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February 25, 2018

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Boys and girls constrained by toys and costumes

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Joshua Bright / The New York Times

Bella Aulie-Sand, 3, checks out costumes at Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, Oct. 28, 2015. The gender-based marketing of toys, costumes and other products meant for children have a long-term effect on their notions of gender roles, researchers say.

A Web search for Halloween costumes of scientists produces only boys wearing lab coats and goggles. A search for nursing costumes turns up girls in skirts with stethoscopes. Cats and cupcakes are also girls, while sharks and astronauts are boys.

The same gender division exists not just in toys — blue toolboxes and trucks for boys, pink play kitchens and dolls for girls — but also in nearly every other children’s product, including baby blankets, diapers and toothbrushes.

These distinctions have long-term effects on children’s notions of gender roles, social scientists say. Costumes, toys and many other environmental cues can influence the subjects children choose to study, the jobs they pursue and the roles they play at home and in society.

“If you drop the gender marketing, rather than narrowing a set of interests based on gender, it widens the possibility for the child to pursue interests that he or she cares about and has a talent for,” said Carol J. Auster, a sociologist at Franklin and Marshall College who studies gender, work and leisure. “Way down the road, it allows a grown man or woman to pursue an occupation that is well matched with their talents or skills.”

Yet as men and women have become more equal in American society, with more women working and more men involved at home, marketing to boys and girls has become more pronounced.

There are signs that consumers are beginning to push back. Recently, Disney removed gender labels from its costumes, and Target removed them from the toy aisles. Still, both remain sharply divided by color and type, as do much of children’s worlds.

Indeed, toys are more strictly gendered today than they were 50 years ago, when adult gender roles were much more separate, according to research by Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis.

Until the 1960s, girls’ toys focused on homemaking and boys’ on work in the industrial economy, she found. That changed significantly with the rise of the feminist movement of the 1970s. But in the 1990s, gendered toys returned with a vengeance, resulting in the action heroes and princesses available today.

In the Sears catalog ads of 1975, according to Sweet, just 2 percent of toys were marked as girls’ or boys’; on the Disney Store website in 2012, according to a study in which Auster was a co-author, all toys were labeled that way.

Children’s clothing has also become more gendered. Before World War I, babies and toddlers all wore white, loose-fitting dresses and long hair, according to a history by Jo B. Paoletti, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, and pink was considered a masculine color and blue a feminine one until the mid-20th century. During the feminist movement of the 1970s, clothes became more gender-neutral. That almost always meant girls wore clothing similar to that of boys, but not vice versa.

Today, parents put pink headbands on bald infant girls and give boys blue pacifiers to clearly delineate gender from day one. Gender-neutral toys or clothes are rare.

Boys’ toys and costumes tend to be associated with action or destruction: objects that move, characters that save the day and animals that prey. Girls’ toys and costumes are more passive: objects to be looked at, characters that are rescued, and animals that are docile or pretty.

In the 2012 study analyzing toys on the Disney Store website, girls’ toys were mostly pastel and related to caretaking or beauty, like dolls and jewelry. Boys’ toys had mostly bold colors and related to action and building, like cars and blocks.

Seventeen percent of the toys appeared on both the boys’ and girls’ lists — though they almost all resembled boys’ toys. Among the gender-neutral toys, blue was the most common color, and stuffed animals were the most common type.

In a study of children’s Halloween costumes, less than 10 percent were gender neutral, and most of them were for infants, according to an analysis of 469 costumes by Adie Nelson, a sociology and legal studies professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Boys’ costumes were more likely to reflect jobs (“policeman”) and girls’ to reflect appearance or relationships (“beautiful bride.”)

“There’s a whole range of very positive costumes for little boys that stress that you can get adventure, you can accomplish great things and have the right to,” Nelson said. “The equivalent costumes for girls still suggest if you’re going to accomplish great things, it’s going to be in relation to how well you look.”

Her study was published in 2000, and a recent update, not yet published, found that young girls’ costumes, whether for heroes or villains, have become more sexualized — for example, dresses with bustiers.

At Spirit Halloween in SoHo this week, Bella Aulie-Sand, 3, tried on a ninja turtle mask and chose a Rapunzel wig. Olivia Copeland, 8, wanted a Captain America costume but ended up with Wonder Woman because it was more feminine.

“The way society is today, we make a very fine definition of what’s for girls and what’s for boys,” said Hattie Burns, Olivia’s mother. “I wish girls had more kid-friendly costumes that aren’t tightly fitted or sexist.”

It’s impossible to disentangle all the elements that shape children’s notions of gender roles or to separate nature from nurture, and no major longitudinal studies have been done. But researchers say drawing clear distinctions between genders plays a significant role in pushing children down particular paths and creating stereotypes.

Lynn Liben of Penn State University and Lacey Hilliard of Tufts University studied preschool students. In some of the classrooms, teachers made no distinctions between boys and girls. In others, teachers differentiated between them, such as asking them to line up separately.

After two weeks, the children in the group where distinctions were made were much more likely to hold stereotypical beliefs about whether men and women should be in traditionally male or female occupations, and spent much less time playing with peers of the opposite sex. Even saying “boys and girls” instead of “children” had the effect.

“I find that incredibly compelling that labeling for boys or for girls will have an effect on reducing kids’ belief that everything is open to everybody,” Liben said. “I don’t think we need to wipe out differences, but you don’t want to constrain kids’ choices and abilities.”

Other research has shown that playing with toys like blocks and puzzles — which boys tend to do more than girls — builds spatial and early math skills, which can influence whether children pursue and excel at math and science later on.

Sexualized Halloween costumes send another message, said Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. In a study of girls ages 10 to 15 in which she was a co-author, those who had internalized the notion that women should be sexually attractive to men earned lower grades and test scores than their peers.

At work and at home, people with both stereotypically feminine and masculine skills, like being nurturing and ambitious, do particularly well, Bigler said. That seems like one reason to expose children to a wide variety of influences, she said.

Still, gender-neutral tends to mean that girls can do what boys do. On Halloween, there will probably be more girls as Captain America than boys as Elsa the Disney princess, just as more women become business executives than men become preschool teachers.

“Girls and women are much more likely to feel comfortable transgressing gender boundaries,” Auster said. “In our society, we’ve placed much more value on that which is masculine.”

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