Toys as Role Models

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Toys as Role Models Judy Attfield, who holds a PhD in history and design, has written numerous articles in relation to design history. Her articles, often written in a formal and informative style, concentrate on parenting and family issues. Citing the differences in the maneuverability designs of Barbie and Action Man, which embody the stereotypical cliche of feminine passivity and masculine activity respectively, “Barbie and Action Man: Adult toys for girls and boys, 1959-93” (P. Kirkham (Ed. ), The Gendered Object (80-89). Manchester: Manchester University Press) by Judy Attfield argues that children are not only able to subvert toy’s stereotypical meanings but also create fantasies of their own. Targeting the general public in her article, Attfield starts off by giving compelling insights into a societal trend termed “androgyny”. This trend that she mentions, combines both femininity and masculinity into one and is said to be raving in today’s society. However, in the latter portion of the essay, Attfield failed to elaborate on this trend. Instead, readers are led into a discussion on gender-stereotype propagating Barbie and Action Man, which contradicts her thoughts on androgyny. Even though fashion dolls like Barbie are designed for dressing and posing, and action figures like Action Man, for physical manipulation, Attfield claims that toy design does not dictate how a child plays with it. Instead, play is subjected to a child’s creativity and does not necessarily affect his or her actions and thoughts on gender stereotypes. She backs her claim by citing the following example - “a number of informants recalled, in their play it was Barbie who was most often given the role of ‘bad girl’. ” (Attfield, 1996: 86). Simply put, Barbie, a toy originally meant to project innocence, can be given an immoral role through creativity. However, her view that toys do not instill gender stereotypes is unjustifiable. Toys largely influence a child’s understanding of gender stereotypes, as they adore them as role models to follow. I will focus on how Attfield fails to take into consideration the supporting role of parents and the media in creating these role models that shape gender stereotype in today’s society. Since its release in the global market during the 1960s, Barbie and Action Man have been at the forefront of toy popularity indices. Not only have they topped sales chart, they have also become symbolic toys for our generation. On the other hand, alternative toys like “Happy to be me Doll” and “Adventurer”, both variants of Barbie and Action Man, have not met the level of popularity achieved by their predecessors (Attfield, 1996). This is largely because children simply love the ready-made characteristics of Barbie and Action Man. This could mean, that playing “Happy to be me Doll” as Barbie, or “Adventurer” as Action Man is either utterly unappealing or perhaps, unthought-of. The statistical fact on the popularity of Barbie and Action Man suggests that a child’s interest in toys is based on the perceivable characteristics given to them. Children are attracted to the characteristics that popular toys possess and wish to attain or at least experience them through role-play. The characteristics associated with the two toys under scrutiny are Barbie’s passivity and image as a petite young model, glamourized through fashion and beauty, and Action Man’s action-filled role as a soldier who is full of valor in the battlefield. Considering how Barbie and Action Man objectify gender as ‘adult’ dolls (Attfield, 1996), it can be inferred that Barbie and Action Man have become children’s role models for their respective gender, thereby instilling the stereotypes of feminine passivity and masculine activity into them. In addition, Attfield failed to take into consideration the supporting role of parents in shaping gender notions among children through toys. Since children do not have the financial ability to purchase toys, the sales of Barbie and Action Man can be ascribed to their parents despite Attfield’s claim that parents disapprove of these toys (Attfield, 1996). Children may perceive this parental act of purchase as a sign of parental approval of the characteristics that the toys may contain. Children may then be influenced into thinking that Barbie and Action Man, with their projection of gender stereotypes, are desirable role models to follow. Another point that Attfield neglected is the role of the media in shaping a child’s understanding of gender differences. The media is a powerful medium of influence. It is an endless source of information that is easily accessible to people of all ages. Although no one can wholly determine that a child’s behaviour is derived from the media, it is clear that children learn by imitating people and the surroundings around them. Hence, we should not overlook the possibility that a child’s fantasy may stem from watching commercials and shows that are targeted at him. As a result of overlooking the influence of media, Attfield did little to explain the origins of a child’s fantasy, which may be a product of media rather than pure creativity. The broadcast of commercials targeted at children may promote the characteristics of the toys in question, consequently shaping a child’s understanding of gender stereotypes. These are backed by “Television advertising positioned in children’s programmes and purposely directed at girls rather than parents contributed to making Barbie a best-seller” (Attfield, 1996: 85) and “’as poseable as you are’ claimed the advertisements. ” (Attfield, 1996: 84). Furthermore, the media plays a huge part in propagating gender stereotypes. Being a messenger of cultural changes, the media reports societal trends through different mediums like the television or magazine. Some trends alter society’s gender perceptions and translate into toy designs that strive to be coherent with gender norms. Throughout the article, Attfield ignored the impact that the media has on toy design. Though she provided substantial information on the amount of maneuverability given to Barbie and Action Man, and its consequent portrayal of gender stereotypes, she failed to realise that these stereotypes are now gender norms in today’s society. Therefore, the combination of media influence, popularity and parental approval of these toys shows how gender stereotypical meanings of toys heavily influence a child’s understanding of gender roles as they are widely accepted as role models in today’s society. In summary, the toys a child role-plays with do affect his or her understanding of gender roles. It may be the gender-stereotype propagating Barbie and Action Man, or the violent but humorous teenage turtles (Attfield, 1996), as children constantly explore and adore new fantasies created by the media that are reflective in toys as role models to follow.
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