Because that’s what women do: the dangers of stereotypes in kids’ toys

I’ve found some troubling gender stereotypes in the Playmobil range of toys. I love Playmobil: I had lots of their toys as a kid, and still enjoy them with my niece and nephews. The toys are fun, robust, varied, and interchangeable.

5491_product_detailBut like many toys, their boxes portray worrying stereotypes. As I show in more detail below, Playmobil boxes are much more likely to show women than men looking after kids, and often depict women cooking, cleaning, shopping, or in caring/nurturing roles. And among the child Playmobil figures on the toy-boxes, it’s often the boy who is portrayed as independent and the girl who is being looked after.

Does this matter? Such stereotypes, in combination with similar stereotypes in adverts, TV programmes, computer games, and other toys, can influence some kids. True, real life often conforms to these stereotypes, but that is itself part of why we should challenge these stereotypes: if from an early age kids see women doing most childcare, for example, many people will have that same expectation later on. It’s how we end up with female political candidates being told that they aren’t fit for public office because they haven’t done their job of having children.

This is precisely why the hashtag #EverydaySexism is so important: the images we see and the words we use affect what we think and, sometimes, what we do.

Women buying handbags. Because that's what women do.

Women buying handbags. Because that’s what women do.

Here are the details of my test. After spotting the stereotypes a couple of days ago, yesterday I ran a search for ‘Playmobil City Life’ on Amazon.co.uk, and looked at the first three pages only. I found 64 toys, of which 32 had gender stereotypes on the boxes and 32 did not. (There were a handful of Playmobil toys in other ranges, some with and some without gender stereotypes on the boxes; I haven’t listed these below.) These numbers are approximate: the judgement-calls were not always easy, so I’ve tried to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt where I can, although other people might code things a bit more or a bit less favourably to Playmobil. But the sheer number of boxes showing gender stereotypes is a concern.

Almost 100 adults were featured in total. 24 women were shown looking after children, cooking or cleaning, compared to only 11 men looking after children or cooking (and the one man cooking is cooking on a barbecue, of course). Women are shown shopping or going to the beauty salon 9 times, while 0 men do the same (but 1 man brings flowers to a woman – groan). Only 3 woman have an ‘action’ role, compared to 9 men, and in each case the woman’s role is less action-based than the men on the same toy-box: the female co-pilot is outside the airplane (the male pilot is in the pilot’s seat), the female Coast Guard worker is a lookout (the male Coast Guard workers are either in charge or doing the rescuing), and the female rescue-boat worker has a nurturing role (doctor) whereas the male rescue-boat workers do the rescuing. Many kids won’t pick up these subtleties, but some surely will.

(Playground)

A woman looks after two boys and a girl. The boys do active things by themselves, the girl needs help.

Even the portrayals of children on the toy-boxes are sometimes biased: I counted 5 toy-boxes where boys were portrayed as independent while girls were shown being helped by an adult.

Thankfully, there are equal numbers of women and men being portrayed caring for animals or working as vets: 5 women, 5 men. I counted 8 cases of women and 9 cases of men in fairly neutral jobs (e.g. waiter). And I counted 7 women and 5 men in leisure situations (e.g. sunbathing, dog-walking). So, I’m only claiming that the stereotypes are common, not universal.

(There might be a bias in the above numbers, by the way, if Amazon has put the most popular toys to the top of the list and toys with stereotyped boxes are bought more often. So, at some point I may have to test the complete sets on the Playmobil website.)

In summary, then, a lot of the toy-boxes are fine, but a lot are not – more than half, on my count. The simplest solution would be for Playmobil to vary their depictions of women and men for new toys. They could perhaps repackage some of the existing toys. They needn’t change everything: it’d be crazy not to depict some women looking after kids. But we need more boxes depicting more varied gender roles, among adults and to some extent the kids too. And I haven’t even touched on ethnicity (nearly everyone in the City Life series is white) or age (there were almost no old people portrayed). I discuss the problems with those and other stereotypes here.

Here are the specific toys I found in the test described above, listed in the order I found them on Amazon. Click on any of the pictures below to see them expanded. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with any individual box with stereotypes: women often do look after kids. It’s the collective effect of stereotyped boxes that is the problem.

Children's playgroundChildren’s Playground – three kids being looked after by two women. Because that’s what women do, isn’t it?

Beauty SalonBeauty Salon – two women in a beauty salon. Because that’s how women spend their time.

Carry CaseFood Shopping carry case – two women buying handbags. Because that’s what women do.

Shopping CentreShopping Centre – a man selling ice creams, a woman with a child, and four other women shopping. Because that’s what women do. Also features a bridal gown store. Because the aim of women is to get married and have kids.

Vet ClinicVet Clinic – no problem here: there’s a female vet, and a man who is either a parent or another vet (I can’t tell).

Mother with twin strollerMother with Twin Stroller – a mother pushing a stroller/buggy.

Clothing Display – no problem here: a woman setting up a clothing display.Clothing Display

Outdoor Care StationOutdoor Care Station – no problem here: a woman helping animals.

PlaygroupPlaygroup – a woman looking after kids.

Toy ShopToy Shop – no problem here: a man buying toys for his child.

ConvertibleConvertible – no real problem here: a woman walking the dog. (Presumably while her husband is at work?)

Mother with ChildrenMother With Children – a mother with children. Note that it’s the (younger) girl in the stroller/buggy, the (older) boy who is walking.

Mother With InfantMother With Infant – a mother with an infant.

Vets Pet Examination RoomVets Pet Examination Room – no problem here: a male vet.

(Playground)Playground – a mother with three kids. Note that she is helping the girl (who is on a roundabout), while the two boys (one on a zip-wire, one rock-climbing) play independently.

City CarCity Car – a mother with a kid.

Woman WIth PuppiesWoman With Puppies – no real problem here: a woman with dogs.

Food Shopping carry caseFood Shopping Carry Case – no problem here: a woman serving food in a fast-food outlet.

Vets Cat FamilyVets Cat Family – no problem here: a boy feeding cats.

Family with Camping TentFamily With Camping Tent – the woman is cooking, but at least the man is helping the kid, and the kid being helped is a boy not a girl.

Modern Living RoomModern Living Room – no problem here: a man in a living room.

Modern BedroomModern Bedroom – no problem here: a boy in a bedroom.

Children's Room With LoftChildren’s Room – no problem here: a girl in a bedroom. She’s not even being helped.

Children's PoolChildren’s Pool – no real problem here: woman sunbathing, man in shower, kids playing by themselves.

Family SUVFamily SUV – no real problem here: man helps girl (because girls need help) but I would only classify this as a gender stereotype if there were also a boy in the same room not needing help.

Designer KitchenDesigner Kitchen – ouch: the adult in the kitchen is a woman.

Large Furnished HotelLarge Furnished Hotel – a woman helps a baby, a woman cleans up a hotel room, a man has food brought to him by a male waiter, a boy plays by himself, a woman at hotel reception is served by another woman.

Luxury MansionLuxury Mansion – a smartly dressed man brings a woman flowers. Because that’s what men do.

Children With Crossing GuardChildren With Crossing Guard – no problem here: a man helps a boy and a girl cross the road on bikes.

Ball PitBall Pit – a woman looking after the two kids.

Clothing BoutiqueClothing Boutique – two women trying on clothes.

PreschoolPreschool – a woman looking after four kids. Guess the gender of the kid she is reaching out to help. And guess the gender of the kid playing with the dolly. Alas.

Vets Horse with X-Ray TechnicianVets Horse with X-Ray Technician – probably no problem here: a male vet and X-ray technician. I’ll give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt here, but there’s a part of me that worries that Playmobil wouldn’t make a female X-ray technician.

City CoachCity Coach – no problem here: woman coach-driver, two kids getting off the coach. The girl might even be helping the boy, which would be good.

Hotel BusHotel Bus – no problem here: a woman and a man with two kids, being greeted by a man from the hotel.

Mum With Baby CarriageMum With Baby Carriage – a woman pushing a pram.

Swimmers With DinghySwimmers With Dinghy – a woman is rowing the dinghy, but it’s the girl wearing water-wings and staying in the boat, while the same-aged boy goes swimming. Again, the boy is shown as being more independent than the girl.

School carry caseSchool carry case – no problem here: three kids of different genders at school, and they appear to be learning science.

Vets Turtle EnclosureVets Turtle Enclosure – no problem here: a kid feeding a turtle.

Vet With CarVet With Car – no problem here: a female vet.

Waitress With Cash RegisterWaitress With Cash Register – no problem here: a female waiter.

Camp SiteCamp Site – no problem here: a woman helps a boy on a scooter, a man washes a dog (maybe, it’s not clear).

Family CamperFamily Camper – a man eats breakfast while a woman brings some drinks. Two kids: a boy plays football, but at least the girl doesn’t need help from an adult.

Coast GuardCoast Guard – two men in a lifeboat, one man surfing, one old man in a control tower, and one woman with binoculars. Wow! Even Baywatch was more liberated than this.

Children's Club with DiscoChildren’s Club with Disco – probably no problem here: two kids dance in a disco, with a woman running the show. (I’ve interpreted this as her being in charge rather than looking after the kids, to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt.)

Family CaravanFamily Caravan – a kid takes a dog for a walk, while – oh dear – a woman looks after the breakfast table.

Swimming Pool with TerraceSwimming Pool with Terrace – no problem here: a woman sunbathes while a boy plays by himself.

Super Set Dog Training CentreDog Training Centre – no problem here: female and male vets look after dogs, as does a girl.

Rescue Boat with Water HoseRescue Boat with Water Hose – two men and a woman on a rescue boat. Guess which one is the doctor? Hmmm, do you think it might be the woman? Yes. Because men do the rescuing while women do the caring/nurturing, obviously.

Life RaftLife Raft – a man, a woman, a boy, a girl. Guess the gender of the kid who is swimming alone and the gender of the kid whose hand is being held? And guess the gender of the parent holding the kid’s hand? Sigh.

Family Holiday HomeFamily Holiday Home – a woman prepares the table while the man cooks on the barbecue. A boy and a girl play unassisted, although the boy is on a bike while the girl isn’t doing anything.

Princess at Swan PondPrincess at Swan Pond – no problem here (I’m trying to give the benefit of the doubt).

Cargo and Passenger JetCargo and Passenger Jet – no real problem here: male pilot and female co-pilot (not perfect, but I’m trying to be even-handed – and let’s face it, 99% of actual airline pilots are male, so a female Playmobil co-pilot is actually more progressive than reality), female passenger/businessperson, male control-tower operator, male airport worker.

Construction WorkerConstruction Worker With Jackhammer – probably no problem: a male construction worker.

Large CraneLarge Crane – a male crane-operator.

Zoo SetZoo Set – a woman looking after a child, and a male zoo worker.

My big City Zoo (ebay picture because the Amazon one was too small)My Big City Zoo – no major problem here: a man helps a toddler in a pram, a woman helps a kid, a girl plays, a man and a woman both feed the animals. But it’s the man who feeds the lions, the woman who feeds the penguins.

Playground 5024 (from ebay because Amazon pic too small)Playground – oh dear oh dear oh dear. A woman pushes a stroller/buggy, a woman helps a kid on a slide, and three kids of different genders play by themselves – but guess the gender of the kid on a skateboard and the kid standing on a bench by his bike? Both boys.

Children's Playground SetChildren’s Playground – a woman looks after four kids, all playing independently.

Ferris Wheel with LightsFerris Wheel with Lights (see here for the close-up – the Amazon picture is obscured) – probably no problem here: the mother is in the Ferris Wheel with the daughter, while the father is giving a ticket to the son. I’m a touch worried that it’s the girl who needs shepherding in the Ferris Wheel.

Romantic Church WeddingRomantic Church Wedding – no real problem here: a man and a woman getting married by a male priest.

Construction WorkerConstruction Excavator – a construction worker. Guess the gender.

Fire EngineFire Engine – a firefighter. Guess the gender.

Finally, here are six screenshots of my search, so you can see that I’m not cheating with the toys I included or excluded:

search1 search2 search3 search4 search5 search6

P.S. Since we’re on the subject of stereotypes, yes of course I know that I’m making stereotyped assumptions about what men and women look like, and I’m conforming to a male/female binary. So I’m not pretending to be above such stereotypes myself.

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10 Comments

  1. Antoine Tarser

     /  September 5, 2015

    I would be very interested to know your opinion on ‘Feminism is Sexism’ by J P Tate. The author convincingly and fearlessly shows that it has always been men who are the victims of sexism, not women. Women have choices, men don’t. Women pretend to want equality but they don’t want the nasty, dangerous jobs that men do. If children’s toys don’t show enough men in caring roles, it’s because men don’t tend to have the choice to be house husbands. A house- husband is also still seen as a bit of a joke to women and to other men- ie, ‘sexism’! If children’s toys don’t show women as construction workers or sewer repairers or road menders or truck drivers, it’s because these are the jobs that women don’t do because they don’t want them. They only want the ‘nice’ jobs. They have a choice, and they leave the rotten, back- breaking and dangerous jobs to men.

    Please read the book. You’ll see that men have always come off worse than women.

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much for not validating the above comment with a response. Holy yikes: “women have choices, men don’t”.

    Lego specific, a fun and slightly-relevant comic on toymakers trying (and so far failing) to come to grips with their female audience: http://geekxgirls.com/article.php?ID=3933.

    Reply
    • Antoine Tarser

       /  September 26, 2015

      That’s two people now that won’t look at the reality and just lap up the official ideology. Read Tate’s book and see how wrong you are.

      Reply
  3. Hi Antoine, sorry for the delay in replying, which isn’t (as Katya implies) because I didn’t want to validate your ideas, but simply because I haven’t had a day off in a month because of teaching and teaching-preparation.

    What I would say is that the position you describe is so obviously wrong, so unbelievably dichotomous and extreme (e.g. “men have ALWAYS come off worse than women”), that it’s not a good advert for Tate’s book. If that’s what Tate believes, or if that’s what Tate made you believe, or if that’s why you think we should read Tate – well, none of these reasons are likely to appeal to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

    I hope this isn’t patronising, but what I’d suggest is that you develop a more nuanced argument. Rather than disagreeing with everything in feminism, you should work out what feminist arguments you agree with, and where you think some feminists have overstepped the mark. You’re more likely to generate a serious debate that way. Your current approach is just going to get you ignored, and if your response to that is that it is *us* who won’t “look at the reality”, then in my view you’re blaming the wrong person!

    Reply
    • Antoine Tarser

       /  September 26, 2015

      Hi Mr Blau, your response was a bit patronising, truth be told, but I can take it and I’m pleased that you have replied to my post. I can fully understand the time restraints you may have in replying. I too am also very ‘time poor’ which is why I was not able to give a full book summary or to discuss in detail what the author was saying. However, I’m making a bit of time right now to expand on what I said.

      In fact, there’s no better place to start than in what I’ve just said. We are busy! We work and the weekend is precious. All week, I do a job that pays the bills – the gas, the electricity, the mortgage, the food. I have a wife and two children. I get no satisfaction, no identity, no sense of purpose from my job. I do it because I have to. It’s my duty as a man to work. It’s not my wife’s duty as a woman to work. She has a choice. She COULD work if she wanted to, but she doesn’t. She is asleep when I get up at 6.00 am and I try not to wake her up, or my children as I get ready to go out to earn the money to feed them. So, I would say that there is nothing at all wrong with my statement that women have a choice and men don’t.

      If I said to my wife that I had decided to become a house-husband and that it was now her turn to earn the money, not only would she feel hard done by and ‘abused’, so would our society. I’d be condemned as an absolute bully. The myth that we all accept is that work is ennobling, lending power and status to the worker. In truth, work is a waste of real life; it’s boring, frustrating and alienating. If I had a choice, I’d have coffee watching TV during the day; I’d cook meals and I’d help my boys in what they are doing. My wife has a better life than me because she has a choice and I don’t – just like most men.

      My job, I’m pleased to say is much easier than most. It involves no physical danger (just mental torture!). Tate shows in his book the truth about men’s jobs. It’s always the man who suffers from his job. It’s the men who suffer all the industrial accidents and the disabilities that follow. Yet feminists want ‘equality’ – as long as that equality doesn’t involve women suffering like men. They don’t want to dig the roads, repair the sewers, drive the huge trucks for hours. They want the nice jobs, to be in management and retail where there’s no back-breaking toil. They don’t want to die in wars either. Even if they join the army, they don’t want to be sent into combat and die or have their legs blown off, do they? And they don’t! It’s the men that die. If women were blown up in combat, society would go completely bonkers, foaming at the mouth. Have you noticed that if women or children die in any tragedy, it’s always a point to mention in the news, isn’t it? ‘Fifty people died, including women and children’ – as if the death of men is perfectly acceptable.

      Men are the ‘expendable’ sex. As Tate says in his book, men are expected to die in war. If they are afraid, it was the women (who don’t have to fight) that would give men the ‘white feather’ and remind him of his duty to protect women and children.

      Patriarchy is a LIE. There is no ‘shared interest’ in men. I’m going to take a quote from Tate here and hope he doesn’t mind:

      “..The people of an oppressor class do not spend their lives working to support and provide for the well being of the oppressed class. Oppressors make the oppressed work for them, they don’t themselves work for the benefit of the oppressed……It is a very peculiar idea to see the mule who is pulling the cart as an image of ‘mule-supremacism or to see the role of a beast of burden as being an image of personal empowerment…”

      I taught Sociology for four years after graduating from UCL. I found it ludicrous to focus so much on what colour clothes children wore and how children’s toys and books were supposedly shaping socially created ‘gender identities’. I find it shocking that feminism has convinced everyone that there are no genetic/hormonal/natural differences between males and females. I could go on for pages and pages about the evidence that men and women are simply not the same. Read Steven Pinker for starters. If these intellectuals are wrong, then what excuse have women got for not taking on all the dangerous jobs that men do?

      J P Tate has several university degrees so he is the intellectual superior to me, which is why I recommended his book. As an ebook, I think it cost about £2.00. I would like to know what you think of it and if you don’t agree with what he says – along with all the evidence he uses-, I would like to know why. If I find your evidence and argument more plausible, I will accept that I (and the author) are wrong. Is it not remotely possible that you are wrong because you have swallowed the propaganda of feminism? I have barely scratched the surface, so I would really, seriously ask you to read the book and say what you think of it.

      Thanks.

      Reply
  4. Hi Antoine, and sorry for being patronising!

    I’m interested to see if you can spot any of the flaws in what you just wrote. So, how about this: I’ll post five criticisms of my original blog post, and you post five criticisms of what you just wrote. How does that sound?

    Reply
    • Antoine Tarser

       /  September 27, 2015

      I can only identify what you might perceive to be flaws. I am very cautiously making another contribution here but I am detecting that you want to trap me and show your superiority. I have no battles to fight except in finding the truth. So here’s what’s probably going to be my last contribution, as I’ve long since learned that there’s no point in trying to convert anyone to your own views.

      First possible perceived flaw:

      I argue that there are innate differences between the sexes but then complain that women aren’t doing dangerous / ‘male’ work. A contradiction…

      Here’s my clarification: The work of Stephen Pinker in particular and evolutionary psychology in general make the convincing case that there are innate differences between the sexes. However, these differences are not deterministic – they are highly influential ‘tendencies’. On the whole, men are more interested in sex than women and are more aggressive than women. Yet there are certainly SOME men who are not interested in sex and are completely passive, just as there are some VERY aggressive women. Variations such as these do not prove that we learn our gender identity – the feminist belief.

      Because these innate tendencies aren’t fully deterministic, they can be overcome to a large extent. I have a high sex drive but I don’t ever rape women, despite the feminist cry that ‘all men are rapists’. My innate tendency doesn’t get its way. Likewise, I’m a coward when it comes to a fight, yet on more than one occasion, I have successfully faked aggression and made an aggressor back off. I was shaking in my boots but he fell for the bluff.

      Women can also bluff their way out of working by appealing to their ‘femaleness’. “I can’t go out to work because I have no confidence or because I’m not strong enough”. There are layers of social distortion acting on both sexes. These are distortions of a real innate difference that lies underneath.

      To continue a bit more….because there IS an innate difference between males and females, it follows that children’s toys that depict males and females in certain social roles are not likely to influence the child’s identity or behaviour. Feminists insist that ‘gender’ is learned and sex is innate, as if they were completely different things. They see the gender identity of a gay or transsexual person as proof that ‘male doesn’t necessarily mean ‘masculine’. I don’t accept this at all. Ask any gay/transsexual person when they first knew that they were not ‘the norm’ and they will always tell you that they knew from the very beginning. They knew when they were two years old or when they first had a thought that they could remember. They are INNATELY gay or transsexual due to the hormonal activity in the womb that their brains received. This is the more realistic, evidence-based scientific view.

      So, a gay person or a transsexual person has DEFIED all social influence upon them to conform to social expectations of their sex. This shows that they do not learn their gender from social expectation as a child. They were encouraged to play with toys that were ‘stereotyped’ and yet they refused to be interested. The transsexual boy opted to play with his sister’s dolls and to dress up like a girl, even against social condemnation.

      ‘Normal’ children (as in a statistical norm) also have their innate tendencies to prefer toys that suit them and match their already innately formed gender identity. So it is quite pointless to encourage a boy to play with girl’s toys or vice versa. They defy the social expectations of their politically correct parents and refuse to be interested. They choose the toys that THEY like and THEY find appealing as a result of their innate tendency.

      ‘Gender’ is political word that expresses a political ideology. If gender is learned, then there are no barriers, no natural differences between males and females. Therefore, females can do anything that men can do. Yet they don’t do everything a man does. They do only what appeals to them and they reject the worst jobs, leaving them to the men.

      This leads me on to my second ‘flaw’…

      2 I don’t do a dangerous job yet I complain that women don’t do dangerous jobs. Hypocrite!!

      Answer: I left school at 16 and went straight into a factory job as I had no qualifications. I moved from one dreadful job to another until I came up with a choice: I either kill myself, since life is definitely not worth living doing these jobs, or I devise a desperate means of escape. I opted for the latter! My escape was a socially respectable one. I studied for O’levels, then A’levels through correspondence courses and college, eventually university. I wanted to teach Sociology but I failed another ‘male expectation’ to show leadership and control. I resigned and took on my current job which I described as ‘mental torture’ – which is perhaps comparable to mining or construction work, but perhaps not!

      I am now exhausted and can write no more. If there are any more ‘flaws’, I put it down to exhaustion in my pursuit of the rational and the true. That’s it – to take it or leave it.

      Reply
  5. Ana

     /  December 25, 2016

    I find that some pictures in the boxes are simply misleading and the characters don’t really offer that much of infomation to make any statement.and what really influence the children it’s not the box ( they don’t pay that much of attention to that) as the way they play with the characters with their parents, the made up story, that’s what repeatedly is going to give them an idea of the roles and what they see in real life of course, so I would be more cautious as a parent on the things that actually happens in a house everyday or even out of the house that on toy box picture that ends up in the bin right away.

    Reply

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