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The four types of toys under analysis are Bathtime Baby (for girls) and Woody (for boys), Build It (for boys) and Cleaning Trolley (for girls). Bathtime Baby is a pink and white baby doll with a shampoo and powder set. The doll is plastic and soft to touch. Its packaging consists of a young girl holding the doll and playing with it. Woody is the second toy; it is a figure of a man wearing brightly coloured clothes.
The toy has a hat and boots and can talk. It has the colour blue, red, yellow and white. Woody also has a plastic hat and boots, and a torso made of soft material. Build It is a set of items that children can construct into a truck and drill. It possesses battery power to enable the child to move it back and forth.
Manufacturers made the set using hard plastic and bright colours (red for the truck and yellow and green for the drill). Lastly, Cleaning Trolley is a set of parts that children can make into a cleaning trolley. It has red, blue and pink as its prominent colours and consists of durable plastic; the toy is also mobile.
How the toys represent gender ideology
Girls’ toys represent the world of the woman as a nurturer. Bathtime Baby has a shampoo and powder that will allow a young girl to take care of her baby. This will condition her for her future role as a parent (Barthes, 1972). Furthermore, because producers already constructed the toy, the girl cannot take on the role of a creator; she must embrace her role as a consumer. In essence, this depiction mirrors what goes on in the adult world.
Most manufacturers target females as consumers of their objects. One only has to watch commercials on television to realise this. Hair conditioners, deodorants, cooking materials and many other household items target the female consumer. Even the nature of materials used can condition girls into thinking that all they can do is use an item; they can never make it. Conversely, Woody is a stand-alone toy. It does not come with shampoos or washing-powder like Bathtime Baby.
Instead, the toy can repeat phrases from a movie. This means that the child can pretend to be a movie star by imitating the toy. The element of care is not evident in this item. Instead, the child playing with it has taken on the role of a movie star. He can be a hero and carry the day. This toy represents the dominant and outgoing nature assigned to men (Van Leeuwen, 2009). Society confines women to domestic roles while men can go out and save the day in a movie.
The second set of toys also reflects similar gender roles. Children would only use a cleaning trolley in the home environment. The girl can pretend to mop or vacuum just like her mother. This toy also prepares the girl to embrace her role as a homemaker. Conversely, Built It is a set of parts that make up a fire truck and drill.
Children who play with this toy can pretend to be firemen or mechanics. They may also pretend to be drivers or engineers. One can see that manufacturers are giving boys more options. It is almost as if they want to condition boys into becoming direct contributors to the economy. These toys do not confine children who play with them to one role.
The kinetic design of the toys is something worth nothing in all four sets of toys. Bathtime Baby is a representation of a child seating down. On the other hand, Woody is standing erect, and his legs are far apart. Van Leeuwen and Caldas-Coulthard (2002) explain that women cannot support themselves.
This clarifies why a girl’s toy consists of a baby in a seated position. The latter authors affirm that such kinetics cause women to become submissive in adult life. They are also symptomatic of power relations in society. The doll is almost looking up; meaning that it is seeking approval from others. Also, because the girl who is playing with Bathtime Baby must concern herself with the well being of someone other than herself, then this causes her to focus on appeasement in her adult life.
In contrast, Woody is standing alone and has no need to be supported. This reflects the independent and confident nature of men (Van Leeuwen & Caldas-Coulthard, 2002). Furthermore, a person who is standing up always has greater control than one who is seating down. Once again, this signifies power relations between men and women.
Similarly, designs for Build It and Cleaning Trolley enforce societal expectations about gender. One can see this in the rigidity and the mobility of the objects. Both items are mobile; however, Build It differs from Cleaning Trolley because the boys’ toy can be manipulated through battery power. A child can move the fire engine forward or backward by removal of the handle in the electric power drill. One may also move the toy by hand.
Cleaning Trolley can only be moved by hand. This indicates that boys have more playing options than girls. They can learn about electrical energy through the battery-operated drill, but still move the truck using their own hands. Society tends to undermine the exploratory role of the female as seen through Cleaning Trolley.
The manner in which she can manipulate the toy limits her, and this discourages her from exploring new things. In the adult world, females know remarkably little about mechanical issues. They often seek male assistance when changing light bulbs, repairing leaking pipes or replacing car tires. Such toys lead to the development of these attitudes at an early stage.
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Differences also exist in the manner in which the toys can be utilised. The rules of use are already evident in the construction designs of the toys. Bathtime Baby has soft material in order to encourage girls to play with her. Furthermore, because the doll is in a seating position, then it is easy to pretend that it is bathing in a basin. On the other hand, Woody is standing, so one would have to move it in that erect position.
Bathtime Baby has prominent eyes and bright pink and white colours designed to attract a girl child. She will probably want to make eye contact with it and care for it. On the other hand, Woody’s eyes are smaller; this would encourage boys to focus on doing things with it rather than care for it.
Additionally, because the toy can talk, boys would be encouraged to take on the same role of a movie star. Once again, the interpersonal and ideational elements of these toys reinforce gender stereotypes. Blakemore and Centers (2005) explain that most boys’ toys encourage more social play than girls’ toys.
Cleaning Trolley and Build It also differ in the way they encourage children to participate. Build It has 18 parts while Cleaning Trolley only has 10 parts. Girls have fewer options with regard to the way they construct their toys, and this stifles their creativity. Additionally, the power of the user over the toy appears to be greater in Build It than Cleaning Trolley. Boys can manipulate Build It in more ways than the girls.
Additionally, Build It gives greater feedback than Cleaning Trolley. Blakemore and Centers (2005) carried out a research in which participants classified girls’ and boys’ toys according to certain characteristics. The authors found that most boys’ toys tended to provide users with feedback for their input, but this was not true for girls’ toys. Consequently, one can understand why girls tend to shy away from structural work. They do not see results for their interventions from an early age, so this puts them off spatially-oriented work.
The two sets of toys differ from one another with regard to their physicality. Girls items (both Cleaning Trolley and Bathtime Baby) tend to portray proper grooming and attractiveness. These ideas get implanted into girls’ minds and cause them to become conscious about their appearance in adult life. Bath Time baby is pink and white while Woody is yellow, red and blue.
Pink and white are striking colours that emphasise the significance of one’s appearance. Cleaning Trolley and the truck may both have bright colours, but each of these colour choices sends a different message. The truck is red in colour to represent danger and violence while pink and blue are harmless colours that represent domesticity. Blakemore and Centers (2005) argue that most boys’ toys teach them how to embrace risk and danger as is the case with Built It.
The packaging of Woody and Bathtime Baby has a design that invites users. The cover of Bathtime Baby is pink and white, which is quite appealing to young girls. Furthermore, because the package has no plastic cover, the potential buyers can test the doll. The package has an image of a girl holding the baby and playing with it at the back. This image can cause visual stimulation in other girls observing it, and thus prompt them to buy the toy.
Similarly, Woody’s package is white and blue in colour so as to convey the message that it targets boys. It also has an open window that allows one to pull its string. Such a strategy causes physical stimulation because it allows boys to test the item (Stengling, 2008). In both these packages, it is easy to see a front and back part because the front has an image of the toy in each case and the back allows access to the toys.
When comparing Build It and Cleaning Trolley, one can see similar patterns in the packaging. The front of Build It has a photo of a boy playing with the two items; the drill and truck. It also has a plastic window with the drill in it. The back of the package has an illustration of all the crucial parts of the assembly.
Designs of these images show the children what they can make out of the various parts given to them. Similarly, Cleaning Trolley also possesses an image of a girl playing with the trolley while the back of the toy has labels for all parts of the trolley. This would probably encourage an observer to long for the item.
Manufacturers portray Salience in Woody and Bathtime Baby slightly differently. The name of Bathtime Baby has a design that informs caregivers about what the toy can do for the child. In other words, this company promises that it will teach children social skills. The item meets these expectations because girls can dress, wash, or shampoo the baby. This would teach them interactive skills as they get older.
The manufacturers of Woody have employed a different strategy to create certain expectations about the toy. First, the front of the package has Woody and some speech bubbles. These indicate that the toy can talk, and it would teach a child speech patterns or social skills. The toy delivers in terms of the speech patterns; however, lack of movement may be an impediment.
Build It also possesses a different salience from Cleaning Trolley. At the front of the package, the manufacturers have placed the word fire engine so as to inform buyers that they will be constructing a similar item. The company has also placed the construction method for the toy, which tells parents that their children will learn spatial and construction skills from the toy. In Cleaning Trolley, the image of the trolley illustrates what the item will do for the buyer. It promises to teach the girl social skills and meets this expectation.
With regard to the information value of the toys, Bathtime Baby contains information about the manufacturer and the social skill to be learnt from the toy, that is, imagination. The latter can be found at the front of the package. On the back side, one can see an image of the child playing with the doll. One side of the package contains information about the items in the package while the other side describes the activities that the child can engage in.
This information is quite useful, although there is no mention of age. Woody, on the other hand, has descriptions of the toy on the front and back. It also has speech bubbles containing a summary of the phrases that the toy will provide. Lastly it contains information about the age limit and warns that children between 0 and 3 years should not use it.
This is useful information although the company should have added information about how to make the toy talk. It should also describe the activities one can perform with the item and the social skills to be learnt.
Information value between Build It and Cleaning Trolley also differs depending on the nature of the items in use. For instance, Build it has information describing the things that one can do with the item. It also possesses an image of a child playing with it. One side of the toy contains information about the various parts.
It should include warning signs about any potential danger. Cleaning Trolley contains information about the benefits of the toy, the age group and the manufacturer’s name at the front. The back contains various parts of the toy and their labels. One side consists of tips on how to play or use the toy. The other side provides alternatives on role playing. This toy should have contained additional information about the process of assembling it.
An analysis of these two sets of toys reveals that toys portray a semiotic relationship between the genders. Girls’ toys tend to reinforce stereotypes about nurturing, submissiveness, consumption, affirmation and attractiveness. Conversely, boys’ toys enforce stereotypes about confidence, stronger power relations, independence, risk, assertiveness and production/ construction.
Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. NY: Hill and Wang
Blakemore, J. & Centers. R. (2005). Characteristics of boys’ and girls’ toys. Sex Roles Journal, 53(9), 619-634
Stengling, M. (2008). Binding: a resource for exploring interpersonal meaning in 3D space. Social Semiotics, 18(4), 425-447
Van Leeuwen, T. (2009). The world according to Playmobil. Semiotica Journal, 173(1), 299-315
Van Leeuwen, T. & Caldas-Coulthard, C. (2002). The semiotics of kinetic design. Wales: Cardiff University Press