I expected a girl, but had a son. He’s almost two and half years old now, and his toy box contains cars, trucks and airplanes, a mini washing machine, a baby doll, coloring books and stickers.
I’ve bought almost all of his counter-stereotypic toys; the toys he receives as gifts from others are usually more traditional. His most recent gift, a V-tech trio of a rescue helicopter, fire truck and police car, cheerfully sings, “Let’s hurry to stop the crime!”
A glance down the aisles of your local toy store or through children’s television commercials reveals the fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, bulldozers, building blocks, and helicopters marketed to boys emphasize building something or rescuing someone.
The ponies, play ovens, dolls, princesses, pets, miniature houses, toy appliances and cash registers aimed at girls instead focus on tending and care. Their underlying message is clear: boys save, girls serve.
Exhibitors at the recent Toy Fair 2018 also capitalized on these narrow definitions for play. Their effects are far-reaching: a recent study by British psychologists tested the impact of images in magazines on children’s attitudes toward gender. The children, ages four to seven, were shown photographs of a girl and a boy playing with either gender stereotypic or counter-stereotypic toys: a pony or car.
The researchers found that children exposed to counter-stereotypic images demonstrated more flexible attitudes toward what toys they and other children could play with. The study also shows a greater likelihood of choosing a playmate of a different gender when shown images of toys that run against stereotype.
The gender divide of play is not new, but history reveals bold exceptions to gender stereotyping, offering a different frame for the role of women and girls.
As a parent and scholar, I split my time between the 21st century and the 16th, when those gender stereotypes were far more entrenched, and could have life-or-death consequences. As a professor of Renaissance studies at Northwestern University, I explore the severe constraints placed on women in that period.
It was a time when women had no vote, no say in whom they married, no rights over their children or often their property, no recourse against domestic violence, and when rape was considered a crime against property. Even women in positions of power experienced it precariously.
At the very height of power, gender posed the greatest problem and carried the greatest risks.
Over four centuries ago, Elizabeth I, one of England’s greatest rulers, refused to marry knowing that taking a husband, having children, or even naming her successor would mean giving away her political supremacy.
She had learned the vulnerable position of royal women from early, harsh lessons. Her father, Henry VIII, had had her mother, Anne Boleyn, and one of her stepmothers, Catherine Howard, beheaded and replaced them with more wives who might give him sons.
Elizabeth I’s own life was at risk before and during her rule, first from her own sister Mary I, who saw her as a political threat, and then by internal and external enemies including her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots and Pope Gregory XIII. Even at the height of her power, which lasted from 1558 to 1603, she was aware that her femininity was a political liability that had to be shrewdly managed.
In one of her most famous speeches, addressing her troops amassed at Tilbury to fight off the invasion of the Spanish Armada, she announced, “I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”
As queen, Elizabeth knew that her gender and her status were in radical conflict with one another: the first signaling weakness and dependency, the second supreme power. Although she was not a feminist — even in her own time — she skillfully maneuvered around the tension between authority and gender norms.
It seems odd to us now that the term “prince” was gender-neutral in the 16th century, but it certainly isn’t anymore. When Elizabeth was addressed or addressed herself that way, what was in question was her royal authority, which transcended her gender.
Today, however, it’s gender that shapes political power in the figures of princes and princesses that our children encounter in toys, movies, video games and more.
The prince is almost always the one who fights, and saves the princess. Even in seemingly progressive stories like Disney’s Frozen, whenever there is a prince (even an outsider like Prince Hans), he is a threat to a princess’s power. In fact, Hans threatens Elsa’s authority by positioning himself as the one who will rescue her kingdom from her.
A 2016 study that examined the effects of princess culture on gender stereotypes in children found that exposure to Disney princesses was associated with more female-stereotypical behavior, even one year later, among both girls and boys.
There is an exception to this gender predictability in Black Panther, the latest film by Marvel Entertainment, a Disney subsidiary. In it, King T’Challa is defended by an all-female guard of women warriors in the Dora Milaje, led by the female General Okoye. But Black Panther’s PG-13 rating means its model of female capability and rescue won’t be available for younger girls, for whom it would be especially important.
It remains true that the gender-stereotypical behaviors associated with most princesses, especially those created for toddlers and young children, are much like the ones emphasized by other toys marketed to girls: consideration, accommodation, caring, and kindness. There’s nothing wrong with these decidedly pro-social virtues.
What is wrong is teaching them unevenly and selectively by gender, to only some children. And although tending and rescue are both altruistic activities, the relationship between the subject and object in each of these is radically different.
The person who saves you is in a higher position than yours; the one who serves you does so from below.
Even though the Girl Scouts state that their program “unleashes the G.I.R.L. (Go-getter, Innovator, Risk-taker, Leader)™ in every girl, preparing her for a lifetime of leadership,” the badges they offer feature categories like “Be a Sister to Every Girl Scout,” “Considerate and Caring,” “Friendly and Helpful,” “Respect Myself and Others,” “Good Neighbor” or “Making Friends.” One of the badges offered by the Girls Scouts is “Respect Authority.”
Of course no such badge exists for Boy Scouts. Boys aren’t taught to respect someone else’s authority — they’re taught to be the authority. For the Boy Scouts of America; the closest equivalent awards are for “Citizenship in the Community,” “Citizenship in the Nation,” and “Citizenship in the World,” recognitions for voice and engagement, not consideration and tending.
The gendered cultural messaging around children’s toys and entertainment that presume girls to be caring and boys to be capable is no longer useful. This has been true for hundreds of years.
With summer approaching, for many that means more time to play and explore toys, television shows, movies, and activities that either reinforce or actively counter gender stereotypes.
We can all do our part and encourage a boy to play with a pony and a girl to play with a truck with the hope that we may help correct the pernicious belief that Elizabeth I knew only too well: that only boys save, while instead, girls should serve.