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

This post was written by Randi Saunders of the Radical Idea and was originally published on Grrrlbeat.com.  It has been re-published here with permission of GrrrlBeat.com.

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://


~ by Randi Saunders on March 21, 2012.

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