Catalogues have been known for over a century as a great way to entertain children. Owl will sit quietly for long stretches as he flips through Sears’ Toy Shop Christmas Catalogue.
He may love it, but Perfect Husband looked over Owl’s shoulder one day and was horrified.
The Sears Christmas Catalogue is supposed to catalogue toys, but it also catalogues gender stereotypes, to the point where you wonder whether this is supposed to be tongue in cheek.
Surely nothing in this day and age could be un-ironically THIS sexist?
A quick flip through the catalogue shows boys playing with cars and dinosaurs and boxing bags and discovering amazing science, while girls wearing pink hold dolls and use knitting machines and quietly paint, while totally ignoring entire shelves full of awesome cars and tools they could be playing with.
When they do touch something that could potentially be interpreted as masculine, such as a bow and arrow or a car, they are interacting with a pink version of it, because obviously things need to be pink for girls to play with them.
But it goes deeper than that.
Even the way that they are STAGED with the toys reeks of 1950’s style sexism. Like, to the point where you have to wonder if they’re being serious.
For example, behold a page full of girls AND boys playing with toy kitchens! Notice how the girl is always cooking and the boy is always eating!
Or check out this lovely mirror, which can be turned on its side to encourage active boy babies explore their motor skills, or turned on its side so vain girl babies can admire themselves.
Even when the girls are doing something that could potentially be masculine, they are usually overshadowed by a boy who is doing it better.
Hey, look, these two children are both playing with a basketball net! Notice that the boy is scoring a point while the girl makes a spectacularly useless attempt to block him!
Or look at this page, full of boys driving cars, while the girl rides as an admiring passenger!
In the science section, boys get to look through telescopes, create volcanoes, and shoot rockets. Girls get to look at rainbows.
You really get the feeling that they weren’t even TRYING to make the catalogue more inclusive. Like, you get the feeling that someone in their marketing department is genuinely saying stuff like “girls don’t like volcanos, put one with the rock polisher instead” or “Hmm, that girl looks like she has too much initiative. Let’s show a boy doing that thing for her while she watches.”
But it’s easy to cry “confirmation bias!” right? I mean, sure, those particular examples seem pretty egregious, but surely there are better pages, right?
Well, my husband decided to look into it scientifically. He got out a piece of paper, a pencil, and started taking tallies.
This is what we discovered:
Girls play with girl toys, boys play with boy toys, and that’s about that. About a third of each gender was doing something neutral, like sitting on a chair or playing a board game (although the boys were more likely to be doing something active and interesting while the girls took a more passive role).
But hey, I bet that if you’re as cynical as I can be, you’re surprised that even 2% of boys were playing with something that could be considered a girl toy, right?
Yeah. Uh. That’s because we were generous. We classified stuff like this as “boy playing with girl toy”:
That’s right, a boy doing art. We classified art items as “girl toys” because almost exclusively girls are portrayed as using art supplies.
We also gave the benefit of the doubt to boys interacting with toy kitchens if they were actually cooking instead of just pretending to eat the stuff the girl cooked. One boy was using a barbecue. So he got in, too.
How about the girls playing with “boy toys”?
Well, that’s mostly thanks to a line of guns/bow and arrows called “Rebelle”, specifically aimed at girls.
Interestingly, these were classified under “science, arts and crafts” and were placed next to the knitting machine instead of “active play” with the other shooty-things.
There was also the aforementioned useless basketball girl, and a girl playing soccer. There were also a couple of pink Big Wheels featuring girls.
Basically, when girls interacted with items that would otherwise be considered masculine, they were playing with pink versions. Even among the neutral gender stuff like TABLES and CHAIRS, the item needed to be pink for a girl to touch it.
Almost half of the girls in the catalogue were interacting with an item that was coloured pink or purple. Virtually none of the boys were.
“But hey!” you might say, “At least there were SOME boys touching pink or purple!”
Yeah. You wanna see ’em? We photographed every instance.
Exhibit A: A boy holding a plastic model of The Hulk which happens to have purple shorts.
And if you’re impressed that slightly more than half of the girls were handling something that was red, yellow, blue, green, or even on occasion (!) black, keep this in mind:
Many of those girls were still WEARING pink.
That’s right! There was ONE BOY wearing pink. Here he is, the little hero:
This boy is the most gender-daring thing in the entire catalogue. A BOY wearing pink? We don’t have any girls wearing Spider Man, or boys playing with dolls. No girls driving a car that isn’t pink or boys pushing a purple shopping cart.
To any child looking at this, the gender norms are painfully clear.
Boys do active things, while girls sit quietly.
Boys do science and play with dinosaurs, while girls do art and look at rainbows.
Boys play hockey, girls do crafts.
The worst thing is, thanks to the all-girl-things-are-pink-and-all-pink-things-are-for-girls factor, it means that entire sections are ruled out for certain genders, the most notable one being the doll section.
In fact, Perfect Husband, in listing the most egregious examples of sexism, just left me this note at the bottom of the list:
Gee, I sure would like to buy my son a baby doll to play “big brother” with before my daughter is born in April. But what do I tell him if his doll will only say “Mama”? Why can’t he have a more masculine baby carrier or stroller to take his baby out in public with? Why can’t he play “daddy”?
In fact, even though he sometimes asks me for a baby doll when he’s at the store, he hasn’t once raised the issue while looking at the catalogue, because he is so clearly being excluded. They are actually SUPPRESSING SALES.
And geez, why are all these little girls ONLY having daughters? No wonder I never played with baby dolls as a kid. I always wanted a baby BOY.
Now, Sears and the many other companies out there who probably have just as gender norming catalogues may argue that they stage their ads for their target markets. MOST players of hockey are boys, and MOST purchasers of friendship bracelets are girls.
Sure, that may be true.
But here’s the thing – a boy is going to ask for hockey equipment if he wants it. A girl may not. If she sees a girl playing with the hockey equipment, she may say “hey, girls can do that too? Awesome!” and put it on her list because she no logner feels excluded. Kids are very sensitive to social mores, and they will be discouraged from asking for something they actually want if they think that it isn’t appropriate for them to play with it.
By showing girls holding normal nerf guns, and not just purple ones, they might actually INCREASE their market. By making a few blue boy dolls or showing a boy helping to change a diaper, they may give a shy boy the courage to ask for something he wouldn’t otherwise dare ask for.
Besides, that doesn’t explain the hideously stereotypical ways in which the children are staged INTERACTING with the toys.
Don’t tell me that you’d sell fewer basketballs if you showed a girl actually successfully making a slam dunk. Don’t tell me you’d sell fewer activity tables if you showed a boy making art and a girl playing with the blocks. Don’t tell me that fewer mothers would buy a mirror for their baby daughter if she were doing something other than primping in it.
If you want to make that argument, PROVE it. Make a catalogue showing boys playing with My Little Pony, and girls playing with transformers. Demonstrate that it lowers sales.
I dare you.
Because this… this is garbage.
Toys today are MORE gendered than they were 30 years ago. “Let Toys Be Toys” tweeted an image last year of a 1975 Argos toy catalogue compared to the same section in 2013:
I think that it is baffling that in this day and age, when more mothers work than ever before, and more fathers stay home with their children than ever before, that we’re still telling children that only girls can have dolls, that all girl toys must be pink, and that Batman and Monster Trucks are for boys.
I loved Batman as a child. I loved Transformers. I hated pink. I was not alone.
Some boys want baby dolls. Some girls want basketballs.
Step up your game, Sears. You’re limiting my child’s choices, and consequently your sales.