Beyond Princess Culture

Gender and Children’s Marketing

by Katherine A. Foss (Volume editor)
©2019 Textbook XII, 318 Pages


Beyond Princess Culture: Gender and Children’s Marketing explores the impact of a post-princess space, examining potential agency and empowerment in the products’ users while acknowledging that at least some alternatives continue to perpetuate components of the rigidly gender-coded princess culture. This book collectively critiques the commodification of the post-princess child consumer through analysis of historical and contemporary toys, video games, clothing, websites, and other popular culture phenomena. Guided by theories from feminist and gender studies, Beyond Princess Culture demonstrates how the marketing of children’s products has and continues to perpetuate and challenge hegemonic notions of gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and other positions of intersectionality, as situated in the social, economic, and historical contexts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Section 1. Constructing Gender in Childhood
  • Chapter 1. Pink or Blue?: The Gendering of Children’s Marketing (Katherine A. Foss)
  • Chapter 2. Caddie Woodlawn Grows Up: Constructions of Girlhood in the 1930s (Kate Roberts Edenborg)
  • Chapter 3. Marketing Gaming for Girls: The Framing of Princess Zelda in American and Japanese Nintendo Commercials (Mimi Wiggins Perreault / Gregory Perreault / Michael McCarty)
  • Chapter 4. Where The Inner Star Leads: Neoliberal Sensibilities in American Girl Dolls’ Talents (Natalia Rybas / Sergey Rybas)
  • Section 2. Updating Classic Toys
  • Chapter 5. Guys and Dolls: Gender-Inclusive Toy Marketing in Baby Alive, the Easy-Bake Oven, and G. I. Joe (Christine Eschenfelder)
  • Chapter 6. The Force Is Now Female: The Gendered Marketing of Star Wars (Jennifer M. Fogel)
  • Chapter 7. Building the Future or Making Friends?: Constructing Gender in LEGO Narratives (Katherine A. Foss)
  • Chapter 8. Empowerment Through Disney? Third Wave Feminist Discourse in the “Dream Big, Princess” Campaign (Erika M. Thomas)
  • Chapter 9. Imagine the Possibilities: Marketing Girls’ Leadership Through the President Barbie Doll (Madeleine Esch)
  • Section 3. Redefining Gendered Spaces
  • Chapter 10. The Internet Asks: Why Are There No Science Shirts for Girls? Examining a Retailer’s Marketing Misstep and Public Relations Success (Nathan Gilkerson)
  • Chapter 11. Kids in the Kitchen: An Analysis of Gendered Narratives on the Food Network (Rebecca Swenson)
  • Chapter 12. What Are Our Children Listening To? Gender Stereotyping and Adult Themes in Kidz Bop (Torie Fowler)
  • Chapter 13. DIY Superheroines: Craftivism, Capitalism, and Counter-Hegemonic Girl Culture (Spring-Serenity Duvall)
  • Chapter 14. Beyond Princess Culture: Navigating New Spaces (Katherine A. Foss)
  • Index

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As with any project to do with children, this manuscript is intensely personal. Although this an academic book full of rigorous scholarship, you can’t really (and fairly) talk about gender and children at a distance. In scholarship, we obviously draw from our own experiences in choosing our topics, samples, and analyses. Thus, our diverse upbringings shape what we write about and how we write. What we played with and wore as children, how we identified and performed our genders, and the slights and challenges we experienced impact ourselves as adults. For example, I recall being horrified as a ten year-old upon receiving a pink corduroy skirt for Christmas—appalled that anyone, especially my own mother, would think that I would like it.

Navigating gender and media as parents adds yet another dimension. Before I had children, I did not understand just how difficult it is, on so many levels. I significantly overestimated the extent to which I could control my kids’ media consumption and the influences external to our household. At the same time, I did not foresee the complexity and quirkiness of children’s ever-changing preferences and personalities (e.g., insisting on wearing safety goggles and a Spider-man watch to bed every night).

As a Feminist Media Studies scholar, I have struggled with what media products I allow and just how to help my two daughters express themselves. My ← ix | x → nine year-old, Nora, is serious, spunky, precocious, and athletic. She prefers short hair and t-shirts and hates dresses and “anything Princess” (and always has). It is through Nora’s eyes that I have witnessed the most heart-breaking gendered moments, like the Frozen birthday party in which she wore a robot shirt in a sea of Elsa-clad girls swooning for the princess impersonator. It was Nora who was rudely told that she could not join the ninja warrior class at a gymnastics place because it might “make the boys not want to do the class if a girl participated.” She is strong and confident now, but I worry about the pressure to conform when she gets to middle school.

My youngest, Hazel, is silly. She will decorate anything and treats fashion like a daily mission, frequently mixing colonial bonnets with frilly skirts and her signature red cowboy boots. She is creative, dramatic, and nurturing. Parenting Hazel, with her love of all things Disney Princess, has been trying in a different way. Given a choice, she wants the Elsa water bottle and the Cinderella dress for her birthday. And yet, children do not follow predictable paths. In my attempt to appease her interests, I enrolled her in a short princess-themed dance camp, which she disliked immensely. Apparently, her princess interest only extends to Band-Aids and dolls, while she prefers karate and swimming for activities.

I begin with this brief description of my children because they are my starting point. Long before chapters were submitted, I knew all of the products studied in this book. Caddie Woodlawn is on our bookshelf. We own light sabers. I’ve eaten at the American Girl restaurant. I remember the Lands’ End shirt controversy and excitedly bought clothing from the science-themed line. As I was writing the LEGO chapter, my kids were building sets they picked out. Furthermore, most of the contributors here have children and share the tension between scholar and parent. I know first-hand that LEGO Friends sets perpetuates gender stereotypes. That said, Hazel likes them so I buy them anyway, bringing me to my second point: children are active consumers. While we can help them become critical thinkers and can (somewhat) control their access, kids ultimately decide what products they enjoy and how to play with them. It is this truth that we must remember throughout this anthology.

This book is a cooperative project. I am grateful to all of the authors for sharing their work here.

I appreciate support from my colleagues at Middle Tennessee State University, especially Phil Loubere, Jennifer Woodard, Tricia Farwell, Andrew Oppmann, Greg Pitts (Director, School of Journalism and Strategic Media), ← x | xi → Dean Ken Paulson and Associate Dean Zeny Panol. A big thanks to Tom Brinthaupt for the multiple faculty writing retreats.

Finally, I need to acknowledge my special support team that truly makes this book possible. I am forever grateful to the late Dr. Hazel Dicken-Garcia, who impressed upon me more than she will ever know. To Kathy Roberts Forde, for teaching me how to edit (among so many things). Thank you to Dr. Tanya Peres for the advice and writing support. I appreciate my two voices of reason: Kristi and Eric. Finally, I am grateful for my children, Nora and Hazel.

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The Gendering of Children’s Marketing

Katherine A. Foss

In May 2011, a father posted a video of his four year-old daughter, Riley, criticizing the gender stereotypes of toy companies, stating that girls play superheroes and boys can enjoy princesses.1 This YouTube video quickly went viral and was featured on CNN and other news sites. Since then, it has received more than five million views and 47,000 “Likes.” This video and other consumer complaints have spurred retail outlets to, at least, superficially reexamine their gendering practices. In 2015, a Target press release announced that it would stop labeling its toy and bedding aisles after a mother tweeted about the problematic gender division.2 Other retailers have expanded offerings for boys and girls that attempt to cross gender lines. This trend has generally received public support, with companies emerging that only offer gender-neutral products (i.e., Quirky Kids), yet has also prompted criticism from parents questioning the practice.

Despite current conversations about product gender neutrality, childhood products tend to be clearly defined along traditional gender lines. Even before babies are born, they already own abundant “gender-specific” items. Moms-to-be receive blankets, onesies, car seat covers, crib bedding, hooded towels and numerous other products declaring “BOY” or “GIRL” to the world. When expectant parents choose “not to find out,” they are inundated with yellow and green “gender neutral” baby items (delaying, not heading off, the ← 3 | 4 → inevitable blue/pink dichotomy at birth). The defining moment—at the fetal ultrasound, a gender reveal party, or at delivery—not only prescribes a set of behavioral and aesthetic expectations, but also labels the new baby as a particular type of consumer. Before children have preferences or can display their personalities, their gender has predetermined the type of products they likely possess. As newborns, gender norms continue to be reproduced, as parents talk about their babies differently depending on whether they are boys or girls.3

Even if parents intentionally purchase products across gender-lines, it is difficult to truly avoid traditional toys and clothing. Gifts for kids tend to be based on gender stereotypes, as illustrated by the “color your own purse” kits given to tween girls or by the heaps of vehicles that little boys receive at birthday parties. Generous relatives reinforce gender disparities through Christmas gifts of plastic tiaras for little girls or ride-on toy tractors for boys. At McDonald’s, gender determines the coveted Happy Meal prize, distinguished between the “boy” toy and the “girl” toy.

This division is not limited to toys. From infancy, clothing radically differs between the sexes. Boys’ clothes convey action and adventure, with superheroes, vehicles, dinosaurs, space-themes, and spunky declarations like “Born to be wild!” or “Lil’ Rock ‘N’ Roller.” On the contrary, girls’ clothing and shoes often resemble doll outfits—with adorned materials that inhibit active play. Everyday-wear for girls typically feature gentle animals (kittens, puppies, butterflies, and ladybugs) or dreamlike fantasy scenes (unicorns and rainbows), sometimes accompanied by cutesy or sassy messages (“Daddy’s little princess!,” “Melting hearts is my superpower!” or “Kiss me, I’m cute”). Character clothing is especially prevalent and gender-defined. Boys’ clothes feature (male) superheroes, Star Wars, Minecraft, Pokemon and active depictions of other fictional narratives. Girls are offered “feminine” versions of the boy clothing (i.e., pink Batman shirts), Hello Kitty!, My Little Pony, Minnie Mouse, and other pastel choices. For little girls, Disney princess designs cover socks, underpants, leggings, skirts, tops, pajamas, swimsuits, and accessories.

The merchandising of popular children’s characters has meant that even more items contain gendered messages.4 Toothbrushes, first aid kits, beach towels, cereal, yogurt, crackers, applesauce, juice, kids’ greeting cards, school supplies, and other products feature characters and color-schemes that indicate boy/girl divisions. For example, in the Band-Aid section, parents can choose between the Hulk, Star Wars, Paw Patrol, Cars (presumably for boys) or Disney Princess, Frozen, Moana, Sofia the First, “Poppy” from Trolls, and other characters (for girls). More “neutral” choices include Peanuts, Mickey Mouse, ← 4 | 5 → or the undesirable generic brown. This gendering extends to activities, as parents can drop off their children at “Star Wars” day at the local museum or hire an Elsa impersonator to belt out “Let it go” at their five year-old’s birthday party.

The gender dichotomy in children’s products and activities is far from innate. In addition to individual biases about girls and boys, media messages regularly reinforce “appropriate” dress and play, often based on gender. Even with some contemporary movements to encourage gender neutrality, advertisements, films, television, websites, music, and books continue to reinforce gender stereotyping. We are in an era of conflicting discourses with the gendering of children’s marketing. The demand for gender-neutral products has been met with backlash about “preserving masculinity” and declarations of “boys will be boys” or “my little girl just wants to be a princess.” We still see clearly defined toy aisles, even if the boy/girl signs are missing. At the same time, minor changes are apparent next to more traditional choices. NASA-themed shirts for girls are for sale next to pastel unicorns with text about dreaming. American Girl finally added a boy doll to its line (“Logan,” a blonde drummer) and a few options in the “create your own” doll. News stories and blogs about gender expression and children who are transgendered have helped to initiate dialogue and acceptance about gender fluidity, but this discourse has yet to be fully reflected in the marketing of children’s products.

Existing scholarship has critiqued this confusing space, particularly in regards to the explosion of princess culture.5 Outside of the Disney enterprise, Lego, Mattel, Hasbro, Fisher Price, and other monolithic entities continue to produce products that shape how we perceive what it means to be perceived as male or female. Through clothing, imaginative play, gaming, literature, sports and other competition, gender is manifested and reproduced. In this book, we explore the impact of a post-princess space, exploring potential agency and empowerment in the products’ users, while acknowledging that at least some alternatives continue to perpetuate components of the rigidly gender-coded princess culture. Through analysis of past and contemporary children’s products and marketing campaigns, we aim to better understand how parents and their kids navigate and negotiate constructions of gender.

How we define and perform gender as children (and for children) significantly influences the nurturing of identity, behavior, aspirations, skill sets, opportunities, and other critical aspects of life. The false mantras of “boys will be boys” or “every girl wants to be a princess” enforce rigidity and disparities that have long-lasting implications. Teachers’ gendered misperceptions can ← 5 | 6 → discriminate against male students, reducing motivation for boys to improve reading and become better students.6 Negative gender stereotypes have been shown to hinder girls’ and women’s interest, confidence, and achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.7 These gender disparities impact inequalities in employment, compensation, health care, politics, law enforcement, domestic divisions of labor, and other areas, as mitigated by overall positions of intersectionality (race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, geographic region, and other factors). In other words, the messages in children’s products not only dichotomize gender from a young age, but also set in motion lifelong differences that reinforce patriarchal hegemonic structures.

Children, Media, and Marketing

Children are frequent media consumers. Even toddlers consistently consume media, as kids under two spend an average of 40 minutes per day watching TV or using other screen devices.8 Screen time increases with age: Five to eight year-olds have almost three hours, eight to 12 year-olds spend approximately six hours, and teenagers average nine hours per day.9 Kids also have access to a variety of media platforms, as 98% of U.S. households with children ages 0–8 have at least one mobile device, up from 52% in 2011.10 Approximately 45% of younger kids have their own tablets, while 89% of teenagers have smartphones.11 On average, younger children watch YouTube and other online videos for 17 minutes per day and spend approximately 48 minutes on mobile devices, whereas tweens and teens are more diversified in their media activities.12 Moreover, the amount of media consumption for tweens and teens varies by age, gender, race, parents’ level of education, and socio-economic class.13

Across platforms, advertisers then have numerous channels to reach child consumers through TV commercials, embedded ads, online videos, branded websites, social marketing, in apps, and other sites.14 Advertising is prevalent in children’s web content, as Cai and Zhao found that 87% of popular kids’ websites contain ads.15 Additionally, cross-promotion with branded characters, interactive ads in mobile gaming, and advergames engage kids in ways that traditional marketing cannot.16 In these outlets, children may have difficulty distinguishing between content and advertisements more than with older forms of marketing.17 These forms, particularly advergames, have been shown to be more effective in persuading kids to ask others to purchase the products for them, compared to television commercials.18 Not surprisingly, ← 6 | 7 → 69% of parents reported having concerns about the effects of advertising on their children.19

Children’s products can be a lucrative business. In the United States, toy industries generated over $20 billion in retail sales, just in 2016, a 5% increase from the previous year.20 Companies spend more than $543 million annually to market games, toys, and children’s vehicles.21 Children are an attractive audience to the advertising industry because, as Ellen Seiter outlines, they are influential in adults’ purchases, they “will soon spend a lot of money themselves, and they provide an opportunity to inculcate brand loyalty at an early age, thus ensuring future markets.”22 In the billion-dollar marketing industry, the use of gender stereotypes has been perceived as a “safe” choice that resonates well with audiences, allowing for quick identification of roles.23 As the following sections on historical background and literature demonstrate, gender positions and preferences are neither inherent, nor fixed, as “normalized” gender expression has shifted over time.

Background: The History of the Child Consumer

Children have not always been at the center of society. In fact, to have life revolve around kids is a contemporary phenomenon. While the number of stay-at-home parents has significantly decreased in the last 50 years, parents today devote much more time to their children and are more involved in their lives.24 Parents are spending more money on children’s products and activities, and kids have more power and influence in purchasing decisions.25 Additionally, children nowadays are more active consumers, with far more disposable income than in the past.26 This child-centered trend has been reflected in the marketing of products to children.

Children as Passive, Not Consumers

Children’s toys and clothes have become more explicitly gendered over the last century. Julia Grant explains how in the early 19th century, “gender was viewed primarily as a social category that was acquired in successive stages as children matured.”27 Babies wore simple white dresses, and male and female toddlers had similar outfits, wearing skirts and dresses.28 As boys aged, their clothing became more gender-distinct as they began donning trousers and getting haircuts. Girls’ maturity and age was then defined by hairstyle and skirt-length.29 Moreover, qualities that would later be perceived as feminine ← 7 | 8 → (i.e., “tenderness, self-control,” and “self-sacrifice”) were idealized for both boys and girls during the Victorian era.30 Gendered color-coding was also reversed, as pink was associated with masculinity, while blue was perceived as more feminine.31 Children were not perceived as autonomous or influential, and for the first few decades of the 20th century, mothers were considered the target market for children’s clothing and other products.32

From the post-Civil War era to the early 1900s, toys were designed to allow kids to mimic their parents’ duties, teaching them how to become adults.33 Miriam Forman-Brunell highlights how dolls were used to teach young girls to become “useful” members of society, capturing the strength and vitality of the Progressive era.34 At the same time, in the late 19th century, male inventors created mechanical dolls, fitting with the era’s focus on science and technology. With industrialization, the mass production of children’s products became the norm, as fewer items were made in the home. Long-standing toy brands emerged in the early 1900s, with Lionel Trains (1900), Crayola (1903), Erector sets (1913), Tinkertoy (1914), and Lincoln Logs (1916).35 These toy categories have been relatively unchanged since the 1920s, with cleaning toys, ovens and kitchen sets, strollers, doll houses, shopping carts, and other products representing domestic work marketed toward girls, while boys have been offered active toys that encourage play.36

In this time period, magazines and catalogs highlighted toys and other products available for children, as evident in the Sears’ catalogs in the early 1900s.37 Beginning in the 1920s, boys’ and girls’ outfits became much more distinct from each other in advertisements, with the blue/pink colors indicating gender.38 Clothes for boys became much more masculine at a younger age, deviating from what girls would wear.39 This was a gradual process, as the newborn “going home” outfit would not become gendered until decades later. While clothing and domestic products appeared in this era, toys were not heavily advertised. Fewer than 20% of ads in Parents magazine featured toys, demonstrating that children were not perceived as a target audience.40

Recognizing Children as Consumers and the Gendering of Childhood

It was in the 1930s and 1940s that advertisers first considered children as a target audience—as “legitimate, individualized consumers.”41 Manufacturers capitalized on this new group, offering children’s clubs and contests for purchasing their products, particularly through popular radio programs. With ← 8 | 9 → this recognition, advertisers sought to understand how to create messages that would appeal to children at various developmental stages.42 In the late 1940s, television enabled the “demonstration” of toys through commercials and further cemented perceptions of children as consumers.43 It was in this period that advertisers became more focused on using children’s past activities to predict future successes, with the child perceived as a “novelty seeker.”44

Print advertising for toys and other children’s products also significantly increased at this time, following the post-war “baby boom.”45 Marketing expanded to incorporate children as research participants in the 1960s, with the use of children’s “likes/dislikes” driving the market.46 Researchers observed children playing with toys and used this information to shape future products. In this era, children’s ads were highly gendered. Even with “gender-neutral” products, ads often featured a single boy or a girl watching the boy play.47 It should be noted that advertisements were nearly homogenous, with only a few token children of color included.48

While parents questioned the value of comic books and other products, before the late 1960s, no organized effort to control advertising toward children existed. With the Vietnam War, protests against children’s weapon toys emerged.49 At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began monitoring the safety of toys in general, prompted by Edward Swartz’ published list of “dangerous” toys. Action for Children’s Television (ACT) and other groups also drew attention to the potential influence of television commercials on children, leading to voluntary guidelines and recommendations by professional advertising and broadcasting associations, as well as FTC investigations.50

In the 1970s and 1980s, advertisers focused on creating more active-learning and cognition-type toys.51 Toys marketed as educational became big, paired with Sesame Street and other TV programs designed to teach children concepts. Parents’ roles were reduced to simply “the purchaser, the go-between in an exchange between toymaker and child.”52 Home video gaming systems also emerged in this era, bringing in new forms of interactive technology into childhood with Atari and other electronic games.53

Starting in the 1990s and continuing today, children have been perceived as autonomous consumers with ability to influence household purchases.54 As such, fantasy play, cross-promotion, and merchandising have heightened the marketing to children.55 Additionally, the increase of dual-working and divorced parents has translated to more spending on children’s products and children have more money to spend. Marketing platforms have dramatically ← 9 | 10 → expanded to include the internet, mobile devices, and new gaming systems, bringing more ways for advertisers to reach children and in more subtle ways.56 Still, children’s products continue to be marketed as gendered, reinforcing stereotypes of the past.

Gender and Marketing

Research has shown that girls and women are significantly underrepresented in advertising across product categories and age groups.57 Advertisements have historically reinforced gender stereotypes, portraying men as independent and dominant, and women as passive and dependent. Women appear without speaking in ads four times as often as men and are less likely to narrate or provide voice-overs for commercials.58 Moreover, while women are more likely to be featured as product users, they are also typically portrayed as relying on others and are confined to the home or domestic settings.59 Moreover, by age group, gender disparities are more prominent in ads targeting elementary school children than for adults or other age groups, with male characters significantly outnumbering female characters and more rigid gender roles overall.60 Gender norms are perpetuated across media-platforms, reinforcing traditional “male” and “female” characteristics.

Gender Norms in Marketing and Media Content

Toy marketing is heavily gendered, defining normative preferences for girls and boys. A content analysis of Nickelodeon commercials suggested that while many ads featured both boys and girls, boy-only content was more likely to focus on competition and action, and included indoor and outdoor scenes.61 Girl-only commercials tended to take place inside, with “girls confined to toys that centered on the family, friendship, and romance.”62 Appearance is also presented as more important for girls, as television ads focus on the appearance and sexuality of thin female characters more than female characters who are average-size or larger.63

Commercials are also racially misrepresentative. Bramlett-Solomon and Roeder’s analysis of Nickelodeon commercials found that 70% of characters were Caucasian, 20% were African American, and 10% were Asian Americans.64 The characters of color primarily held secondary or minor roles to the Caucasian characters. Moreover, stereotypes strengths of different ← 10 | 11 → ethnic groups were perpetuated in the ads.65 Similarly, in Debra Merskin’s study of race and gender in the Turner Cartoon Network ads, Caucasian boys dominated, playing active roles, whereas girls were depicted as passive and in indoor settings.66 While ads contained all-Caucasian and mixed race characters, fewer than 5% of all commercials featured only characters of color.67

Marketing in other platforms also continues to reinforce gender roles. A study of the Disney store websites suggests that the marketing of toys differed greatly depending on which gender was targeted. “Boys’” toys use bold colors and consisted of building sets, action figures, vehicles, and weapons, whereas “girls’” toys tend to be pink or purple dolls, beauty products, or domestic in nature.68 Likewise, advertising for children’s Halloween costumes also perpetuates traditional gender roles, as female costumes tend to be more decorative and revealing, with models in submissive positions, while male costumes are more-functional, exemplifying strength and a “body-in-motion.”69

While advertising continues to perpetuate stereotypes, media content has become more diverse in its presentation of gender expression. Television shows for children underrepresent women and girls, yet vary in the extent to which they perpetuate gender stereotypes.70 Luther and Legg found gender differences among the characters in children’s cartoons, noting that physical aggression occurring more often with boys, whereas girls demonstrate more social aggression through name-calling, rumor-spreading and other verbal attacks.71 On the contrary, Rebecca Martin found that TV programs aimed at preschoolers do not reinforce stereotypes about emotional behavior, as male and female characters express a range of emotions.72 Hentges and Case also note no significant gender distinctions on the Disney Channel, but identified differences in stereotyping behavior on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, suggesting that the channel’s target audience may impact content.73

Much of the literature on children and gender is focused on Disney princess films, identifying gender stereotypes, changes over time, and narrative-centered research. Consistently, princess films promote romantic heterosexual idealism and reinforce some gender stereotypes.74 Garlen and Sandlin explain how the princesses’ quest for heterosexual romantic love in these films delineates a “‘cruel optimism’ because it creates a loving attachment between us and the very patriarchal social structures that limit our agency and narrowly define our categories of being in the world.”75 However, princess characters have shifted from docile and content in their gendered roles to more active and empowered.76 In contemporary Disney films, male and female characters exhibit both masculine and feminine characteristics.77 These films still ← 11 | 12 → represent patriarchies, but offer more complex gender roles through messages about challenging dominant structures.78 For example, Streiff and Dundes highlight the complexity of the characters Anna and Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, who exemplify “a postfeminist, contradictory combination of attributes that both reinforce and challenge gender stereotypes.”79 Elsa can be perceived as both the protagonist and the villain, as well as empowering, yet reinforcing the stereotype of the female sacrifice.80 Similarly, contemporary Disney films have begun diversifying the princess character.81 While Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Princess and the Frog are heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies, cultural stereotypes, and tokenism, the 2016 film Moana has been praised for its authenticity, diversity, and challenge of gender stereotypes.82 The noted contradictions in Frozen and expansion of princess characters overall demonstrate the give-and-take trend in popular culture, which confirm and challenge traditional gender roles. And yet, gender stereotyping is still common in popular video games, children’s literature, coloring books, and elementary school textbooks, among other media forms.83

The Effects of Gender Stereotyping

By toddlerhood, most children understand boy/girl and the products associated with these labels. Preschool children are able to identify and categorize toys that they believe fit a particular gender, which influences their toy preferences.84 Gender socialization can also influence children’s attitudes toward gendered products and brands.85 A study of children, ages 3–6, shows that children can easily identify ads/products by gender and prefer those that correspond with their gender.86 Moreover, preschoolers also believe that their parents would more likely approve of toys that fit their gender.87 Such gendered division is problematic given that toys labeled for “boys” tend to involve action, competition, and technology, while toys for “girls” value passivity, appearance, and domestic skills.88 Even within a brand, gender differences can be apparent. For example, LEGO construction sets aimed at boys feature professions, encouraging heroism and skill, whereas sets for girls focus on beauty, nurturing behavior, making friends, and developing hobbies.89

Media messages influence how kids play and interact with each other. Preschoolers who engage in princess play are more likely to carry out female gender-stereotypical behavior.90 Playing with dolls, which often convey gender stereotypes, can also impact children’s perceptions. Sherman and Zurbiggen used experimental design to measure the short-term impact of playing ← 12 | 13 → with Barbie on career cognitions.91 Overall, girls believe that boys have more career choices than girls. Additionally, those that played with Barbie (in the experiment) perceived girls as having fewer occupation options than those who played with Mr. Potato Head.92 The unrealistic proportions of most dolls can negatively influence girls’ self-esteem. Jellinek, Myers, and Keller found that girls who played with “thin” dolls indicated higher rates of body dissatisfaction than girls in the full-figured doll experimental group.93 Likewise, Dittmar and Halliwell conclude that exposure to images of Barbie resulted in girls reporting more desire for thinner bodies and lower body self-esteemed, particularly with younger participants.94 In another study, the majority of the six to nine year-old female participants selected a sexualized computer-generated doll wearing revealing clothing to represent their “ideal self” over a non-sexualized doll.95 And Anschutz and Engels note that girls who played with an “average-size” doll and then were offered food actually ate significantly more compared to those who played with thin dolls.96 While scholars have demonstrated the extent to which male action figures have unrealistic bodies, literature has not identified negative effects associated with playing with these dolls.97

Expanding Gender Norms

The construction of gender and its effects is complicated. The notion of children crossing gender lines and defying gender norms is not a new concept. In 1905, Charlotte Perkins Gillman stated,

The most normal girl is the “tom-boy,”—whose numbers increase among us in these wiser days,—a healthy young creature, who is human through and through, not feminine till it is time to be. The most normal boy has calmness and gentleness as well as vigor and courage. He is a human create as well as a male creature, and is not aggressively masculine till it is time to be. Childhood is not the period for these marked manifestations of sex.98

Since the emergence of the “tomboy” character in 19th century literature, media messages have existed that challenge traditional gender roles.99 Over the 20th century, the prevalence of “tomboy” traits became more common in culture as roles for women expanded, with “tomboys” reflected in film, television, comic books, and in their own “special” products. This trend became more popular with feminist and LGBTQ movements, as the image and definition evolved to include queer identity and more people of color.100 ← 13 | 14 →

Girls exhibiting “male” characteristics and playing with “boy products” have always been notably more pervasive and accepted than for boys who cross gender lines.101 Grant traces the history of boys challenging gender norms, labeled as “sissies,” demonstrating how effeminate boys have been stigmatized and condemned throughout the 20th century.102 Starting in the 1920s, femininity in boys began to be equated with homosexuality and was therefore perceived as a threat to masculinity, as conveyed in media products.103 This persistent stigma is reflected in the absence of boys crossing gender lines of advertising content. One justification is that girls are more willing to cross gender lines than boys are—an explanation also used for the overrepresentation of boy characters in ads targeted at elementary school children.104 Moreover, the stigma associated with crossing gender lines is reflected in parents’ and children’s perceptions. Emily Kane interviewed parents of preschool children, finding that they were much more accepting of girls participating in non-gender-conforming play compared to boys.105 Adults are also less comfortable ascribing feminine characteristics to describe boys than using masculine characteristics to describe girls.106 Laura Zimmerman’s study of preschool-aged children suggests that girls were more likely to cross gender-lines, with only 6.9% of boys preferring the “cross-gender ad.”107

Outside of marketing, the expansion of gender norms has become more prevalent in news and entertainment media. Due to the feminist and LGBTQI+ movements, anti-discrimination legislation, and overall cultural changes, most media products offer an array of gendered messages that showcase possibilities for girls and boys. For example, the popular kids television shows Doc McStuffins and Dora the Explorer feature female characters of color, who are “heroic, inquisitive, clever, and adventurous,” thus challenging gender stereotypes.108 Similarly, Emma Jane showed how the cartoon Adventure Time challenges gender roles, offering subversive and progressive messages.109 Just as importantly, more transgender characters and people are visible on television, while websites and blogs like Transparenthood offer communities for parents of non-gender conforming children.110 Emilie Zaslow’s analysis of 30 news segments identifies conflicting themes in the discourse.111 Overall stories supported gender fluidity, while the newscasters undermined the positive message, blaming mothers and declaring their own hegemonic masculinity. In this way, Zaslow concludes that news media “simultaneously incorporates trans-acceptance and rearticulates transphobia or trans-misogyny.”112


XII, 318
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XII, 318 pp.

Biographical notes

Katherine A. Foss (Volume editor)

KATHERINE A. FOSS is an associate professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University and is the author of several books.


Title: Beyond Princess Culture