Mad World: Toy Ads and Learning Gender

Anita Sarkeesian
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I recently watched afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and I was shocked to find a flood of highly gendered toy commercials. These ads not only market toys to children but they also promote and encourage gender-specific values that are very limiting to boys and girls in different ways. The values and skills promoted in these commercials can play a critical role in the socalization of youth and their development of emotional expression, conflict resolution, the confidence to pursue various careers and the ability to maintain healthy relationships as adults.

Related Links and Articles:

* Read Media Literacy, an article by Cynthia Peters discussing and analyzing media literacy programs and how we need to transform them and hold the media accountable.

* Reel Grrls is an amazing after school program that teaches girls and young women video making skills in a safe and encouraging environment. The Reel Grrls remix was made by Sahar & Diana, check out more remixes made by Reel Grrls participants here.

* Jonathan McIntosh is a pop culture hacker who facilitates workshops that promote and teach critical media literacy through the use of remix video (You might also recognize him from his viral remixes Buffy vs Edward and Right Wing Radio Duck).

* Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is an organization whose mission it is to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers. They are a coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups, parents, and individuals who are working to stop the commercial exploitation of children.

* To learn more about what “Male Identified” and “Male Dominated” means read Allan G. Johnson’s The Gender Knot and check out articles and videos on his website

* Links to statistics: Open Source Developers, Video Game Developers, Advertising bans in Quebec and Sweden, Number of ads viewed by youth and amount of money spent on advertising to youth.

Full transcript available here and English captions coming soon.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist media literacy advocate, pop culture critic and fair use proponent. She maintains an ongoing web series of video commentaries from a fangirl/feminist/anti-oppression perspective at her website

OH_Logo.jpg This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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19 Comments Have Been Posted

It's Disturbing and the Programs Often Are Too

The glorification of violence, of being controlling, of war in ads, games, and television programs aimed at boys is disturbing as is the absence of portrayed sensitivity or nurturing qualities. We can see the results in the world around us and in many of the movies and programming made by and for men. As a guy, I wish the more girly stuff had been made to feel more acceptable for boys. As far as the advertising and cartoons aimed at girls, they've been highly gendered for as long as I can remember. While as grown-ups we hopefully recognize that women should have an equal role in governing, management positions and programming. Gender stereotyping affects us from the very early stages of our development and, I believe, makes it harder to break the mold later in life. I liked you video.

Made the boys watch...

My 8 & 10 year old boys watch those commercials all the time. Cringeworthy, but sometimes you've just gotta chill out and watch some TV (after all, I do it myself!). The challenge is making them aware and challenging those stereotypes.

Anyways, I just sat them down in front of this clip. Thanks for posting...

It's not just on TV

I couldn't agree more. Toy marketing is, across the board, horrendous. Whether kids see commercials on television, browse the websites of toy manufacturers, peruse toy sellers' catalogues (especially at this time of year), or even walk through a toy store, gendered messages dominate. I'm glad to hear from one of the people commenting on this post that they talk to their children about it. Many adults blow off the frilly pink glow of girls' toy ads or the violent assault on the senses that occurs in the ads for most boys' toys, but the fact remains that toy marketing is a major influence on a child's understanding of gender--whether that child is male or female. It may be easy for some adults to disregard a toy commercial that tells children that domestic chores are for females or rescue toys are for boys, but they should consider that toy advertising cannot be viewed in isolation. The messages sent by toy ads are echoed in movies and television shows where male characters doing "important" things like rescuing and working outside the home are dominant, and females, when present, are shown in highly stereotyped roles. The combined impact of all areas of children's pop culture on a child's understanding of gender is decidedly negative.

Don't entirely agree.

Boys and Girls in general, gravitate toward certain things. I disagree that boys are "taught" to be hunter/gatherer types, and that girls are "taught" to be nurturer/sensitive types. I know that not every child falls into the generalization of what boys and girls like, but they do GENERALLY lean toward those areas. That said, I think that where our media fails, in the EXCLUSION of the opposite sex. It's OK for girls to like glitter and be attracted to taking care of dollies, but I would like to see boys mixed into those commercials too. In the same way, I'd like to be able to buy my boys a housekeeping toy set (like brooms and dishes) that isn't pink. I think that girls should be driving those jeeps through the mud with the boys. I think when media excludes boys or girls from an ad, they do more damage than if they just included shots with BOTH sexes in them. I have a son that loves the color pink. I can't tell you how hard it is to find backpacks, etc. with pink on them, and NO glitter or flowers. He's not into those things. Pink, yes. Lace, glitter or floral? Not so much.

Nature over Nurture

Rachel, I so agree! I'm also the mom of a pink boy (and I blog about raising him). The thing I don’t agree with in this writer's analysis is the degree to which kids are influenced by culture. Certainly we are a mix of nature and nurture, but gender nonconforming boys who are exposed to all the cultural norms telling them to be a he-men still turn out quite feminine (and tomboys given dolls to play with them will still reject them for trucks). This video makes the point that kids are influenced by hearing the media’s idea of what is expected, desired, and possible for kids. Sure–but gender-nonconforming kids SEE what is “expected, desired, and possible” for their biological gender–and still do what the opposite gender is “supposed” to do. Those ads may harm them because they’re telling them they’re playing “wrong,” but I don’t think they’re forming their idea of who they’re supposed to be. That comes from inside.

It’s true that mainstream toys are very gendered (and annoyingly glittery or cammo-patterned). But what toy companies aren’t expecting is that boys end up playing with EZ Bake Ovens and girls end up playing with pirate Lego, despite how heavily toymakers market the other way. I like your suggestion that toymakers put boys in the "girly" toy commercials and girls in the "boyly" commercials. Although...if the US followed Canada and Sweden, banning advertising to children, I wonder how much more cross-gender play we would start to see?

I think that teaching critical media literacy skills to kids of all ages is a brilliant idea. Maybe it would help more boys to find their feminine sides, and more girls to find their masculinity.

Sarah Hoffman

OK. I'm almost 40...

I hate to tell you this, but commercials haven't changed at all. Go to YouTube and search for vintage kids' commercials for Barbie or GI Joe...You sound so surprised about the way commercials target their audiences, but it was like this back in the 70s when I was a kid. It's just gotten more sophisticated.

I only let my kids (girl, age 6 1/2 and boy, age 23 mos) watch PBS Kids. We don't have cable. I don't let my 6 year old use the computer to browse for anything. I set limits, and I don't buy toys I don't agree with (eg. toy guns). I agree with the premise that toy marketing is gendered and limiting, but only if we let it be that way; it's our job as parents to limit as best we can the flow of crap (in TV/video game/food form) that comes into their lives, and adjust to the rest. Yes, it would be nice if toy companies paid attention and stopped doing stuff like this, but I don't think they're going to do it. We've been complaining about their tactics for more than 30 years (it's fun to go on YouTube to find old Mattel commercials for Barbies and GI Joes), and they have yet to pay any attention to it.

Loved this video!

I don't remember the ads being all that different in the 90s, but it is scary now watching with an adult's eyes. I've worked at a sleep-away camp for the past 4 summers, living with both boys and girls of various ages and developmental stages, and it's so interesting to see how ingrained these messages are in them. Also sad. Very sad. But the happy thing is that when kids get comfortable, they can enjoy doing things that are traditionally geared at the opposite gender. Don't you wish advertisers could get comfortable with that too?

Gender representation in commercials

I was born in 1984, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s I spent a lot of time watching television. The commercials shown in this video are very similar to the ones shown during that time (with the exception of the sophistication of the technology featured). I clearly remember being affected negatively by the commercials I saw as a child. I was homeschooled from second grade onward, and did not have a lot of interaction with other children, so my views were more shaped from what I saw in movies and on television, and what I read in books, then most people, but nevertheless I'm sure a lot of children and adults are impacted.

Frequently, I was drawn to "boyish" clothing and toys, and would often make fun of the commercials and toys that were aimed towards girls, probably as an attempt hide the shame and confusion I felt. Growing up I had the impression that girls were vapid, silly creatures who only cared about makeup, shopping, and all things pink. Boys were tough and loud, with an internal sense of freedom. I wondered if I was really a boy, that maybe when I was born the doctor had made a mistake. For years I had this secret fear, until I had more exposure to the real world, to real men and women, and to feminism. Stereotypes can be dangerous to a developing mind. Not every child has nurturing people in their life to balance out what they see in the Media, so I'm all for banning advertisements targeted to children.

"Boys toys" & "girls toys"

I hate commercials for kids. First of all, 90% of them are for junk food. I've literally sat and counted them. The other 10% are for crap like this. Second, have you been to a toy store lately? The isles are labeled "Girls' toys" and "Boys' toys." I used to shop in the boys section even though I was a girl... I thought I was some how being devious but really, I was being normal. It was everyone else that was being stupid. Also, McDonalds offers toys in the happy meals and when they ask what toy the child wants, they don't say "A hot wheels or a Barbie" they say "A boy's toy or a girl's toy." It's everywhere and it's up to the parents to recognize it, turn off the TVs and encourage their kids to break the mold.

This is a great post! Thanks!

This is a great post! Thanks!

Turn off the TV!

This just reminds me that I made the right choice dropping TV permanently 3 years ago. My 7 year old daughter is better for it. And yes, I sat her down to watch this with me and we had a talk about thinking critically when it comes to stereotypes. I'll be sending this to my friend who is a single mom of a girl and boy and struggles with these very issues--she also feels the same way I do about TV. If only more moms realized that TV can be so harmful. Better to pick and choose your DVDs or better yet, encourage creative play indoors and out...and how about books?? Kids don't need to be plugged into electronics all the time. I prefer to do my perusing on the internet where I have more control (I'm not deluded to think it isn't becoming a whole lot like TV though) over what media I consume.
The more parents and kids there are who talk back to the stereotypes everyday in school, with friends and family, etc, the faster the message will eventually get out that we are all humans first and deserve the right to be allowed to think outside of the box!

Barbies and space monsters

I have to agree with one of the above comments--commercials haven't changed much. I think the fact that they haven't changed is actually more disturbing, though, because it says to me that regardless of the strides made in society, advertisers prefer to stick to a tired formula that presents a distorted view of reality (besides the sexism, did anyone else notice all the "token" people of color?).

If it's any consolation, it's rare (in my experience) that girls actually mimic the play seen in commercials like these. My friends and I were really into Barbies, for example, but we were less about shopping and more about going on space missions and battling monsters (later they would also serve as rudimentary sex ed props). Likely this stems from the fact that we were aware of the fact that the style of play designated for boys was more fun than pretending to go shopping, and so, regardless of the actual toy, we mimicked that, although there was careful consideration for their outfits pre-space mission. It seems to me that there can be a happy, fulfilling combination of the two gendered extremes, and from my experience as a child and from babysitting, many kids tend to gravitate towards that combination. Problems of gender role enforcement usually arise with the interference of an adult.

YES! I absolutely noticed the

YES! I absolutely noticed the token youth of colour, it's all so very frustrating.


I babysit sometimes I see these commercials all the time. My younger cousin really like to play with dolls and when I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says she wants to be a mom! These commercials are definitely not helping matters. Girls toys commercials enforce the same gender roles that women's makeup ads make. I told my cousin she should become a teacher so she can be around kids and she just asked me who would watch HER kids while she was at school. Oh well... I'll work on her.

I wandered into a Toys R Us a

I wandered into a Toys R Us a few months ago and was absolutely disturbed--the entire store is color coded (blue and pink). I don't remember that being the case when I was a kid, but I stopped and made a mental note that I will never take any future kids I might have to a big toy store like that. The intensity of socializing kids into gender roles is crazy!

The one word you left out was

The one word you left out was "social". Arguably, the boys toys do contain some social aspect, but they each seem to be playing individually in the company of other boys while the girls are playing together. I also disagree that the girls toys aren't creative. Toys such as dolls and barbies require kids to create stories, which is a creative activity. This isn't to say that the boys and girls aren't being taught to be creative in vastly different ways, they are. And I agree with everything else you say, teaching kids gender norms this way can limit the roles they believe are available to them and only allow them to develop a limited set of skills.

Gendered ads

I was surprised when she called for a ban on advertising to children, but I completely agree.

Wait, this stuff is based on

Wait, this stuff is based on neurological research? Not psychological? Because neurology is the study of how the human brain functions. The hardware manual that's there before society enters the picture. If neurological research suggests that boys and girls are persuaded in different ways, that scientifically backed proof of gender essentialism. Are you sure about this?

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