Gender Socialization and Its Effects on American Girls
Toys and their influence on our perception of gender
As a young girl growing up in the United States, I was frequently told by parents, teachers, and other authority figures that I could grow up to be whoever and whatever I wanted to become. When I was young, I took this sentiment to heart and truly believed that I had the potential to be anyone. Eventually I reached the point in my life when I realized that though I could still strive for whichever goals I chose, my gender set me apart from many of my friends in terms of my interests, ambitions, and the expectations others had of me. My friends wanted to be engineers, pilots, or computer programmers. I wanted to be a teacher. Most of my female friends felt the same. At the age of ten, I didn’t really understand that this was the result of gender socialization.
Gender socialization is a part of our primary socialization process. From the time we are born, we are categorized into one gender or the other. Females are bedecked in pink and males are swathed in blue. From that day on, certain assumptions are made about us because of our sex. It is important to note that sex and gender are two different classifications. According to sociologist Dalton Conley, sex is “the natural or biological differences that distinguish males from females,” while gender, ““denotes a social position, the set of social arrangements that are built around sex.” In other words, sex is a biologically determined, while gender is a psychological tendency of and individual. Generally, an individual is categorized as either male or female, and as they grow up, they learn and choose which gender they are.
While sex is a binary determination, which means that there are only two categories and no gray areas in between, gender can be seen as more a spectrum in which people can be feminine, masculine, or anything in between. Though gender is generally perceived this way in the academic world, it is a fact that in the general population, males are considered masculine and women are considered feminine. This is most likely because most people subscribe to the thought process called Biological Determination, a line of thought that uses biological characteristics to explain social tendencies.
The assumed femininity of women and masculinity of men are a part of what sociologists refer to as “gender roles”. Gender roles are defined as “sets of behavioral norms assumed to accompany one’s status as a male or female.” Society believes that gender is an ascribed status and that each baby will (or must) adhere to the stereotypes that society has set for their gender. Males will play with toy cars and building blocks, females will play with dolls and kitchen sets.
While trying to grasp the concept of gender in the material world, I visited three department stores in April 2010 to try to grasp the differences between the ways that girls and boys are socialized as children. The three stores I visited were all department stores in the Midwest, so though I will generalize in my conclusions, I leave room for the possibility that other areas in the country socialize differently in terms of gender.
The first store that I visited was a Target Super-center. The toy department was fairly large, filling 8 aisles. There was a clear division between the toys meant for boys and the toys intended for girls. Just the color was enough to differentiate between the two sexes. The girls’ toy aisle was completely pink with a few small accents of yellow and purple. Even the pegboard behind the merchandise was pink. The wrappers of the toys were pink. Many of the toys were pink. The toys themselves mostly consisted of dolls, toy animals of every medium. There were also quite a few different styles of dresses so that young girls can dress up like the princesses they’re all supposed to want to be like. I also found it interesting that all of the stuffed animals in Target are in the girls’ toy department. This implies that only girls should have stuffed animals, when stuffed animals seem to be a completely unisex category of toys.
The next store that I visited was Kohl's, a department store not known for its toys, wondering if their toy department would be less sexually divided and more homogenous. This was not the case. If anything, it was more obvious because of the small space that the department took up. Though the toy department took up only one aisle, one side of the aisle contained Matchbox cars and Spiderman action figures, and the other side contained Polly Pockets and Barbies. The startling difference between the blue on one side of the aisle and the pink on the other side really showed the intention of the store to separate the toys by intended sex because in this case they certainly did not need to separate the toys in this way.
The third and final store that I visited was a Walmart Super-center. This toy department was very large and sexually divided. There was blue pegboard behind the boy toys, pink pegboard behind the girl toys, but in addition to these sections, there was a section with yellow pegboard. This section contained mainly educational toys, toys for young children, and some designated unisex toys. This section was unique to Walmart. I did not find it in either of the other two stores. Though Target had a separate board games department, that was limited to games, while the Walmart section was extensive and inclusive of many different types of toys.
Overall, the three toy departments were very similar. Though the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods were different, the toys they contained were very similar. The toys in the girls department were always bedazzled and covered with swirls and flourishes and were nearly always pink. In the boys department, the toys were wrapped in blue or black and covered in fire and explosions. Generally, stuffed animals and puzzles were in the girls’ section and building blocks were in the boys’ department.
Many people get upset by the placement of these seemingly unisex toys, because of the implications that only girls play with stuffed animals and only boys play with Legos. This especially seems to upset feminist groups. Feminism, according to sociologist Dalton Conley, is “an intellectual consciousness-raising movement to get people to understand that gender is an organizing principle of life. The underlying belief is that women and men should be accorded equal opportunities and respect.” Feminists and like-minded people might say that it is sexist to teach young girls only how to play with dolls and not how to build things. Conley defines sexism as “when a person’s sex is the basis for judgement, discrimination and hatred against him or her.” In this case, the judgement would be that women cannot or should not play with blocks.
It is possible that they would have a valid argument because sometimes, the toys that boys play with lend themselves to careers down the road, when girl toys usually only teach girls how to play dress up and house. It is certainly not a proven fact, but it is possible that even this very early development contributes to what social scientists refer to as the “glass ceiling.” The glass ceiling is “an invisible lid on women’s climb up the employment ladder.” It is a common understanding in America that women do not attain top leadership positions in government or in corporations. This is largely true in America because we are patriarchy or “a nearly universal system involving the subordination of femininity to masculinity.” The clothing offered to little boys and little girls was similar in all three stores as well. The boys’ departments had baggy jeans and graphic t-shirts. The patterns and designs were skulls, dragons, cars, and flames. These clothes were designed to be ready for anything, and look tough in the process. The girls’ department, generally right across the aisle from the boys’, looked completely different. Approximately half of the clothes in the departments of all three stores were pink. There were plenty of mini-skirts, skinny jeans, and dresses. It seemed from my forays into the department stores that boys are taught to dress for utility and to display toughness and dominance, while girls are taught to dress to look “cute”. There are many problems with this notion, mostly the fact that females are already being objectified in a sense at such a young age.
Gender socialization is constantly at work in our lives. It influences our choice of play toys, clothing choices, and our career ambitions. This socialization begins at a very young age, as shown in department stores around the country. The toys and clothes that children are taught to wear affect them for the rest of their lives, and in the case of some females caps their potential slightly under the glass ceiling.