Marketing, kids, gender roles and the 21st century

November 24, 2014
by Mark Drager

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Barbie's I Can Be A Computer Engineer

There has possibly never been a toy or even a single product as ubiquitously condemned by feminists as Mattel’s Barbie.

Whether lashing out at Barbie for her unrealistic proportions or criticizing her previously unambitious academic goals (see the “Math is hard!” controversy), Barbie has had a long way to climb in order to be taken seriously as an aspirational figure for young girls. And while Barbie has explored numerous career paths in the past couple decades (astronaut, veterinarian, race car driver, just to name a few), it just hasn’t been enough for some critics.

Barbie is still enough of her contentious figure that every now and then, an attempt at a “Barbie alternative” comes out and gains notoriety in the press (the most recent attempt being the Lammely Doll).

Recently, the book Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer danced across the Internet and garnered a lot of reaction, despite being released in 2010. Sounds like an awesome concept, right? STEM fields are known for being male-dominated, and with recent controversies such as GamerGate, it’s great to see Barbie breaking down gender stereotypes. Unfortunately, the book focused largely on Barbie’s ineptitude at the computer and her inability to complete a project (or save her computer from a virus) without the help of her male friends.

It’s generated a lot of criticism (including this particularly raging blog post, be warned for language). So much that’s prompted Mattel to issue a retroactive apology for the content of the book, saying it doesn’t fit with their current “vision” for Barbie.” One of the best replies to the apology was a remixed version of the book, available for download, which shows Barbie kicking total coding butt without the help of her two bros. There’s also the trending “Feminist Hacker Barbie” hash tag.

But the book and the weird, delayed controversy has prompted a healthy conversation: do toy companies have to be more conscious of gender roles? And how can they adapt to the 21st century’s various social changes?

It’s not just about girls

So-called “girl toys” have been the target of criticism for their reinforcement of stereotypes for decades. But there’s another side to that coin. Male-directed toy commercials tend to promote a more aggressive, powerful, even at times violent form of fun.

Even in commercials not directed toward children which happen to feature children often portray boys as more rambunctious than girls. There’s still little done to address the fact that boys can be sensitive, quiet and artistic.

Boys and girls should be written and portrayed in a way that reflects just how different they can be. Not every girl is a softspoken princess, and not every boy is a rambunctious hellraiser.

It’s not about pushing anyone toward one particular role

While it’s good to let boys and girls know that they can be anything they choose, that’s not to say that girls can’t be princesses and moms, and boys can’t be soldiers and scientists. There’s nothing wrong about subscribing to traditional gender roles.

It’s simply about presenting options and making those options limitless.

That means that toy companies need to try a lot harder. They need to stop using the same old tricks, writing the same old lines and using the same music and style. It’s about variety, not about one set way.

And that means Barbie needs to pursue some new hobbies, and more importantly, have a different approach. If Mattel makes an engineer Barbie but she still has her perky, “I can’t do it alone!” attitude, is there much of a point?

How can you help it (or hurt it)?

Kids are sponges. They soak up everything around them. And they notice when the way kids are portrayed on screen (even for things that aren’t directed toward them) is the same across the board. It causes a lot of them to think they have to fit into a particular mould.

Realizing the role that you play in that development is vital. If you write or produce media with children in it, you play a role — there are no questions about it. As a creator, you must understand that you are what shapes kids’ ideas of how the world is and how the world should be (FYI, kids generally don’t know the difference between what’s showing the world as it is and the world as it should be).

And it’s not just people who market toys — it’s anyone who chooses to put a child in a commercial and give them lines, give them directions, create an identity.

We often think it’s difficult to take on a “socially responsible” role as marketers — which is why people were shocked when JCPenny portrayed a same-gender couple in their ads. Not everything has to be as obvious as The Body Shop’s “Meet Alex” ad. We can, in fact, empower girls and boys to be who they want without turning it into a big educational campaign.

The simplest way is to simply look at kids around you — real kids, not those on TV — and notice how different they all are, and how many traits they have which aren’t dictated by their gender. There are girls who climb rocks and boys who like drawing and girls who love tea parties and boys who love soccer, girls who yell and boys who are scared easily, and everything in between. When you write for a kid, think, “Am I writing this the way I think boys/girls should act? Or am I writing this the way I think children should act?”

We end on a note from comedian Sarah Silverman, who offered some oddly inspiring words in her 2013 special, “We Are Miracles.” “Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would have never occurred to them that they couldn’t.”

About the Author

Mark Drager

Strategy & Creative Development, Founder | PHANTA

Running a digital marketing agency based on the premise that mediocrity is not an option. Real business results can be achieved and true value can be delivered to clients. Mark can be reached at

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