Take Two #40: From Hot Wheels to Snap Circuits
By Kyra-lin Hom
After reading last week's column, 'Dolling Up Sexy,' my boyfriend had the brilliant idea of doing the same children's toys now-and-then-compare-and-contrast but with the toys aimed for young boys. I'd love to take credit for the idea, but I can't. I, like much of the research money, am a little tunnel visioned when it comes to the affects of media-propagated gender roles on all of us and our children. We all tend to forget that the X-chromosome is only half of the equation. Well, three-fourth's actually but you know what I mean. Girls aren't the only youngsters being marketed to and bombarded with images of what they should be like when they grow up.
Without the handy dandy Huffington Post slideshow at our disposal my boyfriend and I went to work in the google way, comparing the toys he and my many other guy friends played with as children to the top ten lists of today. What were the results?
For the list of 1990's boys' favorites we came up with G.I. Joe, Pogs, Legos, Super Soakers, Buzz Lightyear action figures, Hot Wheels, video games like Donkey Kong and Pokemon, army men and anything Power Rangers. FYI, for those young women out there who played with these as children, I'm listing them as toys for boys because that's the gender these toys were marketed for. I was never much a traditional doll-loving girl myself so I actually remember loving a number of these as well.
If we had to summarize this list of favorites we might call them all action-oriented toys. For those who don't know, Pogs is a competitive hand eye coordination-based game kind of like Jacks, and the video games popular then involve exploration, obstacle courses and battling enemies. Essentially we're in traditional 'boy' territory. So what did I find when I compared these classics to the favorite toys of the modern young boy? A lot of the same actually but with a couple very notable changes.
Let's start with the similarities. The most obvious one is that Legos are still as popular as ever. Besides being a bit flashier as manufacturing technology has improved, Legos for boys are largely unchanged. Instead of knights and castles we now have Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and ninja themes, but that's about it. No major image or product makeover has occurred for this demographic (which is not the case for the Legos marketed to young girls). Foam Nerf guns have replaced Super Soakers, but they are both still gun-like toys. And the Nintendo DS has replaced the Game Boy, but again they are the same type of product.
Now for the differences. I noticed two significant ones. First, action figures are out hands down. In place of them is an increase in the popularity of video games and sport-oriented props. Why use your imagination when the game is provided for you? Second, a new kind of toy altogether has snuck onto the top ten list, that being the brain puzzle. These are toys that simulate circuits and other engineering fields of the day along with generally engaging the critical thinking processes.
What does this tell us? Well, I think the first thing we need to recognize is that play is practice for life. The toys we push on our children actively influence their physical and cognitive development. The new girls' products are sexier, but they are also bolder and more outgoing. These are inadvertently teaching girls that they should grow up to be seen and be heard – absolutely not a bad thing as long as girls realize they don't need to be sexy to have that. Boys on the other hand are being subtly shifted out of the limelight.
Among my peers it is absolutely accepted that the only way to make a decently guaranteed living now is to work with numbers. Be that science, finance, computers or engineering. These are desirable fields – and male dominated. For many a reason, most girls get body checked out of the maths and sciences somewhere around late high school. So boys learn that being the bread winner and working with numbers behind the scenes is where they belong. Well, either that or splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated clutching some form of ball – take that how you will. This is demonstrated full circle in the evolution of boys' toys.
Is that a bad thing? I think it's an social evolution thing, though probably very confusing for the boys and men who get caught between the mixed message of quiet engineer and bodacious ball player (or film action star). It's different than the issue faced by girls and women, but it is no less important and should deign some researcher to come along and investigate it.
In the meantime, I think its pertinent that we all carefully consider the messages we send the children in our lives. If using media as a teaching technique is helpful for young girls dealing with issues of self-sexualization then I bet that something similar is just as helpful for young boys dealing with how exactly they are supposed to become and act like men in these crazy modern times.