Why Can’t G.I. Joe and Ken Be Friends?

By Randi Saunders

When “Riley On Marketing” hit YouTube, the adorable video got thousands of hits. But while
people were gushing about how cute it was for this little girl to question why girls have to buy
all of the pink stuff, at least some of them were starting to wonder if maybe she’s right. Why do
boys’ and girls’ toys have to be SO separate, so distinct?

The sexes do play differently, I’ll give you that much. Research has highlighted the fact that
girls tend to play in groups and play more cooperatively. Across cultures and even species,
children tend to choose highly gendered toys, with girls gravitating towards dolls and boys
towards trucks (Orenstein 2011a). But the question, as posed by Peggy Orenstein, is not “nature
vs nurture” but “how does nurture become nature”?

Gender is socially constructed. Sometimes people like to quibble about this, but those people
have obviously never looked up the actual definition of gender. So if gender is socially
constructed, then our understanding of gender is clearly influenced by our environments.
Children are most influenced when they’re younger—at exactly the time when these gender
differences are most pronounced, in fact. So do toys play into something that is already
happening, or do they help cause it? Peggy Orenstein argues that the latter is the case.

Orenstein isn’t the only one interested in the linkage between gender and playtime. A 2008
study by Becky Francis showed that parents tend to emphasize strongly gendered activities
when selecting toys for their children, focusing on action and technical skills for the boys and
emotional literacy and communication for the girls (Lepkowska 2008). This translates to a
reinforcement of gender roles at an age where neural circuits are at their most malleable and
children are most easily influenced, and the result is a heightened pattern of hyperfemininity
among girls and hypermasculinity among boys—both patterns that, in the long run, make it
harder for the genders to communicate and cooperate, and both of which can create harmful
patterns. Hypermasculinity, for example, can be linked to aggression and a lack of emotional
literacy (Scheff 2006), while hyperfemininity can be linked hypersexualization (Orenstein
2011) and a higher rate of fixation with things like physical appearance (which can lead to
problems like low self-esteem or eating disorders down the line). At the same time, children
can be influenced positively in terms of gender relations—for example, studies have shown that
children who have cross-sex friendships at an early age relate better to the opposite sex later and
even have better romantic relationships as teenagers.

From a marketing perspective, it makes sense for companies to produce toys targeting one
gender or the other, since that’s what toddlers want. But let’s face it: since when do toddlers
really know best? The fact is that when we reinforce this “gender apartheid” as Orenstein
aptly refers to it in her Dec. 29 op-ed for the New York Times, we run the risk of teaching
children that the gender binary is rigid, that they have to adhere to these gender roles. As
Melissa Bollow Tempel points out, lots of things—from how children line up for the bathroom
to the toys children are offered—relate to gender in the school setting, and further reinforce
this binary (Tempel 2011). Tempel’s primary concern is the impact this has on gender non-
conforming students, who may not fit into the categories created by this false binary, but even

children who do firmly identify with one gender or the other are hurt by the reinforcement of
rigid gender roles.

Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and
expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys
and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers,
employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for
such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even
create, gender differences?
(Orenstein 2011b)

The quote above comes directly from Orenstein’s op-ed in the Times, and it perfectly
captures the issue in question. If we continue to emphasize severely divided gender roles,
teach males and females to communicate differently, and tell girls they’re pretty while
reminding boys they’re smart, how are we ever going to get a society in which men and
women are able to really get on the same page? And if we’re never on the same page, how
are we ever supposed to get more efficient workplaces, more equitable divisions of labor
in the household, less gender-based violence, more women in fields like math and science
where there is a shortage (maybe because we tell them that engineering is for boys and paint
their Legos pink so they can just build salons?), and a myriad of other things that we know,
objectively speaking, are good?
How can we expect boys and girls to see each other as equals and not the carriers of
cooties if Ken and G. I. Joe can’t even be friends? It may seem silly, even childish, if you’ll
pardon the pun, to fixate on toys to this degree, but the fact remains: we teach gender from
the cradle. Are we sure that hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity are the lessons we truly
want to teach?


Lepkowska, Dorothy. 2008. Playing Fair? The Guardian 12.15.08. Available at: http://

Orenstein, Peggy. 2011a. Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of
the new Girly-Girl Movement.

Orenstein, Peggy. 2011b. Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free? New York Times
12.29.11. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/30/opinion/does-stripping-gender-from-

Scheff, Thomas J. 2006. Hypermasculinity and Violence as a Social System. Available online at:

Tempel, Mellissa Bollow. It’s Okay to Be Neither. Available at: http://


5 Comments on “Why Can’t G.I. Joe and Ken Be Friends?”

  1. Recently I had a conversation with a friend who said kids should pick whatever toys they want, it shouldnt matter what color or theme, but my counterpoint was that it shouldn’t matter, but to kids, it does. Give a 6 year old boy a Strawberry Shortcake and he will almost instinctively toss it aside and say its a “girl toy” unless he has been brought up with parents who are aware and councils about these issues from the cradle. My own children hold these stereotypes, and although I’ve talked to them and reassured them, me against their entire world is a pretty heavy duty task.

    Anyway, thought provoking stuff here, thanks for mentioning me! Just one correction, the article I wrote for Rethinking Schools magazine was published in Fall 2011.

    • Roman says:

      I agree with this article and have a nice story to tell. I loved Disneyland as a child and watned to be Mickey Mouse when I grew up, not a princess type personality. This past summer we had an opportunity to take our children to Disneyland as we were visiting my grandmother who lives only 10 minutes away. We had tickets for three days. Our children are not exposed to this sort of thing and we planned it out well with whole foods and nap breaks. On the morning of day two, our five year old said, I am not going today, I am staying home with grandma. At the end of our vacation through California, we asked all of the children what their favorite part was. Our five and seven year olds said hanging out with grandma and our fourteen year old liked spending time in Bellingham WA. where we had lots of nature walks and time together. Gotta Love the validation of the way we choose to live.

    • Petra says:

      An American Girl doll MADE IN CHINA. Oh, the irony. I’d be tempted to buy one if it was still made in Germany then I could jfitsuy the cost. So much hoopla over a mass produced doll. Don’t we value the unique and special qualities in the things we buy since as humans we are supposedly unique and special as well? Sure, the storytelling is good marketing too. Then our children don’t have to make up their own stories since it’s already done for them. It’s unfortunate the Pleasant Company sold out to Mattel who expanded a nice family business into a profit churning machine but this is the way of the world we now live in. If you own something special made by an artisan then you won’t be popular because you don’t have the same thing that everyone else has. I know, special and unique is a hard sell these days.

    • share says:

      That insight’s perfect for what I need. Thanks!

  2. What I found really interesting is that research has shown that even across species (they did the studies with chimps, I believe) males gravitated towards traditionally male toys and females gravitated towards traditionally female toys–so how do you work on changing something that appears to have some innate roots? And on top of that, regardless of what you teach at home kids are going to be exposed to these gendered ideas when playing with friends. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

    Thank you for reading though, I thought your piece was awesome and I’m glad you liked this one.

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