Monday, October 1, 2007

Built for Gender-Neutral Play doesn't have the same ring

I was pedaling along on my exercise bike tonight, watching TV when a commercial came on for Tonka Toy Truck. Has anyone else seen this commercial? The one with the motto "Built for Boyhood"?

The commercial begins with what has got to be the earliest example of well-intentioned-man-is-clueless-about-the-house style of advertising, when a toddler tracks dirt all over the floor in order to bring his mom flowers that he's pulled up from the roots.* The commercial then informs us that boys are "just different" and that's why they need the Tonka Toy Truck, which allows boys to do things that are natural to them like selecting shapes...and walking...I suppose the part that the toy makers consider truly gendered (let's hope they don't consider picking out the square to be a naturally male talent), is the last function of the toy, that a toddler can ride around on it and it's shaped like a truck. Didn't you know? Girls only like to ride around on ponies. The commercial then ends with the cheery (yet ominous to me) note, "Let's face it, boys are just different" (so stop trying to efface harmful gender roles and stereotypes, you dirty feminist bitches?).

I guess what really gets to me about this commercial is the last line, the just face it one, and the motto, Built for Boyhood. Both suggest that there are rock solid rules and behaviors to being a boy (and implicitly to being a girl). I feel like the motto has it spot on, but not in the way that the manufactures want. Yes, this is how we build boyhood (or girlhood for that matter), by giving children repeated messages about what is and isn't appropriate for them based on their gender.

I'm not saying that there aren't girls out there who just like to ride ponies or that there aren't boys out there who just really love trucks. Hell, the majority of boys and girls might fit into these stereotypes. I just think that it's much more complicated than that. For example, when I was a kid I loved playing house, but I also loved pretending to be an explorer in Anartica. One year, I desperately wanted to go as a ballerina for Halloween, but then when the actual night was too cold for my costume, my mom made me go as Zorro...and guess what, I loved being Zorro way more than I liked being a ballerina. I had a plastic kitchen, but I also had a creek that I loved to muck around in with my brother. And I know I'm not the only one out there whose childhood cannot be neatly categorized. If it can't be categorized so neatly, then maybe Tonka should "just face it," people are born male and female (and sometimes intersexed), but they are made into little boys and girls.

The moment that you accept that at least some aspects of gender are socialized, the next question becomes, but why do we socialize gender this way? What purpose does it serve? Whom does it benefit? I think there are many different answers to these question and which answers that we chose to see might be as personal and complex as childhood play.

*For other examples of these kinds of commercials please see any commercial where "Dad" does laundry, dishes, or any kind of childcare. I just love how we are still asking if a woman is capable of being president while at the same time we portray men as not being capable of doing a load of whites. Here's an idea, maybe commercial men can't do housework because that helps reinforce the stereotype that woman are naturally better at it. And maybe real life men want that stereotype reinforced because doing housework is a boring thankless job and as long they are considered bumbling fools within the household they can have plenty of time to do all the things that are "natural" to men, like holding political office, making laws, and deciding who gets what money.)


Matthew Rosenberg said...

I know a lot of passionate people, like yourself, that have strong feelings centered on inconsequential minutia. I don't know why it always gets me so upset. It seems akin to when politicians to divert our attention from things that really effect the country and our daily lives like: the war in Iraq, government incompetence, and corporate greed. Instead they focus on something stupid like, gays are ruining the family structure of America. A subject that effects a very small percentage of the populous. Basically, I am saying who cares about Tonka and their supposed enforcing of gender stereotypes. This goes in the same category as Falwell claiming Tinky Winky was gay. The "You are reading way too much into this" category. I think all Falwell really wanted was a colorful squishy toy as a kid. Maybe you want a Tonka Truck?

secondhandsally said...

Hi Matthew,
Thanks for commenting. In a way I completely agree with you. I think forcing people into gender roles so they are constantly concerned about whether or not they are feminine or masculine enough is exactly the kind of thing your talking about, a distraction to keep people from working on "real" problems. (It also helps supply that corporate greed you mentioned; both women and men buy a lot of things because it is advertised as making them more feminine or masculine respectively.)

I also think that it's the same attitude that created this Tonka commercial ("boys are naturally different") that supplies the boys will be boys mentality, a mentality that leads to the dismissal of sexual harassment, bullying, and even rape as serious problems. Oh you know boys, they just can't control themselves around a short skirt!
I don't think you read my post closely enough either. (and this is in regard to your maybe I just want a tonka truck comment.) I am not advocating for getting rid of trucks and dolls and forcing all children to play with gender-neutral blocks. I am saying, let's look at who benefits from seeing boys as being one way and girls as being another. Gender roles have a really big ripple effect on our society. What if women weren't seen as natural caregivers and homemakers? What if we had to pay women a wage for the work that they do in the home? Our economy would be totally different. What if we didn't value aggressive behavior as an identifier of strong masculinity? Maybe there would be less war.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I'm happy to agree to disagree.

secondhandsally said...
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maiaoming said...

Gendered toys really piss me off, so thanks for this article! When my husband told his son that our daughter has a dollhouse "because she's a girl," I realized how easy it is for us to continue stereotypes - and when I look at how many of my friends struggle with their husbands over domestic duties, I think: every boy needs a dollhouse so that he can learn that cleaning and nurturing is "fun" just like driving trucks is "fun" and natural and the rest of it. Boys need doll babies. Sure, our daughter likes "pink," but that's because she's already, at 2, marketed to by everything in the supermarket and on other girls in that color. Anyway, it's an interesting issue - I wrote about it on my blog

Domesticated said...

I agree, male and female are born and boys and girls are shaped/formed/made, however- I'll also admit, I wont be the first mom to eagerly hand Sam a pink ballerina costume and say "Go have fun with the other boys darling!".

secondhandsally said...

Hi Domesticated,
You might want to check out James Braly at He talks about some of the difficulties in allowing your children to do non-traditional things (in relation to gender). I thought it was really interesting. It definitely recognizes the real dilemma parents have in allowing children to both be themselves and sending them out to face the (often cruel) world as themselves.

ProjectDoomFist said...

I dunno - I can't say I agree, for several reasons. I do agree- to an extent, that social stereotypes about ones self/gender are ingrained from day 1 - but I think that some things are often overlooked because of social stereotype frustrations. I mean, do you seriously not think that some things are just build in our code?

Above all else, people are animals. And I mean that in every good way, as well as every bad way. People are animals, and we just think that we're different, whereas I say we do a lot of things without thinking, whether we think about it or not. I don't know if that makes sense, I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts into words because I just choked down a bunch of actionscript programming information.

I believe whole-heartedly that some things are just built in. Some people are just going to be attracted to aggression- does that mean that it is taught to them that they should be attracted to agressive activity, or does agressive activity set off certain urges that attract us, or even further more, lead us to unconsciously encourage an attraction to agression?

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

I guess my second point is - let's say that this is flawed on the advertisement's part (Which, I'd like to point out, was never intentioned to be representative of our domesticated American social existence, but rather playing off of the old joke of "boys will be boys", in a visual manner, harmful as that may be), but let's say that this is something The Tonka Toy manufacture is doing wrong - what would you see done about it?

I don't know that there's actually an appropriate solution even if you can decide that this commercial, and others like it, have a socially negative effect.

I'm the first to say that advertising is poisoning our society, but I don't think it is in the manner that you're stressed over right now. I think you've read into this a certain way because of your perspective, but that a lot of that spin just doesn't apply.

I don't know, I'm kind of rambling now so I don't know if I made a valid/cohesive argument at all. Sorry.


secondhandsally said...
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secondhandsally said...
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Matthew Rosenberg said...

As for my ending comment it was meant to be funny more than anything else. I apologize if you read it as vindictive. I certainly read your post and understand what it is you are espousing.

Maybe a quick story will explain my thoughts on your post better.

I have a friend, who is a good and admirable person like yourself. We were in the DC Metro together and a blind man stepped off the train. I saw him, she saw him. We both did nothing. I observed him making his way towards the escalator and it appeared he knew where he was going. I figured, let the man be. After he was out of sight, my friend related the tiny moral dilemma she had just deliberated in her mind.

If she offered to help the man, would he be grateful, or pissed she thought him incapable of navigating from point A to B. She wanted to be sensitive to his feelings of independence. The possibility of being offensive caused inaction.

Too many times I have witnessed people, movements, and organizations become ineffectual because they were afraid they might offend someone. They wanted to include everybody and wound up helping nobody.

We (the left) are so self-concious that we have let those that have no conscious, not a thought differentiating right from wrong, run roughshod over us. That is why I think it is silly to be offended by a toy commercial.

I could write a whole volume on your gender roles lead to sexual harassment comment. Suffice to say that it is unacceptable in the workplace or anywhere else. Many people who have had abnormal/traumatic childhoods have grown into normal adults. The inverse is true as well. People who feel the need to sexually harass women or men, are assholes. Plain and simple.

secondhandsally said...

BTW, if anyone is wondering the 3 comments that were deleted were my own, which either had too many spelling/grammatical errors to stand or I decided were ill-advised.

Eda Cherry said...

Commercials are the worst when it comes to the modern, interchangeable roles of men and women. It's so rare that one of them isn't stuck in the 1950s.