I’m not ashamed to admit, I have a bit of an obsession with the 80’s. I grew up in the decade, spend plenty of time listening to the music of the time, and have seen VH1’s entire I Love The 80’s series more times than I can count. I toted my books to school in my Lisa Frank backpack, wrote on the stationary, used the pens and pencils, all decorated with trippy-neon penguins, polar bears, dolphins. So last week when I read on Jezebel, that Lisa Frank school products have received an update, I was incredibly disappointed to learn that the brand has traded in fushia and purple unicorns for images that better resemble Bratz dolls.
Unfortunately this is just the newest in a string of recent “makeovers” that 80s toys and cartoons have received:
Polly Pocket’s wardrobe now consists of high heels, miniskirts, midriff tops, and knee-hits, and she’s no longer, uh, pocket sized.
The list of products that pigeonhole girls in the clothes and makeup category goes on and on. Disney sells pink vanity tables for girls as young as 3, for example, and the European retailer Primark stocks a T-shirt in a 2-year-old size that’s emblazoned with the motto “S is for Super, Shopaholic, Soon-to-be-Supermodel.” Even old classics now offer girls’ versions, such as an all-pink Monopoly game in which the houses and hotels have been replaced by boutiques and malls, and a “Designer’s Edition” Scrabble that has letters on the front of the box spelling out fashion. It wasn’t always this way. A couple of decades ago, children’s clothing mostly came in primary colors and princesses were confined to the occasional film or Halloween costume. But as marketing to children has burgeoned into a multibillion-dollar industry, and our consumerist ethos has saddled kids with mountains of stuff, the gender divide has grown wider.
There are serious ramifications to all this marketing, the Moores say. The tidal wave of pink toys and clothes suggests there’s only one way to be a girl — pretty, princessy and fashion-minded. And this segues disturbingly quickly into often sexualized images of tween girls a few years older, says Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the book Packaging Girlhood. The not-so-subtle pressures of this marketing can damage self-esteem and feed worries about body image and appearance later in life, the sisters say. They also link it to a celebrity-obsessed culture that undermines adult women by glorifying glamour figures like Paris Hilton while neglecting those women engaged in more serious pursuits.
The Jezebel article questions the long-term effects of these toys that promote what Lynn Peril terms “pink think.“
Yet here we are, studiously deployed in the combat of such messages to girls and women. We somehow emerged intact — not immune to internalized sexism, of course, but able to think clearly and beyond it. Was my love of Perfect Wedding a form of Stockholm Syndrome, its effective antidote parents who expected me to be more than a future wife and an internship at Ms.? Or was it just a really, evilly fun game and not much more?
To answer the question posed above, I say no. My students analyze children’s toys and clothing utilizing a critical gendered lens every semester (in fact, I graded this semester’s papers this afternoon). In many ways, toys created and marketed to children today are more sexist and confining than those from my childhood. To say that the writers at a critical and conscious blog emerged unscathed from the messages promoting beauty and domesticity as the sources of happiness for girls and women is not a conclusion that is representative of the mass population. Those Jezebel writers are sassy, smart and conscious. They can sniff out things like misogyny, sexism and sexist stereotypes quickly and easily.
Like the writers at Jezebel, I consider myself conscious and equipped with the ability to detect double-standards, sexist stereotypes and gender expectations. And, like the writers and individuals commenting at Jezebel, I liked my girl toys. I owned over 40 Barbies, the vacation home and the 3-story townhouse with elevator. I had the pink corvette and bags full of clothes and accessories. I loved grooming and dressing my Barbies, getting them ready for parties and dates (and engaging them in naughty behavior with Ken). Given a choice, I would have played with and had my Barbies proudly on display well into my teens. My mother eventually convinced me that it was time to put them away when I got my first boyfriend at 14.
Clearly, I loved Barbie and all the pink paraphernalia associated with Barbie. But I also remember the scale that was perpetually fixed on 110 pounds. 110. The last time I weighed 110 was when I was 5′ 2″ and in 6th grade. But that number, Barbie’s impossible measurements and “perfect” body were stuck in my mind as examples of what a woman should weigh and look like. I am not blaming Barbie and her pink scale as the sole variables that impacted my distorted and negative body image through most of my life. But I do recognize Barbie as one toy and one aspect of gender socialization that is part of a larger cultural onslaught (see here and here) that encourages girls and women to focus on beauty and relationships (the former as a way to nab the latter).
I agree with Irin Carmon’s statement “We somehow emerged intact — not immune to internalized sexism, of course, but able to think clearly and beyond it” only because I spent years deconstructing and decoding the messages reinforcing these gendered themes my entire life. I don’t blame my toys alone and I don’t pretend that these toys didn’t bring me hours of immense satisfaction and fun. But I also don’t discount these toys as agents of gender socialization that helped frame my expectations of my self, my place in the world, my relationships and possibilities. I recognize my ability to transcend these messages and “think clearly and beyond” them thanks to Sociology and Women’s Studies courses and becoming media literate.