Last weekend, I attended a birthday party for all three of my nieces. My 5-year-old niece Chloe became very excited when she opened a present that turned out to be a baby doll. I didn’t understand why this particular doll was so special until she showed me … this doll poops and pees when you feed it! Yay! This doll is one of the many versions of the Baby Alive doll and is exclusively marketed to young girls in a creepy 1950s way. I don’t doubt that Chloe saw a commercial for this and begged for Baby Alive for her birthday, and who doesn’t want to make a kid happy on her birthday? But this doll upset me. Chloe and her little sister Penelope became obsessed. They kept feeding this thing some disgusting-looking green “food” that immediately leaked out of a circular hole where a vagina should be, thereby queuing Baby Alive’s “mommy” to change the doll’s diaper. (When Chloe and Penelope ran out of the tiny diapers that came with the doll, they started using their own diapers, which was the most hilarious and awesome part of my Baby Alive experience.)
I talk to my nieces about feminism as often as I can. I don’t call it “feminism,” (yet) but we certainly talk about feminism. They know I’m adamant in my refusal to buy them anything Barbie, and they know they’ll end up with at least one book and/or movie about Girls Being Awesome whenever they open presents from Aunt Stephanie. (I’m also a huge fan of playing dinosaurs with them; their collection rocks, and one of my favorite all-time aunt experiences was playing dinosaurs with Chloe when she insisted that I let her use frozen grapes as their pillows when she put them to bed. Everything got fairly wet and messy after about ten minutes of that weird/amazing shit.) So even though I’m all about discussing with them the airbrushing techniques used on magazine covers, or insisting that we watch Kiki’s Delivery Service instead of the boy-helmed Toy Story 3, or reading Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride in favor of any male-dominated Dr. Seuss book, I didn’t know quite what the hell to say about Baby Alive.
Except that this gender indoctrination–specifically aimed at children–isn’t getting better; in fact, with the media’s increased venues from which to market their products (television, internet, advertisements all over the damned place) I see it worsening. The documentary film The Corporation lets us in on some terrifying secrets about how marketers and advertisers view the children’s market–and it’s fucking sociopathic. (It’s quite an apopro issue to look at, too, in light of the Occupy movement.) All in all, my struggle to accept Baby Alive reminded me of an essay I read a few years ago from the book, Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness. She writes an awesome essay in the book called, “‘It’s a Girl Thing’: Tough Female Action Figures in the Toy Store.” As one might imagine, the chapter focuses on the absence and even exclusion of the tough female action figure and takes on the idea of gender-typing.
One place where gender-typing is most vivid is the baby doll section, filled with baby dolls that drink bottles of formula, crawl, talk, wet their diapers, and cry until pacified. They are marketed and targeted at an audience of girls. None of the packages shows boys taking care of the dolls; the boxes display beaming, blissfully happy girls rocking their crying “babies” to sleep. In this realm, it is clear who is supposed to care for children. Despite the tremendous strides that women have made in society and the greater freedoms they now experience, this gender stereotyping of dolls has changed slowly in recent decades. Karen Klugman writes, “For all that some members of society advance notions of empowering women and making responsible caregivers of men, girls’ collections of dolls reinforce the traditional female preoccupation with physical appearance and homemaking, while the boys’ collections embody conflict and superhuman power.” She continues, our “childhood experience with fantasy play remains forever segregated into bride side and groom side.” Countless toys, including baby dolls and army soldiers, are resistant to change, perpetuating gender roles that seem to have changed little since the 1950s.
The traditional gender roles that children are usually immersed in when young remain lurking in their psyches as they mature. Although a boy might not want to become a gun-toting G.I. Joe when he grows up or a girl a mall-hopping Barbie, those gender roles influence how children and adults construct their identities, even if they choose to question or reject such stereotyped roles. Also, this stereotyping proves remarkably durable in mainstream American society, where millions assume that females are responsible for child care and males for warfare. Myriad forces shape such stereotypes, but toys are one of the earliest and most influential for young children. Thus, action figures–and all toys from board games to baby dolls–deserve more scholarly scrutiny to tease out their gendered messages. If we are to understand how girls and boys mature into adults, we must explore the process through toys.
I wholeheartedly agree. Our theme week for November will be Animated Films (stay tuned for our Call for Writers), and this gender-typing extends to films and television targeted at children, too. The Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media is all over that–check them out if you haven’t already.