Play and gender

Gender is understood to be:

  • a biologically determined social category

since biological gender is a fact which can be used to categorise people into two kinds: males and females. Gender as a social category makes reference to the psycho-social development of the individual as a person with a gender-specific identity.

For example, Haavind (1988:255-258) states that cultural processing of the symbolic significance of gender creates humans who are aware of gender.

The human being’s collective and individual self-reflection and empathy for his fellows as beings which act intentionally makes it possible for individual human beings to connect their gender to two systems of identity development.

Society is affected by gender. Social participation demands that the individual understands the intentions and meanings which are natural for gender-affected aspects of society. In order to understand these, an individual must develop an identity which is, naturally, also gender-specific.

In this context, identity is defined as:

a coherent understanding of one’s own possibilities for exerting an influence on significant aspects of the immediate surroundings.

However, gender identity is in fact not unalterable and quite definitely not two-fold but rather a flexible and multifaceted understanding of the person as boy, girl, man, woman in relation to others. Furthermore, the fact of belonging to a certain gender presents opportunities of which some will be easy and others more difficult to achieve.

There are some interesting studies which support the various theories about gender differences in play with toys:

Biological factors

Erik Erikson (1979) emphasises that differences in children’s play are a result of the biological - more specifically the morphological  - differences between the sexes.

He discovered that boys build “vertical constructions” which involve active play themes while girls build “frames and fences” which involve static play themes.

Girls’ scenarios reflect passivity and enclosure as an expression of the female genitals whilst the boys’ constructions reflect the penetrating and upward nature of the male penis and its active sperm cells. I consider Erikson’s arguments for these differences to be extremely controversial - bordering on the ridiculous!

Bodil Bruhn (1991) tests Erikson’s theory with two groups of Danish children aged 8-10 and 10-12 years (from the LEGO home town - Billund) .

The conclusions were more subtle:

The reason for the differences in the buildings (which Erikson identified) were consistent with the primary physiological differences between the sexes - “the weight of emphasis in the male is external, erect and penetrating - and mobile. In the female, the weight of emphasis is internal, “static” more than on external spheres. (…) The question is not, however, whether there are biological differences between the two sexes but what significance these differences can have. (…) It was interesting to note that I was able with great accuracy to assess whether a model was built by a boy or by a girl just by looking at how the model was built,” Bodil Bruhn (1991:22).

Mayer-Bahlburg et al (1988) have documented the relationship between children treated with a synthetic female hormone progesterone and a reduction in violent play.

Their results suggest that the differences between girls’ and boys’ play is possibly be due to biological factors. Biological factors may have a bearing on children’s choice of toys and of play with toys. For example, war toys allow active and violent toy processes which in itself suggests something about hormonal influences.

Socio-cultural factors

Parents tend naturally to pass their own gender roles and understanding of gender on to their children along with the toys they buy for them. Huston, Eckerman & Stein (1990) and O’Brian & Huston (1985) indicate that parents tend to buy distinctly gender-specific toys for their children to the extent that  parents themselves have very specific sex role attitudes - often motivated and stimulated by their education and work/career. This is of course one of the reasons why girls have dolls and boys have cars.

Parents also play differently, depending on whether the child concerned is a boy or a girl. Furthermore, they react differently to comments, facial expressions and touch from boys and girls respectively.

Roggman & Peery (1989) show, for example, that mothers’ play with their children is more visual than fathers’. Parents contribute therefore to gender distinctions because their attitudes to their children’s games and types of play differ.

Sex and roles in advertising and on packaging

Even though boys and girls play in different ways and prefer different toys, both types of toys and play environments affect children’s behaviour. However, social learning relative to play style is not only limited to personal influences (effect of parents and playmates).

A number of media can be attributed influence. Where sex roles are concerned in connection with toys and play, attention must be paid to TV advertising and images on toy packaging. Some of the more important research projects in this sphere will be mentioned here. Several research projects’ results suggest that toy advertising is a direct reflection of the conventional sex role definition.

Greer et al (1982) made two “pseudo-ads” which replaced real toys with abstract forms. One pseudo-ad was built up over some characteristics which were mainly recognisable in ads aimed at girls. The other was similarly constructed for boys. Both ads were shown to boys and girls. Children in all age groups took part in the research and all the children could identify and very clearly differentiated between the two different types of ad with “girl features” for girls/women and “boy features” for boys/men.

According to Greenfield (1984), TV ads are the greatest sinners in the presentation of stereotype sex roles (see chapter 7 Toy Advertising).

At the age of three years, American children who see most TV (intensive TV viewing for more the 4-5 hours a day) already have a more stereotype comprehension of sex roles than children who watch TV less frequently.

The children have learned these stereotypes from watching ordinary entertainment programmes, films and advertising (including advertising for toys and games).

Advertising for girls’ toys usually contains many vague and ephemeral elements with quiet and serious background music.

For boys, the ads are usually filled with strong and sometimes violent sound effects, very loud music, spots and cuttings.

Schwartz & Markham (1985) analysed 392 photographs of children with toys in 12 toy catalogues and 538 photographs of children with toys on toy packaging.

Toys regarded as promoting sex-stereotyping to a moderate extent promoted stereotyping just as strongly in toy advertising as those which were evaluated as promoting sex-stereotypes to a great extent. This result indicates that the degree to which the toy promotes sex-stereotyping correlates closely to the gender of the child pictured with the toy in the catalogue.

A particularly comprehensive study was carried out by Kline & Pentecost in 1990. They studied 150 randomly selected toy ads selected from children’s TV programmes in USA and Canada.

Their analyses of toy advertising on TV showed that there is an extremely clear gender-specific effect. The types of toys and the children presented with them showed a very high level of sex differentiation.

Play with dolls dominated in the toy ads directed exclusively at girls (84% of all ads). By contrast, only 45% of ads aimed at boys featured play with dolls and these consisted only of ads for action dolls (Masters of the Universe figures, G.I. Joe and the like).

Despite the very large number of ads for the various types of dolls, these ads almost never showed girls and boys playing together with dolls. In 91% of ads for dolls, the groups of children playing with them were single gender groups.

Animals: Only very few ads involving animals showed boys and girls playing together.

Cars, weapons, games and construction sets: 66% of the ads for games, cars and weapons depicted children playing in mixed gender groups.

Boys were depicted playing with a very much larger number of different types of toys and toy objects than girls. These included toy cars, weapons, construction sets and electronic video games. Ads for games, however,  which accounted for 10% of the total, did depict girls and boys playing together .

Kline & Pentecost indicate that there is a difference in the way in which girls and boys are depicted in relation to their toys.

Girls are shown in “interactive and identity-confirming communities” with their toys, i.e. that they assume a separate identity which conforms to the identity of the toy.

Boys are presented in a way which indicates that they identify with their toys, i.e. that they assume the being or character of the toy as part of their own being/character. In the My Little Pony ad the girls didn’t become ponies but assumed a referential role and identity relating to the ponies. If boys played Batman, they became Batman.

Seventy-five toy ads shown on British TV in the Christmas period 1988 were analysed by Smith (1990, 1990). The ads were sex role stereotyped and coded aggressively.

There was an equal distribution in the number of girls and boys. Ads for dolls and cars were exceptions. There was no sex differentiation in the ads for other products.

Boys were more often depicted in competitive play and girls tended to be shown co-operating with each other. The boys were more active than the girls. The most striking finding in the British study was that in 74% of the ads the speaker or commentator was male.



Table of Contents