Childhood is a time of innocence, and it's easy to dismiss children's media as harmless because of the simplicity with which most of its audience will approach it. The truth is all media is created with a message, and the messages we send to our children may be the most important of all. The same innocence with which they approach the world leaves them less equipped to analyze the underlying intentions. As an offshoot to my main blog, See Jane Juggling serves as a place for some analysis on the messages children's media send. My perspective is admittedly biased toward gender and race concerns, but I would love to hear from you about your other viewpoints as well. Rate the media (explanation of ratings to the right) and leave a comment, and together we can shed some light on these complicated decisions.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fisher Price Brilliant Basics

Fisher Price Brilliant Basics
Rating: N (G)

Fisher Price has a series of toys marketed as their "Brilliant Basics." These are infant and toddler toys that are brightly colored and perfectly shaped for little hands.

The Good
These toys are marketed as the "basics" for a reason. They are fun, interactive, and durable. Take the Brilliant Basics Hammer, for instance.

In bright primary colors, this hammer acts as a rattle (the beads inside make it satisfying to shake), a mobile roller (the handle is equipped with a ball that acts as a wheel), and a . . . well, hammer. It stands up to the general tossing and beating that any infant toy must accept, and it is a generally inviting toy. 

The Bad
The problem? This hammer is part of a marketing strategy that is promoted for "busy little boys." In fact, it says so right on the package of the individually-sold hammer. The Fisher-Price website has a page about this set (the Fun to Fix Gift Set) that explains "Baby boys are so adorable! Keep him busy with these fun tools—each with very practical teethable features."

The girl-marketed equivalent is the Little Glamour Gift Set. 

The individually-packaged purse declares it's for a "Sweet Baby Girl." This message is repeated on Fisher-Price's website for the set: "Baby girls are oh-so sweet! Give her a little glam and—just to be practical—teethable, easy-to-grasp features."

So, little boys are "busy" while little girls are "sweet." Little boys need to learn to fix things with a hammer, saw, and wrench that are molded in bright primary colors. Little girls need to learn to make themselves "glam" with a diamond ring rattle, a purse, and a bracelet teething ring molded in pink and purple. 

Infants will play with anything, and they're probably not making many conscious decisions about how the toys they're using are shaping their identities. However, the blatant marketing of these toys as entrenched in gender is over the top. Putting that the toys are "for" a girl or a boy right on the package aims to steer parents into choosing the "right" set based on gender norms. Even if parents go against those directives for their own children, are they likely to buy a set of toys for their friend's baby girl that says "For A Busy Baby Boy" on the package? 

Furthermore, sending a message that boys "fix" things while girls "glam" themselves further promotes the stereotype that men are more useful than women. It starts sending messages to little girls that their job is to be pretty and that being pretty requires purchasing objects.The diamond ring rattle is particularly disturbing because the marketing surrounding engagement rings is already so aggressively gendered; starting it in infancy definitely feels like overkill. It starts sending messages to little boys that their job is to be productive and that production is based in their physicality.

Bottom Line
While these toys could be given to children outside of this gendered context, the way these toys are marketed is insulting to the idea of gender equality and purchasing them rewards that strategy. Gendered marketing is pervasive, and infancy should be a time free from such blatant messages.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jon Scieszka's Trucktown on the Move!

Little Simon Publishing
David Shannon, Loren Long, David Gordon
Rating: Y

On the Move! is a board book and, therefore, is understandably low on complex content. It offers readers a series of friendly anthropomorphic work vehicles as they go about their daily tasks. Complete with interactive moving parts, this books is bright, colorful, and fun.

It also does some work against gender stereotypes. The first character we meet is "Wrecker Rosie" a smiling wrecking ball who is hard at work knocking down a building. While Rosie does have a pink wrecking ball, the stereotypical female features end there. She does not have pouty lips or long eyelashes. She's mid-stomp and clearly a tough, hard-working machine who is comfortably at home on the construction site. She gives young readers an example of a female in a male-dominated work environment and sends the message that it's fine for little girls to like trucks, too.

After meeting Monster Truck Max and Dump Truck Dan, we are introduced to a second female character, Rita the Ambulance (pictured on the cover above). While Rita does have some of the more traditional characteristics of a female anthropomorphized object (long eyelashes, big round eyes) and is shown being rescued from a ditch by Tow Truck Ted, she is no typical damsel in distress. She spends no time mooning over Ted or lamenting her brush with danger. She replies with a cheery "Thanks, Ted!" and follows it with "Now let's go rescue someone else!" Rita demonstrates that girls can have an important role in society while also showing readers that it's okay to mess up and to rely on others for help.

Bottom Line-
In eight pages, we get two examples of female characters defying stereotypical expectations. That's a pretty big accomplishment for a cute, short board book.

Listening Time

Free Spirit Publishing
Elizabeth Verdick
Illustrated by Marieka Heinlen
Rating: Y

Listening Time is a board book with beautiful, realistic drawings of children learning to listen during story time. Part of a series of "Toddler Tools" (including Sharing Time and Manners Time), Listening Time demonstrates important social skills while also promoting a positive perspective on racial diversity.

We added this book to our personal collection after searching out board books that featured multi-racial characters. This was one of the few books in the bookstore that showed characters with an array of racial backgrounds interacting with one another. It was also one of the few books that portrayed African American characters without being thematically "African American." That is, this book does not draw attention to race or use race as a plot point. It just so happens that the children in this classroom have a variety of skin tones and hairstyles.

By illustrating racial diversity without drawing attention to race, this book works to deconstruct stereotypes. While discussing the realities of racial inequality with children is important, that conversation needs to be age appropriate and balanced by portrayals of race as a neutral characteristic. Board books are obviously aimed at very young children, and it is important that these infants and toddlers see images of people of color as a part of day-to-day life.

Furthermore, all of the children in this book are well behaved and learning to communicate and listen effectively. While many images in the media portray children of color (especially black boys) as being rowdy and uncontrollable, this is a positive message that demonstrates the value of every citizen.

Bottom Line-
Listening Time offers a positive message on social skills through a racially diverse cast of characters. 


Walt Disney Pictures
Rating: Maybe (G)

Overview: Tangled does a good job of playing to Disney's strengths. Through animation and dialogue, the characters come to life with a lot of personality and humor. The songs are catchy and fit into the plot. My favorite character is Pascal the chameleon, who--without ever saying a word--manages to make his opinions perfectly clear.

The story is an updated version of Rapunzel, where the stolen princess longs to escape her emotionally manipulative mother and the tower she's trapped in to see the lights that appear on her birthday. When a dashing young thief accidentally lands in her tower to escape pursuit, she knocks him unconscious and hides his loot until he agrees to take her to see the lights. Adventure ensues. Tragedy is at hand. The princess and prince live happily ever after.

The Good:

Gender- The princess isn't spending her days pining for a man to rescue her. She uses the prince only because he has the knowledge for how to get to the lights. She isn't looking for a husband, and once the journey takes off, she's an active participant in solving problems. What's more, she doesn't only solve problems through critical thinking, but also through strength and physicality (swinging across chasms on her hair, digging into a pile of rocks to avoid drowning). This princess is no weakling, and she could definitely stand in as a strong role model.

The prince also has some positive gender characteristics. Like the prince from The Princess and the Frog, Flynn undergoes some actual character development during the film, a great improvement over earlier princes who remained static in their role as strong, unemotional heroes. His love for the princess is a genuine growth out of friendship and respect, and we watch him soften from a greedy thief to a more complex person with real emotional responses.

At one point, the prince takes the princess to a bar full of thugs to try to scare her into giving up the quest. Timid, but undeterred, the princess asks the men if they've ever had a dream. Their responses involve dreams of interior design, cupcake-baking, and knitting. At the end of the film, many of these men are living out those desires on a public forum, so the film does make some strides toward normalizing stepping out of gendered roles.

The Bad

Gender- Look, I'm not anti-marriage, but the plot doesn't always have to end in one. Isn't escaping a deranged woman who pretended to be your mother and kept you locked in a tower for eighteen years thrilling enough?

There are also some subtle gender issues that the film raised for me. The princess has a penchant for knocking around anything threatening with a frying pan, which reeks of stereotype and suggests that violence is funny as long as it's a woman beating a man, and not the other way around. Also, the idea that blonde hair is "magic" and that brown hair is the remnants of destroyed magic hair is problematic as far as beauty standards.

The body image portrayed in the film is typical of Disney. Pretty women are ridiculously thin and big-breasted. Handsome men are tall and muscular with small waists, big chests, and bulging biceps.

Race- Race? What's that? The characters in this isolated magic kingdom are overwhelmingly white.

Bottom Line-
Tangled takes steps in the right direction to move Disney princesses into roles where they are more than simply husband-seeking victims. Rapunzel is a capable woman who shows off her power and personality at every turn. While there are still overtones of the typical princess-needs-a-prince motif, I don't want to dismiss the progress outright.

What Other People Say-
See some other equality-based critiques of the film at The Stir, Feministing, and NOW.