The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

As mentioned in previous posts, I have been cleaning out my garage and came across a wide selection of National Geographic magazines. As also mentioned before, I am very interested in how women and men (as well as girls and boys) are portrayed in the media. Therefore I have been looking through some of the magazines and found interesting examples of gender roles, stereotypes and gendered expectations.

As many of the magazines are from the 1950s to about 1980s, they may seem irrelevant, outdated and not so significant when discussing today’s issues. But it is interesting how much things can change, yet still stay the same. Take for example women’s portrayed roles in advertisements, something I am very passionate about. To summarize overall research; women are portrayed in more roles outside the home now than previously (including positions of power), but the sexual objectification of women in advertisement is also greater now (and more explicit) than it has ever been before. Basically, women are now “allowed” greater freedom in terms of life choices, but at the price of relentless sexual objectification.  Many adults know this (for the most part) and we can scrutinize and pick apart advertisements while keeping their main motive, money and increasing profit, in mind. But it is different for kids (again, for the most part). As always, notions of gender and appropriate gender roles are strictly tied to things, to stuff. And the toys we get, use, and give to kids are often used to mimic scenarios that prepare us for “real life.” That is, a traditional real life, where men perform physical labor and women domestic labor.

We let kids know this early, both in the toys we make available for them, as well as in our expectations of what we want them to play with and how we want them to act. I recently read The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls by Emily W. Kane and was struck by some of the things parents said to their children to keep them in “line” with traditional notions of gender. In the book, a mother of a young boy expresses her concern over his interest in becoming a day care worker:

He has said that when he grows up he wants to be our day care worker’s helper. That’s what he wants to be. I tell him, like, “Oh, well, okay, maybe, but maybe not.” Because you know, if it paid a lot of money I’d say “Go for it,” but I mean, it’s not really the highest paid position he could get. He could never support a family doing that.

And there it is, the assumption that boys are to be the breadwinners, and take care of the family, which also implies that the wife (heterosexuality is almost always implied) should stay at home or have less of an income. We send the message to our children that they are good enough when they follow traditional notions of gender (the way their parent’s generation believes it should be) and that they disappoint us when they do not. This video from Chevrolet Silverado depicts assumed gendered preferences in childhood play that also mimics the real world of the child’s parent.

As does the advertisements from National Geographic that I found. The first ad is from 1963 and depicts a young girl playing with a dollhouse while the title states “Woman makes the home…we make the loan”. The second ad is from 1979 and depicts a boy playing with large trucks and machines, moving coal and other materials with the title “A lad’s playtime is often a mirror of the grown-up world”. Compare these with the 2012 Target catalog of girls playing with a dollhouse and the Leaps and Bounds catalog depicting a boy playing with city building blocks.

No wonder most children learn to follow gender appropriate paths early in life. When you do, the reward is great, acceptance, especially parental acceptance. When you do not, the consequences are vast, life-long disappointment and perhaps shame.

The pictures titled “Woman makes the home…we make the loan” and “A lad’s playtime is often a mirror of the grown-up world” were taken by Hennie Weiss and are shared under a creative commons license. You are free to share, copy and redistribute the work as long as attribution is given. You may not make commercial use of the work.

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