Boys Can Be Caretakers (But Toy Makers Don’t Think So)
By Contributing Author, The Other Sarah of Salt & Nectar
My son keeps asking for a baby. Of course he means a real baby because he would love to be a big brother and cuddle one just like his best friend. But, natch, I’m not ready to call on the stork to bring me my second. So, I followed the advice of my friend and decided to purchase him a baby doll that he could play with and care for during the interim. Once at Target, however, I couldn’t bring myself to make the purchase (and neither could the Little Dude, who claimed he didn’t want any of the available choices…I’m pretty sure he had his heart set on the living, breathing, crying, pooping kind).
I didn’t resist bringing home his “baby” because he’s a boy—I’m all for encouraging learning beyond stereotypical gender expectations, as well as letting children direct their own play. It wasn’t because every single toy and related paraphernalia in the baby doll aisle was covered in every shade of pink—I think children should identify with a rainbow-colored palette and not a limited set of colors (and I’m sure both girls and boys would appreciate some options beyond the overused pink and blue). Rather, it was the messaging on the package.
“Little Mommy,” they read. “Every baby needs a Little Mommy™ of their own / From the time they are born to the time they are grown / Someone to nurture, teach, giggle and share style too / She’s extra special and oh-so-sweet… / That Little Mommy™ is you!”
Where do I begin? There are oh so many problems with this advertising copy and what it communicates to girls and boys. This is another classic example of corporate America and the media perpetuating stereotypes, defining roles, and inarguably influencing cultural perceptions of what it means to be a girl/woman and boy/man in today’s society. Not only does the bubbly packaging and accompanying text of the Little Mommy toy tell a girl that only the stylish “fairer sex” is destined for domesticity, it similarly excludes boys and says they are not welcome in a nurturing, teaching, parenting role even though the risk of “feminizing” boys has been dismissed. Consequently, our children internalize these messages (even if they can’t read the pictures speak a thousand words), so their reality is shaped, and they are socialized into believing that women are better suited for shopping, caretaking, and traditionally feminine roles, that there is no room for men in these spaces, and that there might not be space for girls either beyond these normalized categories. Even worse, these sexist predictions can influence actual performance and exaggerate the supposed boy-girl differences.
My concern is further underscored by a Pigtail Pals survey revealing the staggering effect of gender stereotypes, sexualization, and representations of girls in the media. When asked to think back to the age of eight and share what they wanted to be when they grew up, 179 respondents (ages 18-55) told of diverse dreams of being doctors, nurses, teachers, astronauts, reporters, lawyers, marine biologists, James Bond villains, tigers, horses, and boys. When asked what the current market message to girls is, people sadly said “being an airhead concerned about weight, beauty…is more important than enforcing they BE some one….they aren’t capable of having careers that have anything to do with science or math….girl power means you can be or do anything, as long as it’s society’s way….your options are limited, your dreams are not your own….the only option is boy OR girl; they cannot be a child.”
Audible gasp, on my part.
Why can’t the media jettison these stereotypes and disseminate meaningful messaging that both sexes are equally worthy and equally capable contributors to society no matter what they do? Is rebranding girls (and boys) the answer? Fast Company suggests so, or at least its mock campaign “The Birth of An Idea: Ads to Rebrand Girls” (which I found linked on my friend’s Facebook page) supports this approach. While the concept is thought provoking and illuminates the flaws in current advertising practices, it’s too bad that the mock solution is just that—not real. Until then, what steps do we take at home to combat or serve as a counter-narrative to the pervasive media messages that our children can’t escape no matter how hard we try?
About the Author:”The Other Sarah”, of Salt & Nectar, Sarah Helene enjoys sharing the West Coast way of life—sun, sand, and a sense of balance—with her husband and toddler son, the Little Dude. Formerly a lawyer by day and aspiring creative type by night, Sarah now practices the art of motherhood, ongoing interior design, writing and editing, and Bravo TV watching from her home in Los Angeles, CA. When she’s not cooking asparagus for her son (he eats it by the bunch),Sarah loves to grab lunch at LACMA, search for the perfect French bakery, bliss out at yoga, and drink the occasional mojito.
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