Toys by Roland Barthes

In Roland Barthes’s essay Toys, Barthes argues that:

All of the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size (53).

Barthes continues on to talk about a doll that is able to be fed a bottle and go to the bathroom.  As you may be able to imagine, this doll is marketed towards young girls. Barthes says that “this is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother.”

In case you were wondering what that baby doll looks like, here’s a 2015 ad:

Barthes’s argument is that children’s toys are generally smaller replicas of adult things with the intent of instilling the appropriate adult activities within the child. Using this idea, I would like to look at the gendered marketing of toys in America and the way in which they promote gender roles.  

Often in stores and even on TV we see commercials of a kitchen play set or a Little Tikes lawn mower.  One thing we often don’t notice about these commercials is the overwhelming presence of one gender.  Often the kitchen set advertisements will feature young girls, sometimes with their mothers, learning how to cook with their toys; whereas, the Little Tikes lawnmower generally features a little boy pushing it in his yard.  Other examples of this can be seen by looking at Nerf or Lego ads.  Boys will often have toys marketed to them that promote building, science, and action related activities while girls tend to have more motherly inspired toys like the kitchen and baby doll.  This insinuation that a girl should fulfill motherly duties is instilled at such a young age that it has even made its way into politics as the foundation for various rights – but that can be a topic for a separate post. Barthes argument that this conditions the children for their roles as adults is absolutely true.  

Gendered marketing is done by showing only young boys playing with a Nerf gun, insinuating that it is for boys only to play with.  It is also done by the coloring of toys and sometimes even the name.  Lego unashamedly has a separate line of Lego marketed at girls, called Lego Friends.  The homes and castles in Lego Friends incorporate the color pink into their designs, insinuating that this is a feminine toy.  By having a separate line for girls, one can say that Lego is showing their other lines to be specifically for boys.   By showing that these things are for boys, marketing pushes young girls towards the “motherly” toys like the kitchen and dolls talked about earlier.  As Barthes again states, this is all to condition children to be ready and even to want to fulfill the expected gender roles placed on them by society.


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