’s look at the long-term messages that are sent to kids. Are toys providing innocent fun, or are children being socialized in ways that could ultimately influence career and life choices? Are boys encouraged to demonstrate power and control during playtime by simulating violence and war? I attempted to answer these questions by taking a look around Wal-Mart, Target, Kaybee Toys, and Toys R Us to consider the possible effects of gender-based toys. I came up with several areas of concentration such as gender segregation, career-related toys, militarism, and themes in packaging such as color usage and marketing language. After completing my investigation, I designed an exercise that required my students in a university gender issues course to explore a local toy store and report back to the class.

Investigating Stores

A visit to several chain toy stores at the Mall of America and suburban shopping centers in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul metro area taught me a powerful lesson about how toy manufacturers operate. I began by recording the categories of toys in the girls’ and boys’ sections. The boys’ section was dominated by weaponry. Using Myriam Miedzian’s powerful critique included in her 1991 book, Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence, I observed that boys’ toys have become even more “lethal” since 1991. But the language used on the packaging now justifies the use of force or violence in the name of being a “peace keeper,” completing a “mission,” or being a “superior defender.” The text used on the war toys Miedzian observed was seemingly more honest about being the aggressors. For example, the Rambo 81 mm Mortar Thunder-Tube Assault declares the “army will stop at nothing to control the world” and the motto for the Rampage Transformer is “those who conquer act: those who are conquered think.” Madison Avenue now encourages violence during playtime in the name of peace and justice.

The colors commonly used on the packaging are black, red, and deep yellow to provide images of flames. Jagged letters suggest lightning, the icon for speed and power.

Words such as “bashing,” “kicking,” “deadly,” and “assault” are standard fare used to promote these children’s toys. Toys such as Power Brutes, Battle Arena, and Big Brother (whose box states, “Get Ready for the Real Confrontation”) can be purchased at just about any discount or toy store.

Kaybee Toys committed more than one third of one aisle to Power Team Elite, manufactured by Hong Kong-based M&C Toy Centre; featured were about two dozen action figures with guns, scopes, grenades, Humvees, and an A-F Combat Helicopter. These toys offer children a particular perspective: Patriotism and superiority are the ultimate goals, and aggression and training for war are justified through a simplistic lens of “us” versus “them.”

In addition to the war toys, the male area offers word games, chess, and other challenging board games. Boys — and presumably their dads — are prominently featured on the boxes of Pavilion’s Backgammon and Chess Teacher. Planetariums, globes, interactive world maps, atlases, 3-D Dino Adventure, Legos, science kits, and GeoGenius fill the shelves.

I tried to find one female — child or adult — on any of the many science kits at Toys R Us. I thought my research results would look a bit questionable if, in 2005, I claimed that not one female appeared on any of the science kits. I was determined to find at least one. I found a small plastic chair and attempted to reach the top shelf to see if that very last science kit would have a female on it. A friendly — albeit skeptical — store clerk asked if I needed assistance. I told him about my research and he brought the box down. For one joyous moment I thought I had found a female. Alas, it was not to be. The boy on the back panel just had long hair.

The girls’ area, or should we say fantasyland, is well stocked with vanity mirrors, combs, brushes, nail kits, makeup, and polyester hair extensions. The focus is on being popular with boys. The shelves are overflowing with Mattel Barbies and endless paraphernalia, including Barbie’s scale, set at one weight: 110 pounds.

Shopping is a focus of many of the girl toys such as Lil Bratz Fashion Mall, which warns girls, “Don’t forget to stop at the makeup shop.” Packages provide fashion advice and tips about how to be trendy and get noticed. Crowns, pompons, and phones in lavender and pink hang on the separate carousels near the small, upholstered furniture. Jump ropes, umbrellas, tea sets, and sticker books are in abundance. Unlike the colors used on the panels of the boys’ toys, pastels reign here. The edges of the letters are smooth and an i or a t is dotted or crossed with a heart, butterfly, or star. Glitter is on everything — from the packaging to the product itself. The copy usually includes words such as “kitten,” “princess,” “fairy,” “precious,” “wish,” “dream,” and “wonder.”

The girls’ section does not have many board games that stimulate creative thinking or require higher-order reasoning. It has bingo and simple activities such as coloring books and car or travel games. Although the female area appears to be a pink fantasyland, the dream soon ends. After getting the guy, by playing Milton Bradley’s Mystery Date or through sheer vanity and competition, the girls get the brooms, mops, vacuums, diapers, and plastic food. And they are smiling in every packaging photo.

Boys are noticeably absent from any of the advertisements, promotions, store posters, or packaging for toy household cleaning products, kitchen items, or childcare toys such as baby dolls and strollers. The product lines do not model social acceptance for boys to play homemaking or parenting.

When young boys engage in dress up, pile on the necklaces, enjoy painting their nails or select other girl toys, cultural norms or homophobia often correct the behavior immediately. In fact, in Fisher Price Playlab studies where staff members observed children behind one-way glass, they found that boys will play with “girl” toys if they think they are in a safe environment.

My students frequently offer supporting evidence about boys crossing these gender lines, from their part-time jobs at after-school programs. They believe that young boys relish the chance to get their nails painted and have their hair styled when girls are doing it as a special activity. As one student told my class recently, “I think boys just like the closeness of being with a staff member, being touched while we paint their nails, and talking with us.” Perhaps it is the tactile, calming aspect of this activity that draws boys and girls to it. However, sex roles are reinforced very early in boys’ lives, and toys play a part in that socialization.

Jackson Katz in Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, a Media Education Foundation video, explores the ways boys are taught to be tough and how they’re encouraged to define manhood in ways that hurt themselves and others. Katz provides an insightful analysis about how boys are socialized to be solitary, independent, and often violent through toys, video games, and Hollywood movies. According to Katz, the cultural message is that emotional connections are for sissies. Beyond the obvious problems of violence and aggression that many of the toys engender, even the science-based toys are solitary and don’t present opportunities for verbal or social development. Packaging hints at being the best or creating and building superior models or designs. There is little evidence that toys help boys in social and emotional development or in Katz’s words, help boys to be “better men” some day.

Toys for girls implicitly urge them to find husbands in order to get their dream lives. Girls are taught to compete with each other for male validation. One makeup kit states, “Wait ’til they see you.” Female rivalries, jealousies, and other negative behaviors such as bullying and harassment pose a host of problems for girls. Yet girls’ toys promote unattainable physical perfection and materialistic values. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, a groundbreaking book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, including depression, eating disorders, and declining self-confidence, refers to contemporary society as a “girl poisoning culture” and offers many empowering approaches for addressing issues of self-esteem. The toys available to girls typically strengthen the cultural messages of inferiority and second-class status that have influenced and continue to affect self-image and academic performance for many girls.

The harsh reality for girls is that when they enter the labor force they will make about 75 cents to a man’s dollar ( More than 90 percent of U.S. women will work during their lifetime; they comprise 47 percent of U.S. workers, and about 70 percent of moms participate in the labor force ( Most women work because they have to, and girls should be aware of this fact early on in their lives. Economic self-sufficiency and a sound understanding of money are essential for girls and boys. But it’s hard to get even a glimpse of that reality in the fantasyland of toy stores.

Photo: PJBF

Action Research for Students

After completing my own toy store research, I designed an exercise for my students where they navigated a store of their choice, aisle by aisle. The students were enrolled in a gender issues course in the College of Education at St. Cloud State University. I had originally intended the course to be an elective for teacher education students but the course has filled with non-licensure students every time I have offered it. In the first few weeks of the course, we examine a wide range of common gender socialization practices for young children, from parental biases in decorating the nursery, to the clothes and toys selected for children, to the verbal messages given to them regarding their gender roles.

In most of my classes I favor projects that send students out into the real world and these assignments frequently send the students into retail stores. For example, I send my students to seasonal stores in the fall to determine which Halloween costumes perpetuate racism, and in the spring I ask students to analyze the colors and fabrics used in children’s spring jackets. We begin the action research project in my gender issues course by reviewing class material on gender socialization. Students generate a list of things to look for in a toy store such as messages about gender expectations and general issues such as cost, quality, and amount of toys in the boys’ section versus the girls’ section. The students can use the list of questions the class formulated together to complete their research or they can use their own.

Part of the action research assignment is a written and oral report to the class summarizing their findings. Some students have asked if they can give their report as a group and I have found these presentations to be lively and interactive. One group somehow came up with the funds — or credit card — to buy many of the toys they researched. They provided the class with an array of war toys, Barbies, and GI Joes. The men in the group were the most vociferous in their critique of the messages sent to children, particularly boys, who play with war toys. One of the students had been in the military and said he felt angry about the socialization he had absorbed from toys, like assumptions that men make war, war is exciting, and new weapons are fun to use. The students took their show on the road and shared their research with classes in the College of Education, and they also provided a session at a student sponsored conference on nonviolence on campus.

Each class has found different things to review in their research. For example, one student found that there were, “twice as many toys for boys than girls.” She went on to write that the smaller girls’ section was located in the front of the store and shared space with seasonal toys.

Another student noticed the facial expressions on the packaging of toys. She observed this in one item in particular, a bean-bag chair. She wrote the following:

The girls’ bean-bag package displayed two pictures of girls sitting back in their chairs, smiling and looking very relaxed. One girl was talking on the phone and the other girl was talking to another girl. The boys’ bean-bag package showed two pictures of boys leaning forward in their chairs. Both boys were gritting their teeth as the one played an electronic game while the other raised his fist and cheered for a sports team.

Other packages portray girls taking instruction or baffled by some accomplishment. A student noticed that the cover of Marvin’s Magic Mind Blowing Card shows four boys in the front row and two girls in the back row watching a card trick being performed. The facial expressions of the two girls make them look flummoxed by the trick, while the boys seem to be studying it. In addition to these observations, almost all students reported that women were highly sexualized in many marketing promotions. One student reported that Toys R Us had 126 covers of video games displayed on a wall and the only women shown were in “compromising positions” with “major cleavage.” The only non-sexualized female was a furry yellow “Sonic Hero.”

Toy Segregation

The effect of toys and playtime may not be as benign as some parents and educators think. Although great strides have been made in many social areas, boys are still pushed toward higher levels of unhealthy competition and stoicism during playtime while many girls are reinforced in their unrealistic beliefs that they will always be taken care of or that employment outside the home is optional. The segregation under those neon lights is a fairly good predictor for what is to come, both in terms of earning power and career choice. The power and labor inequities in homes and work places — and the damaging messages sent to boys about their roles in society — are often shaped and defined in the types of toys that are mindlessly thrown in the shopping cart.

Sudie Hofmann ( teaches at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She wrote “Framing the Family Tree” in the Spring 2005 issue of Rethinking Schools.