Recently I took a class on writing essays in the typical “American” style (normally not a skill taught over here a lot) and as an assignment we had to write an essay on any topic related either to our field of studies, or to personal interests, as long as it could be of interest for the teacher. I decided to go back to the topic of gendered toys, princess cult, and the likes (c.f. the book by Peggy Orenstein and the last few paragraphs of my post from January). This is a version of the essay which has been corrected by the teacher, but there are still some very long sentences in it which are my own fault.
Maybe a mild trigger warning in advance: I’ll be mentioning some topics related to abuse/rape and body image, but no graphic details.
From Gendered Toys to Early Sexualisation and Rape Culture?
Recently in Berlin, Germany, the opening of the “Barbie Dreamhouse” caused huge
controversy. Part of this was an uproar of mothers opposing the idea that being like a princess is a good objective for girls, and pinkification in general. Pinkification is a term for this “princess cult”, gendered toys with pink signalling “for girls” and related phenomena. Girls start to wear make-up and sexualised clothing at ever earlier ages, and, especially in the USA, the tag word “rape culture” is being discussed, because girls are often shamed if they were raped because allegedly they wore provocative clothes and signalled they wanted to get raped. But the question is, what links these phenomena? What is going on with young girls in modern western societies? A connection can be seen between gendered toys, princess cult, and the early sexualisation in girls, which is enforced by modern mass media and the fashion industry, and opens the door for abuse. This happens through colour coding, teaching girls passivity, stressing the importance of outer appearance, and the portrayal of feminine sexuality as being submissive and available.
First of all, the most obvious influence on children is the expanding colour coding of toys,
clothing, and recently even candy. Everything in shades of pink – and only these things – for girls, while other colours signify “ boys (only)”. As Peggy Orenstein (2011:38) points
out, at least in the USA it has come so far that five-year-olds point out to each other they are wearing the wrong colour. While this may only cause concern in a minority, the kind of toys and clothing being branded “for girls” by colour are different from boys’ toys. In the US as well as in Germany, the toys for girls in many cases are related to household chores, tea parties (or other “girly” kinds of get-together), and beauty. In contrast to this boys get drills, workbenches, and guns. An even scarier phenomenon in Germany are the pink Kinder Surprise Eggs marketed at girls only, containing pink accessories or little figurines of provocatively dressed fashion Barbies and the even more sexualised and overly thin fairy-like Winx. Of course, this kind of separation of chores and highlighting of feminine beauty are old, but since the advent of colour coding they are having a renaissance, and, at least in the case of the figurines, they are pushed to a higher level of sexualisation than ever.
Notably, even when the same kind of toy is marketed to girls and boys, the pink version is
usually less powerful. The blog “The Society Pages” provides two examples of this, taken from an US catalogue: among three different microscopes and three telescopes suitable for children the pink one has in both cases by far the lowest magnification, and among two otherwise nearly identical bikes the pink one has less gears than the non-pink counterpart. Together with the observations listed in the preceding paragraph this shows a trend to lead girls to passivity, and to the notion that outer appearance and house keeping – as shown by the activities like baking cupcakes and modeling in the Barbie Dreamhouse – are more important and suitable for a girl than rougher boys’ activities.
Furthermore, it seems that just playing with beauty related toys isn’t deemed enough
anymore. The homepage of Monaco Princesse, a real spa aimed at young girls, states that it is for princesses and girls who want to become one. So, to young girls being a princess nowadays means being beautiful, being pampered, being mostly interested in looks. From there, it is not a big step to needing the latest fashion, not taking part in activities which could destroy this outer beauty, nor focusing on intelligence and inner values. Recently a German online clothes store sold girls’ t-shirts with a slogan about only being decoration in math class (though they soon were convinced by a lot of angry people to get it out of their collection). But there is not only a spa for children now, there are also the phenomena of make-up for younger and younger children (now called pre-teens or tweens), and girl oriented school supplies with cartoon images of super thin, big eyed, and flawlessly skinned super-models from the show Germany’s Next Topmodel, wearing little clothing and taking a passive or sutbly sexual stance. Even most of the Disney Princesses on the respective homepage are displayed in a more grown up and sexualised way than they were in the original movies. In addition to all this even the clothing for young girls is becoming more adult. Recently a mother complained on the internet about clothes shops selling push-up bras for little girls. All of these beauty related influences nurture a feeling of imperfection, an apparent need for improvement, and self-esteem issues. A lot of surveys have shown that more than half of the children under 18 in western countries are uncomfortable with their look and weight, and many of them have already been on a diet before their teenage years.
However, in contrast to the mass media full of super-models, music videos, and
advertisements with sparsely-dressed, perfect young women, there is also a more
conservative movement in the USA. In the documentary video “The Purity Myth” by the
media education foundation, the practise of so called “Purity Balls” is explained. During these balls, teenage girls, and even girls as young as five in tiny ball gowns, pledge virginity until marriage, while their fathers pledge to protect them and their purity. First of all, why do only the girls have to stay “pure”? Why are they clad like small princesses? And why are the symbolic swords for protection given to their fathers and not to themselves, too? This is another step away from being in charge of one’s sexuality and towards passivity. Thus, the seemingly innocent world of conservative traditions is not so different from the “values” transported by the mass media, where women are often implicitly and also explicitly portrayed as passive, and in addition, available for sexual encounters. With both conservative thoughts and modern popular culture teaching girls and young women passivity, there is no escape from this part of the mainstream doctrine. This might not seem like such a big problem in itself, but boys are also educated by mass media and popular culture. They grow up with the idea that girls and women are supposed to be more passive, not intelligent enough to decide what is good for themselves, and taking pleasure in being available. As explained above, girls are “taught” to be overly insecure concerning their body, and thus seek affirmation. The media tells them this affirmation can be found through sexuality and the feeling of being wanted. Personal insecurities, the overall message of feminine passivity and the importance of beauty over brains provide a ground for having sexual intercourse at an earlier age and/or becoming victims of rape and abusive relationships.
In conclusion, it can be observed that girls are lead to insecurity and passivity, mostly by
gendered toys and mass media; the latter is also showing them the apparent solution of
seeking affirmation by means of sexuality. Considering this, it will be important to work out
guidelines for mass media, e.g. for TV advertisements. Some countries have already banned commercials targeting pre-teens, so the US and Germany should definitely follow suit. In addition, there is a necessity to educate girls and boys towards thinking for themselves and not just following mainstream culture, and to respect a person without regard to their sex or gender, or their preference in colour and toys. And, most importantly, companies should not seek ever younger consumers of adult products like make-up.
Monaco Princesse (2013) http://monacoprincesse.de [09/06/2013]
Orenstein, Peggy (2011). Cinderella ate my daughter. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Update: Somehow the bike part disappeared from the blog or my memory fooled me and it was on a different blog. Does anyone out there know which blog had that?