by Shavon McKinstry
For children in Western countries and other places where the toy market flourishes, the rift is met early on in life: girls can play with “boys’ toys,” but boys cannot play with “girls’ toys.” Similarly, girls can wear boy clothes, but boys can’t wear girl clothes. Tomboys are charming, feminine boys are broken. Only in the most liberal and open of societies, communities, and homes is this not true. While seemingly only unfortunate for those poor young boys who wish to partake in the “girl culture” that stores provide, the issue is much more problematic than that. Blue is all-inclusive, but pink isn’t; masculinity is the superior, femininity, and by default the majority of women (and boys who act “like girls”), are inferior.
One need not look any further than down the toy aisle of any store, where you will be bombarded with merchandise from the biggest blockbusters of the year, The Avengers included. Take note at the online stores of Target and Walmart, where you have the choice to sift through pages of toys modeled after what is thus far inarguably the biggest film of the year 2012. You will find figure after figure of Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor. The only stars of the Avengers? Far from it. Black Widow, the only female team member portrayed in the movie, despite having more screen time than four of her teammates, only makes an appearance piloting a quinjet in a Lego boxset.
Of course, the best argument against this particular point is that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk all had their own eponymous films before the Avengers. However, this is merely one instance of an all-too common theme. In the realm of children’s toy, Disney-Pixar’s Brave featured a protagonist, Merida, a princess who, while not above wearing dresses and having long hair, is against forced marriage and the domestic duties given to females. Yet, despite the princess’s attitude, most of the merchandise for the film is of dolls. Similarly, in early 2010 and from nearly the beginning of development, the Disney film Tangled was originally called Rapunzel, until they changed the film’s title for marketing reasons, with Edwin Catmull president of Walt Disney Animation Studios explicitly citing, “Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”
So what’s the big deal with all of this? Fewer action figures of women and girls, and a less-gendered title on a movie: What’s the matter? The problem is that it’s against the norm to enjoy entertainment aimed at girls. Catmull’s quote implies that when a character may only be enjoyable to the girl demographic, it’s no good. There was never any question about whether Pixar’s Finding Nemo should be targeted more to appeal to a more feminine audience by changing its title or even having more than one female character, and Disney’s Aladdin similarly has been, since its 1992 release, received as a film appropriate for both boys and girls, yet it only has one female character. Neither of these films received the Tangled treatment in reverse. The trend in entertainment is that, despite only being one half of the population, masculine is the default without question.
In toys that aren’t even related to merchandizing for films or movies such as skateboards, play kitchens and telescopes, the situation is the same. Holiday “wish books” and catalogs from toy giants Toys ‘R’ Us, Walmart, and Target support the idea of gender “rules” for toys that exclude males from playing with toys geared towards girls. Numbers indexed from this article at Pigtail Pals actually charted the images of boys and girls playing with toys in these catalogs from the aforementioned stores. While there were some instances of boys playing with play kitchens (still gendered by the color blue), and some instances of girls playing with “boy toys”, across the board there were no accounts of boys playing with non-traditional gender toys. This perpetuates the norm, establishing that it’s not okay to enjoy feminine toys or entertainment in any form, while allowing the reverse.
The problem is that this “boy’s club” with women just trying to “fit in” doesn’t seem to end at childhood. A 2005 article from the University of Southern California reported that, in an ongoing study from the university since 1989, since the start of the study, women’s sports have consistently held a 6% share of coverage in comparison to men’s sports, which had 91% coverage, with only 2% going to gender-neutral reporting. This is despite an overall growth of women’s sports. This isn’t because women aren’t playing sports, or that people don’t like watching sports, it’s because watching women’s sports is popularly a subject of ridicule.
Women are treated radically differently than men in the realm of sports to confirm these stereotypes. While men in sports are portrayed as being strong and powerful from their physical strength and wit, women are reduced to sexualized objects of beauty and sensuality. This year’s Olympic U.S. women’s volleyball team was featured in ESPN magazine, stripped down to nothing, passively posing on a bench. According to People magazine in this article, “The shoot… was meant to show off the results of their rigorous exercise routines.” Vanity Fair recently did an article on jockey Chantal Sutherland, having her pose on a horse naked [Warning: NSFW, may not be age appropriate]. While athletes are often, regardless of gender, praised for their strength, skill and bodies, women in sports regularly are only judged on the latter. They are sexual objects before they’re considered players, meaning they are taken less seriously for their merits than their male counterparts. It goes right back to the idea that male is the norm, female is different, not universally accepted, and must be treated as such.
This all goes back to a term known as “structural violence”, one found in many a sociology, anthropology or psychology textbook. Structural violence consists of subliminal harm ingrained in society – harm that is so concealed that people enforce it, even when it damages themselves. In this case, subliminal violence is saying that boys cannot play with girl toys, that boys cannot accept girls and that girls must submit to boys. It may not sound so serious when the talk is of children’s toys and movies, but hate and discrimination are not biological matters, they are taught subliminally through language and, in this case, in what we say about gender through childhood toys. Some people may ask, “Where are the female contributors to society, why are there so few of them?” It’s not for lack of trying. It’s because we live in a culture that tells them no one wants them to contribute from day one.