It happens every year. Right around the start of November, my mailbox gets stuffed with catalogs. I have no clue where they come from or how these companies get my name. All I know is that during the winter holidays they infiltrate my house, bringing their crappy stereotypes with them.
Ads in these catalogs go beyond the usual gender stereotypes of girls playing with kitchens and dolls (or using only female pronouns in the write ups for the doll toys: "Her First Doll! She'll Love it!") and boys playing with trucks. When I sift through the catalogs that have accumulated over the last couple of weeks, I notice something else that makes my blood boil.
In almost all of the catalogs that use child models, the boys are actively playing while the girls passive. One catalog in particular stands out to me. "Young Explorers" presents itself as a company that sells "creative educational products." Even the name suggests that the toys they sell are geared towards children who like to actively explore. However, one look at the cover and you can tell this isn't quite the case. A boy is excitedly playing with a remote controlled toy as the girl contentedly looks on from behind her...sewing machine.
Now, I have nothing against sewing machines. In fact, I have one! I even use it on occasion. But, that's beside the point. The cover of the Young Explorers catalog not only pushes stereotypical gender roles (boys love loud things that move, and girls like toys that simulate domesticity) but also reinforces the notion that boys are active, while girls hang out quietly on the sidelines.
This presumption continues throughout the catalog. Boys are seen building towers, playing laser tag, skateboarding, and shooting arrows. Girls are pictured combing hair (as part of "Beauty School in a Box", showing off bedazzled denim purses, and proudly holding up homemade quilts.
When viewed individually, none of these products/ads are all that offensive. Many of the toys featured actually look like fun. However, when you put them all together, the not-so-subtle message that girls don't dig active toys is loud and clear.
This goes further than pushing "girl toys" and "boy toys," and can be much more damaging than separating things along pink and blue color lines. Instead, it's ignoring huge segments of girls who actually enjoy outdoor activities, sports, engineering, science, and more. While little girls may not be sitting down and flipping through these catalogs on a daily basis, they're likely to take a look, especially around the holidays when they're delivered in abundance.
What message will these girls see?
They''ll see other young girls engaged in primarily domestic activities. Parents or well-meaning family and friends who pick up these catalogs might bypass a pogo stick or science kit for a young girl because they're coded as "boy toys."
While I know that it's unrealistic to have every toy advertised equally to boys and girls, is it too much to ask that companies spread it around a little? Toss a microscope the way of a little girl...Perhaps show a boy fabric looping a pot holder.
Thankfully there are a small handful of catalogs that do their best to show kids (regardless of gender) of all types playing with a range of toys, yet they're certainly in the minority (toy catalogs/companies I've found that aren't overtly gender stereotyped—please add your suggestions in the comments: Nova Natural, One Step Ahead). Perhaps more will catch on eventually, but I'm not holding my breath just yet. Until then, I should probably look into getting myself on the unsubscribe list to prevent this inevitable irritation next year.
Related: Toy Advertising & Gender Messages (Achilles Effect)