Ever since I left the innocence and naivety of my own childhood behind me I’ve loathed the Early Learning Centre. Their toys are renowned for being overpriced and promoting stereotypical ideals. Has anything changed over the years? I decided to pick up their recent Spring/Summer 2012 catalogue to find out. Although to be honest, the cover design didn’t instil me with much confidence:
Is she wearing pink? Check.
Is she wearing a tiara? Check.
Is she wearing fairy wings? Check.
Are the wings pink? Check.
Does she have a wand? Check.
Is she smiling? Check.
Is her head turned coyly? Check.
In this article I am going to look at the assumptions bound up in this catalogue which are aimed at an age when children are beginning to assimilate notions about the world and their roles in it.
Pink and Blue Fetish
The boys’ bike is named “The Rascal” thus playing on the stereotype of boys as naughty.
The girls bike is named “Glitterbug” playing on the stereotype that girls love bling. Notice how the boys’ bike is fitted with a bottle stand and water bottle to hydrate the boy after all his strenuous biking. The girls’ bike on the other hand is fitted with a dolly seat to reinforce her mothering role (more on this later). Also the boys’ bike has greater grip on its tires enhancing movement, while the girls’ bike has cheerleader style pom-pom tassels hanging off the handle bars which can hinder movement. The message is clear: the boys’ bike is for serious biking. The girls’ bike is merely a decorate accessory. This is even reflected in the corresponding helmets.
Girls do not have an innate attraction to pink. Nor do boys to blue. In fact, blue was once regarded as a girls’ colour, because of its association with the Virgin Mary, while pink, as a lighter version of red, was a masculine colour. ‘Genderisation’ of colours is a cultural construct.
I decided to see if this pink/blue dichotomy was mirrored in the way ELC stores are laid out. Sadly, yes it was. As you can see one section of the store was overwhelmingly pink and contained gender-biased ‘girls’ toys (dolls, kitchens, vanity sets):
Campaign group ‘Pink Stinks’ has commented that, “Pink has become the trademark colour that represents modern girlhood. It seems no ‘girl’ product/item of clothing is safe, with just about anything being able to be pinkwashed.”
Creating unnecessary gender distinctions in children’s toys is socially harmful, as the message that girls and boys are radically different becomes reinforced again and again.
Boys as Default. Girls as ‘Other’.
This doctrine of Male-As-Default treats girls as a negligible subgroup, and femaleness as abnormal but always noteworthy. So apart from being told, and shown on the packaging, which sex these products are for, we have coded messages in the design, form and colour.
Boys and girls are more alike than different in biology and attitudes. So why does the ELC have a relentless desire to separate them? The answer, as you would expect from a Capitalist corporation, lies in profitability. The more children share toys, the fewer toys get sold. Gendering toys is a great way of nudging families toward buying more items per child. The deeply unfortunate consequence of this marketing strategy is that boys and girls are indoctrinated into the strict gender roles deemed appropriate in a Patriarchal society. The ELC catalogue provides some perfect examples of this indoctrination in action:
Boys are Scientific.
Boys are Breadwinners in Training.
Boys Fantasise About Being Violent.
Boys may seem, at first sight, to have the run of the world – but what sort of world is it? As we’ve seen, especially in this section of the catalogue, it’s a world without care or compassion, where questions of causes or principles don’t arise, and where power, aggression and violence are seen as good in themselves.
“Boys are less infantilised and vulnerable than girls – at least they get strong messages about practicality, activity and strength. But they also get a huge dollop of ‘agro’ marketing to help render them emotionally stunted, uncaring, aggressive and hyper-butch. Lad-culture clearly starts here” (‘Pink Stinks’).
In the ELC catalogue’s “Goodies and Baddies” section, the goodies and baddies are clearly distinguished, often by their appearance and dress; the baddies tend to look repulsive and to dress in black or, at least, dark colours. The goodies are of aristocratic stock or from some sort of elite. The hero (it won’t be female of course, or other than white either) often has a magic weapon, or talisman, to which he owes his powers. Female figures don’t come into the picture much and, when they do, they tend to create problems by having to be rescued. Why the baddies are so evil or why they want to dominate, as they usually do, is never explained. Rather, we just have to accept it as a kind of odd quirk they happen to have.
This section of the catalogue is also an example of how boys’ toys encourage more fantasy play that is symbolic or removed from daily domestic life, whereas, as we shall see bellow, girls’ toys encourage fantasy play that is centered on domestic life.
Girls are Bland.
Girls are Sex Objects.
A section of the ELC catalogue is devoted to beauty-related toys. It is an example how girls are encouraged to focus on activities centred around physical appearance and vanity. There is no boys’ equivalent of such products. Boys have zero focus on attracting members of the opposite sex. In this sense it could be argued that girls are encouraged to grow up quicker than boys.
Take the mini stilettos for instance. Aside from hooking children onto the idea of fashion as early as possible, there’s something more insidious about the idea of a little girl in stilettos. Perhaps it’s because the purpose of high heels is: “to give the optical illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height. They are also designed to alter the wearer’s posture and gait, flexing the calf muscles, and making the bust and buttocks more prominent” (Wikipedia).
The catalogue uses the word ‘fun’ to describe the stilettos. “Great ‘fun’ with a friend or three” it tells us. Using the word ‘fun’ is deliberate. There’s less of the grown-up in it and more of the child; it has less to do with the role of sex object and more to do with play; it’s what manufacturers of ‘beauty-related’ toys want to pretend their products provide for children. How else could they attempt to justify their activities? It seems the meaning of the word is being stretched here as, whatever little girls get out of putting their feet into tight-fitting plastic faux shoes, it can hardly be described as ‘fun’.
Girls Love Cooking and Cleaning.
Girls Belong in the Home.
Girls Fantasise About Being Passive Princesses.
Girls are Mothers in Training.
Boys Build. Girls Decorate.
Girls are Flexible.
On a positive note, some gender flexibility is shown in the catalogue (i.e. children playing with toys traditionally associated with the opposite gender). However girls and boys are not equal in this regard. In the catalogue significantly more girls than boys crossover to the “non-traditional gender toys”.
That girls are more likely to use unisex toys is not a new concept. The ELC catalogue has simply chosen to strengthen the generally accepted notion that gender flexibility is available to girls, but not to boys. Why might this be? The answer lies in androcentrism. Androcentrism is the idea that we value masculinity over femininity such that we admire both boys and girls for performing masculinity. Androcentrism explains why we tend to like it when girls play with cars and dinosaurs, kick footballs and build with bricks, but do not typically think it’s equally awesome when boys play with vanity sets, wear tutus or collect dolls. It flows from the fact that feminine activities are generally those activities which our Patriarchal society does not attach great value (domestic chores, childcare, looking after others). So when boys play with such activities, they could be viewed as diminishing their dominant position in society. However when girls play with masculine activities, they can be viewed as rebelling against their subservient position in society.
When I Grow Up…
This is an example of how even jigsaws present children with a particular view of the world. Here, socially conditioned roles are presented simply but forcefully.
In the world of ELC, besides being home-dwellers, mothers and cleaners, girls can look forward to a career as a… princess. Out of the catalogue’s ‘dressing up’ outfits a massive two thirds of the girls are wearing a type of princess dress. These dresses restrict movement and are difficult to launder – thus staying still and keeping clean is a must for the child wearing them. It is an example of how girls are nudged away from activeness. Colette Dowling’s Frailty Myth describes the consequences:
Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits…. Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.”
Out of the remaining seven girls in dressing up outfits, two of them are nurses and two of them are vets (jobs involving looking after others). Only three are gender neutral (doctor, fire fighter and police officer). Boys on the other hand, are given pirate outfits (fighting and law braking) Batman (fighting and heroism), knights (fighting), cowboy (fighting), and builder (breadwinner). All encourage boys to be active. The title for this part of the catalogue reads: “When I Grow Up”.
To add insult to injury, the nurse outfit is decorated with a badge reading: “Nurse in Training”. The doctor’s outfit is decorated with a badge reading: “Doctor: Head of Surgery”. There is a blatant hierarchy.
It would appear that the ELC still enjoy shoehorning very young children into traditional gender roles. Here are how the girls’ dressing up clothes are set out in the ELC store:
ELC Catalogue Stats:
Total number of pages: 158.
Total number of boys photographed: 228.
Total number of girls photographed: 263.
(Of 228) Boys playing with gender-biased toys: 97 (pirate outfits, tools, lawnmower, sports, cars, etc).
(Of 228) Boys playing with non-traditional gender toys: 11 (cleaning equipment, play kitchen, dolls, etc).
(Of 263) Girls playing with gender-biased toys: 78 (princess outfits, cooking, dolls, vanity sets, etc).
(Of 263) Girls playing with non-traditional gender toys: 44 (wheelbarrow, sports, cars, dinosaurs, fire fighter outfit, etc).
Three main colour themes for boys: blue, green, red.
Three main colour themes for girls: pink, lilac, fuschia.
Three main activity themes for boys: cars, construction, sport.
Three main activity themes for girls: princesses, domestic chores, dolls.
Total number of female adults photographed: 6.
Total number of male adults photographed: 0.
Who is the ELC?
The Early Learning Centre is a British chain of shops selling toys for very young children. There are 215 stores in the UK and over 80 international stores in 19 countries across the world. Over 80% of products sold are own brand, being designed at a research centre in Hong Kong.