Babes in Toyland: Learning an Ideology of Gender

Greta Eleen Pennell, Rutgers University
ABSTRACT - This paper examines the subtle, yet powerful ways children are taught a traditional ideology of gender through toy advertising. By integrating hermeneutical and semiotic methods, this research decodes the symbolic language of gender encoded in the toys themselves and their presentation in print advertisements and catalog listings. The themes of females as "babes," living in a fantasy world, that are inferior to males emerged from the analysis. This research demonstrates that children's toys send clear and consistent messages to children that affirm traditional cultural values and preserve traditional relations between the sexes.
[ to cite ]:
Greta Eleen Pennell (1994) ,"Babes in Toyland: Learning an Ideology of Gender", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 359-364.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 359-364


Greta Eleen Pennell, Rutgers University

[The author would like to thank Elizabeth Hirschman and Eviatar Zerubavel for their comments on earlier drafts.]


This paper examines the subtle, yet powerful ways children are taught a traditional ideology of gender through toy advertising. By integrating hermeneutical and semiotic methods, this research decodes the symbolic language of gender encoded in the toys themselves and their presentation in print advertisements and catalog listings. The themes of females as "babes," living in a fantasy world, that are inferior to males emerged from the analysis. This research demonstrates that children's toys send clear and consistent messages to children that affirm traditional cultural values and preserve traditional relations between the sexes.

By three or four years of age children know whether they are girls or boys, as well as how to use gender as a basis for categorizing the world around them (see Katz 1986 for a review of this research). Abilities, interests, and activities are just a few of the things children classify as being characteristic of either boys and men (daddies) or girls and women (mommies). Understanding how to carve the world on the basis of gender and their own place within such a categorization system marks the development of children's gender identity (Kohlberg 1966; Yorburg 1974). To the chagrin of egalitarian, "politically correct" parents, the relationship that forms between children's understanding of maleness and femaleness (Spence 1985), their own biological sex, and society's gender categories (Sherif 1982) is usually highly stereotyped, embracing a core of traditional ideologies regarding gender and the appropriate roles of men and women.

This paper examines how this ideology is transmitted to children through one of the most ubiquitous aspects of their livesCtoys. Integrating hermeneutic and semiotic methods, this research decodes the symbolic language of gender contained in these cultural artifacts. In so doing, the meaning conveyed by these signs is "made opaque" (Goffman 1976 p. 27), highlighting the subtle, yet powerful ways children are taught narrowly defined and stereotypical sex-roles, starting at a very young age.

As early as three years of age children not only differentiate between "girls' toys" and "boys' toys," they clearly prefer same-sex-typed toys (Fagot 1974; O'Brien, Huston, & Risley 1983; Caldera, Huston, & O'Brien 1989). Toys and their advertisements provide children with important information about what it means to be a girl and boy (Chafetz 1974). However, little attention has been given to what children are taught about gender via these media. Most research has focused on either demonstrating sex-typing of toys (Schwartz & Markham 1985; Fisher-Thompson 1990) or on explicating the factors involved in the development of children's preferences. [Some of the factors that have been studied in regard to children's preference for sex-typed toys are parental reaction to sex-typed play (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989), adults toy preferences especially in terms of the toys they purchase for children (Thompson, Molison & Elliot, 1988) and the effect of seeing children of the same or opposite sex playing with the toy (Liss, 1977; Ruble, Balaban, T. & Cooper, J., 1981).]

The few studies that have examined the gender lessons encoded in toys and toy advertising have conducted their analysis in terms of either (1) the kinds of toys designed for girls (e.g. dolls, household goods, "beauty aids") and boys (e.g. trucks, erector sets, athletic gear) and what roles these toys prepare children for (Mitchell 1973; Chafetz 1974), or (2) the frequency and ways boys and girls are pictured (typically boys are pictured actively engaged with the toy whereas girls are often shown observing the action) (Chafetz 1974; Schwartz & Markham 1985).

These studies use detailed coding schema within a positivist paradigm to reveal statistically significant sex stereotyping of toys and their presentation in the media. Schwartz & Markham (1985) state that although their findings are robust, they fail to capture the subtle ways in which stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity are communicated. Their research points to the need for further analysis of toys in order to more fully articulate what children learn about gender.


This paper takes a hermeneutical tact to uncover major themes regarding gender symbolized in children's toys. In this approach toys, their packaging, catalog listings and advertisements are treated as cultural texts in which society's dominant ideologies are embedded (Barthes 1968; Geertz 1975; Goffman 1976; Hirschman 1990). While hermeneutics provides the analytical course, semiotics represents the vehicle by which this analytical path is traversed. However, before going into detail about these two facets of the method, I begin with a description of the landscape or interpretive frame in which this quest took place.

Interpretive Frame

As mentioned earlier, advertisements and catalog listings for toys, the toys themselves, and their packaging are all types of texts. The first three of these form the interpretive frame used in this research. In particular, catalog listings from two national department store chains and multi-page, color advertisement supplements from two newspapers were the primary data sources. The catalogs provided 292 pages of descriptions and pictures of over 1,000 different toys including skates, bicycles, and board games. Listings (and advertisements) for electronic games (e.g. Nintendo and Sega Genesis) were excluded from this analysis because they appear to represent a unique "toy" genre and signification system.

Advertising supplements from a state-wide newspaper and from a smaller local newspaper were collected over a two month period (October and November). Only full-color supplements containing two or more pages of toys were included. These data sources provided an additional ninety-seven pages of photographs and descriptions for the season's most popular toys. The complete sample of supplements included advertisements for two national toy store chains, a national discount store chain, a regional discount store chain, and a local grocery/department store chain (i.e. superstore). This is important to note, because together the advertising agencies responsible for creating these promotional materials and the sponsoring corporations act as "auteurs" (Wollen 1985) stamping their collective ideologies into the layout and design chosen. As a result, each store's ad campaign represents a different source, analogous to different informants or to a between subjects design used in other types of research. Examining the juxtaposition of the same toys across a variety of advertisement layouts not only lends credibility to the interpretation via triangulation across sources (Wallendorf & Belk 1989), but also highlights the symbolic meaning of these artifacts.

Hermeneutical Approach

The themes embedded in these texts emerged and evolved through the use of the hermeneutical technique of close reading (Hirschman 1990; Holbrook & Grayson 1986). Close reading involves a detailed examination of a text's elements and record of the themes contained in these elements. In a toy advertisement such details might include the pronouns and adjectives used in the toy's description, the toy's color(s), and/or its position relative to other toys in the picture. These textual details or component parts become the standard against which emerging interpretations of the text as a whole are evaluated. This recursive shift in focus from looking at the text as a whole, to looking closely at its individual parts and back again to the whole is analogous to the interplay between theory and data (Gadamer 1975). Known as the Hermeneutic Circle, it is this oscillation between parts and whole that is the basis of interpretive research, as well as the means by which any degree of "objectivity" in the positivist sense is achieved (Hirschman 1990; Thompson, Locander & Polli 1989).

Close reading was conducted by carefully studying each toy's verbal description and photograph. A log identifying the major signs found on each toy and the themes conveyed by them was kept. Major signs were initially defined as the features distinguishing girls' toys from boys' toys. This included features appearing almost exclusively on toys stereotypically associated with one sex over another, as well as features differentiating the girls' and boys' model of the same toy. In most cases these models were clearly labeled or described as being for a boy or girl (e.g. the Playskool garage "is the perfect place for the little handyman") or they were pictured with children of the "appropriate" sex (e.g. the "Weebles Busy Fire Station Ride-on" is always shown with a boy while its counterpart, the "Weebles Busy Playhouse Ride-on" is always riden by a girl). The initial search for differences follows from the procedure Goffman (1976) used to identify "genderisms" in the advertisements he analyzed. In addition, once a major sign and theme began to emerge, notation was made of any exceptions or "counter-examples."

The individual interpretations of the major signs served as the point of entry into the hermeneutical circle in which symbolic meanings and patterns found in individual parts were related to increasingly larger wholes. For example, the themes emerging from treating each toy as an entire text and the individual signs as components were then related to a new whole represented by a particular genre of toy (e.g. baby dolls, games, and "wheels, wings, & moving things"), which themselves became parts to the entire category of toys. In so doing, early emerging themes such as activity/ passivity, and beauty/brawn evolved as the increasingly larger wholes to which they were related suggested other,broader interpretations of the text.

Another part/whole relationship central to this analysis focused on the arrangement of toys in each photograph, the layout of photographs on each page, and the relationship between pages in the catalogs and advertisements. As I will describe later, this particular relationship provided a framework for pulling together several diverse themes such as "girls stuff is simple," and "boys are artists."

Semiotic Analysis

The analytic method used follows closely from the Saussurean tradition of semiology in which the meaning of a sign is determined by its relationship with the other signs within a larger system. In particular, it is difference or contrasting relationships that determine a sign's character (Saussure 1959 p. 121). These polar oppositions or syntactical relationships establish a sign's meaning by defining what it is not. For example, what is meant (signified) by the word (sign) masculine may be difficult to describe, but syntactics suggests that whatever masculine may be, it is not feminine. Syntactical analysis helps disembed the ideology of gender from the texts of toys and their advertisements.

However, literacy in a semiotic language requires an understanding of both syntactics and semantics. [Although Levi-Strauss (1966) has argued that "the existence of differentiating features is of much greater importance than their content" (p. 75) this emphasis on structure, especially as demonstrated most recently by deconstructionists such as Derrida, ignores the inseparable nature of the semantic and syntactic aspects of signs (Culler, 1975; Zerubavel, 1987).] Therefore, this analysis is not purely structural, but also looks at the semantic levels of symbolic meaning. Semantics refers to the relationship between a sign and its object. The meaning of a sign depends on the objects with which it is associated. To continue with the earlier example of what masculine means, semantic relationships suggest that if masculine is typically used to signify or represent men, aggressive behavior and the color blue then these objects come to define this particular sign (word).

Through these two levels of analyses (syntactic and semantic) I highlight the ways in which a highly stereotypical ideology of gender is encoded in children's toys, and how these messages effect the development of gender identity in girls and boys.


Three themes emerged through the course of this analysis (1) Females as Babes, (2) Living in a fantasy world, and (3) The Masculine Supremacy Effect. The cultural importance of these themes is reflected in the non-practical, non-utilitarian, purely conventional, and redundant ways toys are marked with the signs of these messages. In the following section, each theme, complete with examples, is described. In order to highlight the semantic and syntactic relationships comprising these themes, the semiotic quadrangle developed by Eviatar Zerubavel (1987) is used. [Greimas (1982) developed a similar tool for mapping the logical structure of a text. However, semantic relationships are represented differently.] Based, in part, on Levi-Strauss' (1959) notion that signifieds on the same side of an opposition may be treated as homologous, the semiotic quadrangle graphically represents the semantic relationships from which the themes begin to emerge, as well as the oppositional relationships between signs that brings these themes into sharper focus.

Females as Babes

The primary theme revealed from a close reading of toys and their advertisements was of females (both girls and women) as babes. The double entendre here is intended to reflect this theme's dual and almost inseparable component messages. Being female, femaleness, and femininity means being passive, an object of adornment rather than action, whereas being male and male-related things are active. Secondly, by extending this notion of passivity to dependency and helplessness females are infantilized. Tuchman (1978) has referred to this characterization of women and girls as child-like adornments needing protection as "symbolic annihilation" (p. 8).



Both of these messages are conveyed by the colors, decals, and names used for girls' and boys' toys, as well as the ways male and female models are posed and pictured in toy advertisements and on toy packaging (See Figure 1). Since this latter means of conveyance has been well-documented by Chaftez (1974), Goffman (1979), and most recently by Schwartz & Markham (1985), this discussion focuses on those signs encoded on the toys themselves.

Color. The most noticeable contrast between girls' and boy's toys is the differential use of colors. Pastels, especially pink and lavender, are used in almost every toy for girls. Toys for boys, on the other hand, use intense colors, such as bold primary colors or dark colors, most noticeably black. Moreover, pastel colors are used exclusively for girl and infant toys, thereby serving as one way being female begins to be equated with being infant-like. Pastel colors are typically described as being "soft" and "gentle." They are the colors of nurseries and bedrooms, places where one is most often quiet and relaxed. Although some work on the psychology of color may indicate that these colors induce a passive state, this explication is not meant to reify this relationship. Instead, the goal is to illustrate how through repeated associations, pastel colors come to represent passivity. In contrast, bright, bold colors represent action.

Decals. One of the most notable uses of of decals for signifying the passive nature of girls and the active nature of boys is found on the "1-2-3 Bikes" by Playskool. These miniature versions of "big-kid" bicycles are designed for children ages two through five years. The girl's model features a two-toned (pink and lavender) ribbon-like decal whereas the decal on the boy's bike resembles a lightening bolt which changes from bright red to orange to yellow. Aestheticians such as Maitland Graves (in Sahlins, 1976 p. 193) suggest that curved, undulating lines symbolize passivity, softness and femininity. In contrast, the straight lines comprising the thunderbolt decal represent boldness, hardness, and masculinity. These decals, indeed the very existence of two different models, indicate, by virtue of their non-utilitarian, arbitrary, and conventional character, the importance of both differentiating between boys and girls, and assuring that they learn the cultural expectations of their respective gender roles.

Toy Names. Both aspects of being a babe are represented in toy names. For example, bicycles designed for girls are named "L.A. Lady," "Fashion Miss," and "Double Take." These bikes feature bags or baskets that can double as a purse, implying that girls need to be or are primarily concerned with how good or well-coordinated they look. Boys' bikes often feature water bottles, suggesting that boys are going to be riding their bikes so hard that they will need to replenish bodily fluids. Their names also signify the active nature of boys such as "Ambush," "Adventurer," and "Mudslinger."

The infantization of females is highlighted by comparing the names of a girl and boy version of a roller-blading doll. The girl doll is "Baby" while the boy doll is "Dude." Even trolls, which originally were genderless, are often "sexed" today. In those cases where the troll is clearly male it is always older, whereas infant and toddler trolls are always female. In fact, virtually every baby doll is female. In those few cases (counter-examples) where and infant doll is male it is either a minority (e.g. "Paco, the Mexican boy"), or there is a female version too and the boy doll is rarely included in advertisements for the product. The "Talking Urkel Doll" is not only a minority, but his character (as played on television) is effeminate. Constant association of females with infants sends a clear and consistent message. Girls are babes and therefore they are passive, helpless, dependent beings.

Living in a Fantasy World

The second theme, living in a fantasy world, extends the classic gender distinction of public and private from the worlds of work and home to the more abstract realms of reality and fantasy. Males occupy the public sphere, consequently they need to know how things really work and what they really look like. Preparing boys for this role is serious business and is symbolized in some way (e.g. color, sounds, amount of detail) in virtually every toy designed for boys. For example, "Big Tex" the spring horse makes life-like sounds in proportion to how "fast" he is ridden. It is so important that this message regarding reality and masculinity be received that it is sent simultaneously across multiple channels. The realistic sounding and looking horse is shown being ridden by a boy, and the horse itself is described as being male. Opposite "Big Tex" is "Pastel Prancer," a scaled-down replica of a carrousel pony. [Although not included in the previous discussion on the characterization of females as passive and males as active, "Big Tex" and "Pastel Prancer" not only symbolize that distinction but act in ways to create it. The rate sounds are generated by "Big Tex" depends on the activity of the rider. The more active and faster the rider bounces the more sound that is created. Symbolically (because the horse is described as male and becaue it is depicted more as a boy's toy) the message is that boys are active. Boys are made to be more active because the horse's sounds reinforce the rider's activity. "Pastel Prancer" lacks this reinforcement component. Instead, it plays carrousel music at the same volume and rate regardless of how vigorously the rider rocks it. The music will play even if the rider just sits quietly. According to behaviorist theory, since activity is not reinforced it should extinguish, thereby making girls (because they are more likely than boys to be riding this model) less active and more passive.] Although carrousel ponies are also "real" things they are part of the carnival world, a place for amusement and play. In addition, "Pastel Prancer" is a second order representation (a model of a model of a real thing), thereby removing it one step further from the reality of horses as living beasts. Moreover, the soft pinks and lavenders used to color this rocking horse make it even more fantasy and dream-like. Even the colors of "real" carrousel ponies usually are ones that real horses might be (e.g. white, black, brown).



Other examples of the syntactical and semantic relationships carrying this theme's message are shown in Figure 2. The colors and names of the girls' toys signify fantasy, dreaminess and a world of pretend. There are "Magic Tea Party" sets, "every little girl's dream horse, Starlight," "Party Kitchens," the "Fantasy Wardrobe Trunk" and for slightly older girls the "Dream Phone Game." Pink and/or lavender comprise the basic color scheme used by all of these toys. Boys' toys do not belong to the world of fantasy. Instead, the names and colors of their toys connect them directly to the real world, such as the "NASCAR Hot Stock Raceway," "Olympic Superstars," and G.I. Joe's newest mode of ground transportation, the "Humvee Replica," a military vehicle introduced during Operation Desert Storm.

The most notable contrast within this theme is the lack of functional detail in toys for girls. Apparently, since girls occupy the private world of fantasy they do not need to worry about the realities of everyday life. Their toys, which replicate this world have very little detail. These differences in detail and realism between toys designed for boys and toys designed for girls is not merely a function of whether or not the toy promotes socialization into a stereotypic gender role. Highly detailed and intricate toys can be found for both girls and boys. However, when comparisons are made between toys within the same price range, or models of the same toys there are usually marked differences in the complexity and detail found in toys for each sex. For example, the "Playskool doll house", "comes completely furnished." However, these furnishings are extremely over-simplified with no moving parts. The garage that is advertised as the counterpart to this house is described as being "ideal for the handyman." In contrast to the doll house its accessories include a car with tires that can be changed, removable engine parts, workshop, a detailed lawn mower and more. Similar discrepancies can be found in other toys. Although girls have dolls that cry, eat, talk, and need potty trained, these functions are uni-dimensional. Dolls that cry, cry one way. In contrast, many toy cars that make engine sounds make more than one type of noise. Just as a "real" car's engine sounds differently when the motor is idling or revving, many toy cars also have different sounds to indicate whether their engines are idling or revving. Toys for boys are more multi-faceted, reflecting the complex, public, real-world that is their dominion.

Masculine Supremacy Effect

Historically, features and attributes associated with males have been evaluated more positively than female or feminine characteristics. Inductive reasoning based on these premises lead one to the general rule that being male is better than being female. This notion has dominated both scholarly thought and the thinking of the general public. Dubbed the "masculine supremacy effect" by Cook (1985 p. 96), in recent years this perspective has come under attack from scholars arguing that difference does not necessarily mean deficit.

In order to counter the effects of a long tradition in which the natural superiority of males was espoused, educators developed curricula to encourage psychological androgyny. The underlying assumption was that a fully functioning, psychologically healthy person was one who was both feminine and masculine. Although progress has been slow, some recent findings suggest that the evaluative tide may be turning (c.f. Eagly, Mladinic, & Otto, 1991; Pennell, 1993) and that stereotypically female things are evaluated at least as positively, if not more so, than male characteristics. However, by returning to Toyland one is bombarded with messages telling children that being male is better than being female.

Toy advertising uses many types of signs to convey the masculine supremacy theme. Using distance to impart a size difference to the boy and girl models of a particular toy that are actually the same size, toy advertisements frequently position the boy's model in the foreground and the girl's model in the background. This makes the girl's toy look smaller than the boy's toy, suggesting that boy things and by extension boys are more important and better than girls and their things. Goffman (1979) maintains that differences in size are so completely associated with differences in social weightCpower, authority, rank, and renownCthat relative size is routinely used to ensure that the picture's message will be understood at a glance (p. 28).

Toys belonging to the category of arts, crafts & handiwork also symbolize this theme. Items designed for girls suggest, via their names (e.g. "Sew Easy" and "EZ 2 Do Fashion Machine") that the crafts girls are interested in are simple. The woodcraft kits designed for boys, however, are referred to as names like "Master Workshop," and imply that the kinds of things boys do take mastery and skill. Furthermore, boys are not shown in these advertisements doing "crafts," but are only shown painting or doing some other type of "art." Crafts belong to the realm of pop culture, a profane alternative to the true art of high culture. Regardless of whether or not one type of craft or artform is more difficult than the other, the message sent to kids through these names is that girls' stuff is simple and boys' stuff is harder to do. From there it is a small step to concluding that if girls do easy stuff they must not be as smart or as good as boys. Moreover, things that girls are able to do well must not be as difficult or important as the things boys can do.

Finally, sets of action figures designed for boys go by names such as "B.O.T.S.," an acronym for Brains, Originality, Talent, & Strength, "Challenge of the Champions" and "Mighty Men of Valor." All of these figures are themselves males, thereby strengthening the association between being male and being smart, talented, strong, valiant, and a champion. In the case of girls' toys there are no female B.O.T.S. or brave and mighty dolls. The only female dolls that are "champions" are beauty contestant winners.


It has been twenty years since Mitchell (1973) and Chafetz (1974) documented the role toys play in socializing children and reinforcing stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity. During this time numerous groups have worked to raise people's consciousness and loosen the glue holding gender stereotypes together. Yet, children today continue to hold traditional views regarding what it means to be a boy or girl.

This research reveals that children's toys and their presentation in mass media send clear and consistent messages that affirm cultural values and preserve traditional relations between the sexes. The redundancy of these signs and their continued association with either females or males obscures gender's socially constructed nature. Their purely conventional, extra-practical, and non-functional character indicates the importance of these messages for social life. As Goffman (1976) noted "gender expressions are by way of being mere show; but a considerable amount of the substance of society is enrolled in the staging of it" (p. 8).


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