Friday, July 29, 2011

Blog Post #3: Toy Shopping Field Work

                Gendered values are forced upon children from a young age and from a whole host of outlets. Whether it be that the newborn baby aisle that is divided into the blue boy’s section and pink girl’s section, or the television programs that assign character archetypes for men and women, children today enter a society which offers constant reminders as to what their identity should resemble, according to their gender. One of the most influential ways in which these roles are developed, and perhaps one of the more overlooked, is through the toys which young boys and girls play with. These toys, which are appropriated to specific demographics of kids through marketing, impart ideas upon those who play with them.

                Heather is a 5-year-old girl from Mullica Township, NJ. She enjoys swimming, collects Barbies, and is drawn to the appeal of Crayola arts and crafts products. In a perfect world, she would love to have a life-sized Barbie or motorized Barbie car to play with in her yard. Heather, then, is not unlike most American girls her age. For this reason, she comfortably falls into the demographic which toy companies market heavily towards.  The toys which are pushed upon Heather, however, do not exactly promote the healthiest of values for an impressionable child. Instead, toys marketed to Heather instill in her a heightened value on fashion and luxury, which contribute toward the overall identity of the female as merely being presentable and appealing to men.

                One line of toys which particularly embodies these ideas is Bratz dolls. Heather particularly enjoys swimming, so one would suppose it may make sense to get her the “Bratz Spring Break Cloe” doll, complete with a swimsuit and surfboard. Located on in the section delegated for 5-7 year old girls, this doll is designed with girls like Heather specifically in mind. 

 [Photo Credit:]

That being the case, however, it is curious that the doll seems to bear little resemblance to Heather at all. She has cartoonishly long, flowing hair which extends down to her knees, and her face comes with a heavy application of make-up right out of the box. Furthermore, she comes with a “pool drink” accessory which looks more like a cocktail than a soda, suggesting she is 21+ years of age. Heather cannot possibly relate to Cloe, but yet the toy is marketed precisely for Heather. Therefore, it gives off the impression that Cloe is some sort of role model for Heather to aspire towards.

This “role model” framework becomes problematic when coupled with the product’s official description. Pulled verbatim from the Amazon website, the makers of Bratz describe Cloe as “working her bikinis and some major bling,” adding that “Cloe makes luxury look good with styles that look like a million bucks-and the attitude to match.” Taken all together, Cloe appears to be hyped up as a girl living the dream in her twenties – a dream which consists of wearing jewelry, bikinis, and make-up, but not much beyond that. She has a surfboard, but she cannot surf. Hobbies, sports, and other interests then seem meaningless. Instead, the real goal for a girl, which is revealed to Heather when playing with this toy, is to look good and, equally importantly, rich. This way, they will be able to hang out with guys like Bratz Party Boy Dylan (sold separately).

Cloe is not alone in her assault on Heather’s perspective though. She is just one manifestation of what Newman summarizes as the industry-label of “girl’s toys” which “decades of research indicate… still revolve around domesticity, fashion, or motherhood” (Newman 112). As Newman shows, Cloe is not an anomaly, and her influence is not some unexpected negative side effect of Bratz dolls. It is, in fact, the precise intent of the toy as a whole.

Even though Spring Break Cloe may have appealed to Heather, though, it should be noted that this is not her dream toy. Her dream toy is actually a motorized Barbie car. Perhaps Heather has some vague suspicion that Cloe is not much fun and is not exactly conducive to developing an independent individual attitude. Perhaps she realizes that a Barbie car is more fun and/or better for her psyche, which is why she has exceptional appeal for this particular toy. It might make sense to check Amazon for a Barbie car and see how it differs from Cloe, if it does at all.

 [Photo Credit:]

Targeted for ages 3-6 years old and coming in at just under $300, the Power Wheels Barbie Ford Mustang is expensive, for sure, but does not likely price Heather out of the market. After all, the two little white girls playing with the toy in the picture do not look much different from Heather, and they sure seem to be having fun. It is a bit strange that this toy is so popular since girls this age won’t be driving for another 10 years or so, and some may even still ride in car seats, but at least it seems less harmful than Cloe’s suggestive cocktail accessory. After a casual overview, then, one might conclude that perhaps this toy is a preferable substitute.

However, while the product description is not blatantly materialistic like the Bratz dolls, the very same emphasis on luxury and appearance is all present and accounted for, albeit much more implicitly. Talking up the “sophisticated girls colors and graphics” as well as the “detailed styling on the grill and hood,” the product description indicates that some of the appeal in driving this car for girls is going to be how good it looks, and transitively, how good they look inside of it. Furthermore, the images of the inside of the car reveal there to be a toy satellite radio and a toy GPS navigation system in the vehicle as well. In real life, a Ford Mustang equipped with a satellite radio and a GPS system is quite an expensive purchase. There are likely only a handful of cars on the road today then that resemble this Barbie car. However, this toy gives Heather the impression that a car that isn’t a convertible and that doesn’t have expensive luxury electronics in stock is what essentially amounts to a broken toy.

This is a very powerful impression to give a young child since, as Steinem says, “U.S. carmakers firmly believe that women choose the upholstery, not the car” but instead statistics show that “a car is an important purchase for women, one that symbolizes mobility and freedom” (Steinem 224). It was partly because of this misconception that U.S. carmakers were being crushed by foreign competitors, who were capable at addressing women more capably and comfortably, and losing a disproportionate amount of women sales. Toys like the Barbie Ford Mustang, which promote American vehicles, seem to be attempting to swing women consumers into the mold which U.S. carmakers have made for them, that they should be purchasing flashy car interiors, rather than efficient vehicles. In the end, this is all accomplished by placing heavy emphasis on luxury and appearance, and instilling materialistic values in young girls by way of the toys which they play with.

Works Cited

Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, &
Sexuality: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality. 1st ed. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2005. 112. Print.

Steinem, Gloria. "Sex, Lies, and Advertising." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage
Publications, 2003. Print.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Blog Post #1: Constructs of Masculinity and Femininity in Manswers

                One of the many powers inextricably linked with pop culture is its ability to construct and elaborate upon the widely accepted gender roles of a particular society.  Whether expressed outright in dialogue, or implied by character behavior and interactions, essentially every television show broadcasts some sort of “correct” or “ideal” model of a man or woman, which viewers are encouraged to use as a baseline for judging and comparing their peers. One example of a show which prominently shapes these models, both directly and indirectly, is SpikeTV’s Manswers. Marketed as a definitive source for all masculine concerns, this program blatantly defines its ideal male type, while also hinting more subtly at the ideal female type. Specifically, the content on episode 208 of Manswers suggests that men ought to reject homosexuality and aggressively pursue sex, while suggesting that women are essentially worthless unless they are able to accommodate the male’s aggressive sexual appetite.

                Before sinking our teeth into the content of this particular episode, however, it would be helpful to clarify the format of the show, as it is all at once unorthodox and critical to the way in which audiences perceive its content. Manswers is rather unique in the way it is delivered to an audience. It is not a typical plot-driven show featuring recurring characters, but rather, it is presented in a question and answer format. What normally happens is, a narrator will pose a question about a topic of “popular male interest,” and then proceed to interview “field experts” to arrive at a calculated, scientific resolution. The style, then, is almost like a visual presentation of choice topics in an encyclopedia for men, and is reminiscent of the style of educational programs you might find on Discovery or The History Channel. This faux-educational presentation introduces problems in itself. Not only does this format encourage audiences to accept the shows “fact-based” conclusions, but the fact that they recruit so-called experts to address the questions also credits some sort of validity to the questions themselves, that they are and ought to be legitimate male concerns. The end result is a product which appears to “scientifically” support its own one-dimensional representations of men and women. This becomes problematic because, while the answers on the show may be rooted in fact to some vague degree, the gender roles established by the show remain entirely subjective, and it can be difficult for a casual audience to differentiate between the two.

 Now that we are familiar with the format of the show, let’s continue by looking at the content itself. In episode 208, the first question posed by the narrator tackles the oft-pondered question of whether or not you can save a man’s life by administering CPR by farting into his airway, rather than by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Of course, if possible, this alternative would be preferable because, as the narrator explains, “giving CPR to your buddy is down right nasty.”

 Just the premise of this question contributes heavily to the construction of what Manswers would define as an idealized man. Particularly, the audience is instructed that men should reject any behavior that so much as hints at homosexuality. Even in the midst of a dire medical emergency, men should be primarily concerned with the ways in which they project their heterosexuality, and if that means employing a rather grotesque substitution for traditional CPR, then so be it. And, if we are to accept Manswers as the source for male concerns which it claims to be, then we accept that masculinity and homophobia go hand in hand.

 Curiously, the homophobic sentiments expressed by Manswers are presented without any justification. The narrator does not bother explaining WHY a man giving CPR to another man is “nasty” but rather assumes it to be inherently “nasty.” This exemplifies the idea of “habitus” discussed by Raymond, which “describes how what is constructed can come to seem inevitable and natural” (Raymond 104). Thus, in developing homophobia as an important male quality without any justification, Manswers makes it appear that homophobia is natural.

 Episode 208 continues by asking two other important questions: “Where is the world’s biggest strip club?” and “In which country is oral sex most popular?” Both of these questions lend themselves toward the same idea - that men should chiefly concern themselves with satisfying their sexual cravings and should gravitate toward the places which are most capable at fulfilling them. Much like the way in which the show finesses a homophobic sentiment upon its audience in the opening segment, these questions reinforce the extreme heterosexuality which ought to be present in the ideal man.

 Though femininity is not dealt with or expressed with the same immediacy which masculinity is, there are certainly some implied statements being made by the show regarding the female role as well. This is accomplished in two ways.

  First, consider the female’s role in the questions being asked. They are either strippers or administers of oral sex. Throughout the show, females are consistently pegged as nothing more than objects of sexuality. And, if Manswers is dealing with the most prominent masculine concerns as it claims to, then it is implied that if women cannot meet the extreme sexual demands depicted on the show, they will always be considered an after-thought to men, so the ideal women must cater to hearty sexual appetites.

  Second, the segues between the show’s segments and the transitions into commercial breaks are dominated by clips of thin, blonde, large breasted women. They are meant to embody the idea of an idealized woman, and taken in the context of the show, which conveys the idealized woman as a pure symbol of sexuality, these clips demonstrate some of Wolf’s concerns about “the beauty myth.” Specifically, since these women are assumed to be objectively beautiful, then it follows that “women must want to embody” and “men must want to possess” thin, blond, large breasted women (Wolf 121). The audience is taught that having these specific qualities make some women inherently superior to others, and further contributes to the identity of the ideal female as Manswers sees it.

 All in all, though they are defined with varying degrees of subtlety, episode 208 of Manswers paints very vivid portraits of both masculinity and femininity. Focused heavily on sexuality, the show does not seem to differentiate this concept from gender, and the audience is left to figure that men are extremely and exclusively heterosexual, while women are meant to satisfy male appetites.

Raymond, Diane. "Popular Culture & Queer Representation: A Critical Perspective." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.

Wolf, Naomi. "The Beauty Myth." Female Beauty. Print.