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Welcome to the Dollhouse

MissArcher2's picture


Viewing these two ads, you may or may not have noticed that the women in them were depicted in stereotypically feminine ways—cleaning a house and driving a van of kids in soccer clothes—but watching them may have shaped your ideas about gender, and for women, your ideas about what you want to achieve. It sounds outrageous, but in a 2002 study at the University of Waterloo, researchers found that female college students in an advanced calculus course expressed less interest in math-and-science related careers after viewing ads depicting women in clichés such as these than their peers who watched neutral ads featuring animals. That’s right, this effect was noticeable after the students had watched only two ads.

Think about how many commercials you’ve seen in your lifetime. If watching only two ads can deter women from traditionally male-dominated fields, in what other ways are the technologies of marketing, advertising, and the mass media affecting our ideas about gender and what it means to be masculine or feminine? I think many of us feel that we are immune to these advertising stereotypes, but is it possible that we only feel immune because their message is so ingrained?

Marketers pounce on children at impossibly young ages, promoting differences between the sexes to sell twice the toys. Author Peggy Orenstein tackles the notion of nature vs. nurture in her recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter


Are girls really born loving pink, glittery princess dresses? Or are they picking this up somewhere along the way? Orenstein points to studies that show no difference between the sexes, at least early on: until they are a year old, children are equally attracted to dolls and until they are about three, they show the same interest in actual babies. As babies become toddlers, the concepts of labeling and categorizing begin to take hold in their brain (Interestingly enough,the term “toddler” was popularized as a marketing gimmick by clothing manufacturers in the 1930’s and only became an accepted developmental stage after it was accepted by shoppers). It’s then that they start to understand the terms “boy” and “girl.” But while they realize that these categories are important and distinct, they are fuzzy on what exactly makes them different. Orenstein tells a “legendary” story about a four-year-old boy named Jeremy, who once wore hair barrettes to preschool. Once of his classmates accused Jeremy of being a girl, but Jeremy pulled down his pants to point out his penis and testicles, emphatically proving that he was a boy. His classmate, however, scornfully told Jeremy, “Everyone has a penis. Only girls wear barrettes.” 

So it would seem that for young children, it’s not biological sex that determines gender but the accoutrements: toy choices, favorite colors, hairstyles. And because the prefrontal cortex, which looks to the future and establishes the idea of permanence, is the slowest to develop, children might not understand that sex stays the same whether you wear pants or a skirt until as late as age seven.

These qualities make young children perfect targets for marketers. Kids hold fast to gender rules as they are presented because they secretly fear their own identity might change—and if we have established anything through discussion in our Gender, Information, Science, and Technology course this semester, it’s that identification and categorization within the larger world is extremely important to us as human beings. So it’s this desire for identity that has allowed Disney Princess to become the largest franchise on the planet for girls ages 2-6, that enables American Girl to charge $85 for a miniature salon station for dolls, that results in the horrific guilty pleasure that is TLC’s reality show Toddlers &Tiaras: in looking to define themselves as girls, kids look to role models like the Princesses, the American Girl dolls, celebrities, and their own sisters and mothers for examples of how to behave. But what kind of example are we setting? 


This photo that circulated on gossip websites in mid-January 2011 depicts three children, all appearing to be under the age of 10, dressed up like characters from the popular MTV reality show, Jersey Shore. But even when it’s not Snooki a five-year-old tries to emulate, the Princesses, American Girls, and toddler pageants lead girls to value beauty above other traits. Through the “pink” culture, girls identities are fused to their appearances. They associate being feminine with how you look—as a Newsweek review of Orenstein’s book puts it, translation: shallow, narcissistic, slutty. Older women seem to fuel the fire, with their obsessions about looking younger and maintaining their beauty through whatever means possible, be it plastic surgery or dressing younger. 


Lea Michele, star of Fox’s hit show Glee, suffered a great deal of backlash over this controversial photo, taken for GQ magazine. But isn’t it merely a manifestation of our culture’s obsession with youth? Orenstein makes a fascinating comment on categories, stating, “The phases of our lives have become strangely blurred, as girls try to look like adult women and adult women primp and preen and work out like crazy in order to look like girls.” Donna Haraway, whose article "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the late Twentieth Century"  we read for GIST, dreamed of a world without categories. But the breaking down and crossing of these boundaries, as we see in these blurred stages of life, can be destructive to all parties involved. 

In class, we recognized the damaging effects of categorization, like this getting-older-younger phenomenon, but seem to have decided that ultimately, we need categories in order to place ourselves in the world. Peggy Orenstein turns to Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It, for much of her psychological insight into the minds of children, and Eliot boils the nature vs. nurture debate down to this: nuture becomes nature. She compares gender differences to the way a baby’s brain learns to process language:

“Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it’s possible to learn another language, but it’s far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly: the ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. That contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.” 

In other words, we’re not the problem; it’s the world we live in. Is gender socially constructed? After reading Orenstein’s book, I’m convinced. More so, it seems that enforcing strict categories of gender is damaging, not just to girls but to women as well. When your entire identity is based on your appearance, there are higher risks for eating disorders, depression, and early sexual behavior (possibly leading to teen pregnancy). The thing about categories is that they're permanently limiting: we scramble to identify with something--anything--and find our place in the world, and yet once we're there, we're stuck, forever trying to break out of the box of what it means to be old, young, female, male, gay, or straight. But it doesn't seem possible to raise children without the mass marketing/media influence of gender in a world where the technologies are so pervasive and even watching two commercials can influence our notions of gender and what we can do.

In his book Natural Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark predicted that we'd all become one with our machines, living in harmony with the technology that enables us to do more, better, writing: "the mind is just less and less in the head." And thanks to the media that can infiltrate our homes, our cars, and our schools though our laptops, TV's, and earbuds, we're already cyborgs, our selves indistinguishable from the marketing influences that define us. 


Liz McCormack's picture

letting go

I found your juxtaposition of Orenstein and Haraway to be very provocative.  As you have described so well, identity-related category-making is something we do almost immediately in our lives.  However, letting go of those identities is something we are not well equipped to do as we change and age, even without the interference of societal influences telling us exactly what those identities should look like.  This is a problem for Haraway in her efforts to convince us to embrace, traverse and blend boundaries.  Rock climbing comes to my mind.  If you've ever tried it you might agree one of the hardest parts is psychological--letting go of one handhold to reach for the next one.  If the next identity we should embrace is less valuable in societal terms  (power, wealth, love) who would want to let go?   

Do new technologies make it easier to navigate identity categories?  You have made a case that no, not when used to sell products.  On the other hand, we have also seen in this course, that new technologies do have the potential to help us create and manifest new identities.  So what determines how we use our new technologies?  I think you have made a good case that new technologies do not change our cultural values so much as increase our effectiveness at establishing them.  Our use of technology and in this case, new media technologies, is dramatically shaped by our capitalistic/consumer based social fabric.