Back to the White House: Discussing Gender Stereotypes in Media & Toys

April 12, 2016 | By Brent Almond | MAKING MEMORIES, POP CULTURE

For the second time in less than a month, I found myself an invited guest of the White House. (I don’t think I’ve ever written a more unfathomably awesome sentence.) While hearing the First Lady speak about nutrition and fitness a few weeks prior was certainly amazing, the topic of the second event was much more in my wheelhouse.

gender stereotypes in toys and media

Helping our Children Explore, Learn, and Dream without Limits: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys was a day-long conference hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls. And it was both an information and inspiration overload.

Thought-leaders, experts, and innovators from a myriad of professions gathered to present the challenges and offer solutions on ways to expand the worlds of learning and play for our kids. Panelists included authors and advocates specializing in kids and young adults; professors of psychology, sociology, media, and diversity; and those representing parents and caregivers.
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SOME CHALLENGES

The group I was most excited to hear was (not surprisingly) the panel of toy company executives; yet it also proved to be the most frustrating.

Four of the five companies represented have faced controversy — and made progress — related to gender stereotypes in recent years. Mattel discussed Barbie’s new line of diverse skin colors and body types; LEGO talked about their rationale behind LEGO Friends; DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. featured DC Super Hero Girls; and Disney touched on the changes to their Princess toys, as well as success and stresses surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rey, the film’s female lead.
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gender stereotypes in toys and media
Working to meet changing demands:
Lori Pantel (Mattel), Tasia Filippatos (Disney), Michael McNally (LEGO), Diane Nelson (DC Entertainment/Warner Bros.), Ayah Bdeir (littleBits)
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Much of this information was already familiar to me, but it was fascinating to get first hand reports from decision-makers within each toy-making titan. And I applaud the efforts they’ve made to support broader ideas about children. Yet my frustration stemmed from the words they used; or rather, the word they didn’t use.

Three of the panelists repeatedly used “mother” when referring to parents and toy buying or interacting with their kids. Not once was the word “father” used. This was from three of the largest toy manufacturers on the planet. At a conference on gender stereotypes.

The fact that well-educated, successful toy executives failed to address half of all parents speaks to the root of the problem we were all there to address. Words matter. Stereotypes matter. Inclusion matters. Perhaps it was just an oversight, but it makes me question the internal language used in each company. Are dads ever a part of the conversation? If we can’t change the thinking (and speaking) of those making and selling the toys, how can we hope to make change for our kids?

We hope and we make change because it’s part of being a parent. We can’t rely on toy companies to give us what’s best for our kids, we have to tell them what that is — with our words and with our dollars. Clearly, there is still work to be done.
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gender stereotypes in toys and media
Working to make dads part of the conversation: Doyin Richards, Carter Gaddis, Charlie Capen, yours truly [Photo courtesy of Carter Gaddis]

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SOME SOLUTIONS

Lest you think I got hung up on “the dad thing,” there was plenty at the conference to be hopeful about.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, spoke about how the media portrays women, and the positive effect it can have. She shared that in the first five years CSI was on the air (2000-2005), the number of women who enrolled in forensics programs doubled. She attributes this in part to the popularity of the show, which features women prominently in the forensics field.

The fifth toy company panelist was the founder of littleBits, creator of electronic building blocks that foster creativity and invention. They are gender-neutral in both their design and marketing, and are totally amazing!

Meredith Walker, Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, talked about the organization she co-founded with lifelong BFF, Amy, and their mission of “helping young people cultivate their authentic selves.”
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gender stereotypes in toys and media
Working to redefine boyhood & girlhood: Jess Weiner, Dr. Michael Reichert, Rosalind Wiseman, Dr. Joseph Nelson, Rachel Simmons, Fatima Goss Graves
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Each panel included at least one person of color — a good reminder that children of color have to overcome stereotypes associated with their race as well as their gender. Dr. Joseph Nelson, a professor of Educational Studies at Swarthmore College, admonished that we “need to find a way to support multiple narratives.”

While the conference was the brainchild of the White House Council on Women and Girls, I was pleased to hear just as much discussion about boys and young men.

Author Rosalind Wiseman shared insight from interviewing boys for the last few years. “Boys are more complex than we give them credit for. They may enjoy fart jokes and violent video games, but they still crave love and need relationships. Their friendships are just as important to them as they are for girls.”
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gender stereotypes in toys and media
Working to make parent voices heard:
Dr. Knatokie Ford, Meredith Walker, Laurel Wider, Ana Flores, Charlie Capen (and his awesome kiddos, on screen), Dr. Yalda T. Uhls

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Laurel Wider is the mother of a son, a psychotherapist, and founder of Wonder Crew — a line of dolls inspired by, and for, boys. The Wonder Crew dolls combine the “adventure of action figures with the emotional connection of stuffed animals.” Laurel is currently working with a writer and director from Bob the Builder to create a Wonder Crew TV series!
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gender stereotypes in toys and media
Working to keep my wits about me.

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Lastly, in conjunction with this conference, several companies and organizations are taking steps to dismantle the stereotypes in toys and media, in order to help children better “explore, learn, and dream without limits.” See the list of participants and learn more at WhiteHouse.gov.

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ARE YOU A DAD, OR IS THERE A DAD (OR 2) IN YOUR FAMILY?

Does he have input on what toys you buy your children – what websites, movies, and TV shows they see? Does Dad play, read, or watch along with the kids? Does he have opinions on what your sons and daughters enjoy, experience, and aspire to?

LET ME KNOW IN THE COMMENTS. I’d love to show the toy companies that fathers do care, are involved, and should be addressed. I believe it can only lead to better conversations, more thoughtfully made and marketed toys and media, and ultimately — happier, healthier kids.

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A huge thanks to Jess Weiner, organizer of the event and the one who got me on the list! #ChangeIsaWeThing

Let’s keep the conversation going! Visit and like Designer Daddy on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter.

 

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7 responses to “Back to the White House: Discussing Gender Stereotypes in Media & Toys”

  1. Berto says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’m wondering what the LEGO folk’s had to say about the Friends line. (I’ll admit, I didn’t click the link yet). At my house I buy most of the toys for the kids. My wife suggests things at times but I follow what I hope they’ll like, or what they tell me they like. I do look for things in each genre that both kids will enjoy. For example, the Asoka/Darth Vader two-pack action figure set was perfect for my son and daughter. They both like Star Wars, but they also gravitate to characters of their own genders.

    Great work as always. Thanks.

    • Brent Almond says:

      Berto:

      Not sure if you read this elsewhere, but LEGO talked about some of the flack they initially got for creating “girly LEGO” — but that how it was all based off of research and focus groups on how some girls like to play, build, imagine, etc. He also gave an example of how one of his daughters was always into LEGO, but the other only showed interest in the Friends line.

      Thanks for your comment, and have fun playing with your kids! 🙂
      Brent

  2. Daniel says:

    Thanks for representing us and giving a great summary! I really appreciate your concern regarding the lack of dads being included in marketing speak. As a two dad family it drives me crazy how many books, toys, commercials, movies, store clerk conversations, etc all revolve around “mom”. Why can’t we just include fathers? And we’re not alone–there are so many other family types not recognized such as children raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and so on. “Parent” would go such a long way for me!

    • Brent Almond says:

      Daniel:
      “Parent” would have been fine with me, too, but I only heard it ONCE amidst the sea of “mother”s.

      At the time, I wasn’t even thinking of myself being 1/2 of a 2 dad family, but ALL of the dads I know (several of which were in the room) who love to buy toys, go to movies, watch TV, read books, and PLAY with their boys AND girls.

      Thanks for your comment, and hugs to your family!
      Brent

  3. […] in media and gender expectations in play. I exchanged thoughts and ideas with Brent Almond (Designer Daddy) and Doyin Richards (Daddy Doin’ Work), and I enjoyed seeing and hearing our friend Charlie Capen […]

  4. […] Brent Almond writes about his experience at the White House Council on Women and Girls event last week that addressed gender stereotypes in media and toys. […]

  5. […] Brent Almond writes about his experience at the White House Council on Women and Girls event last week that addressed gender stereotypes in media and toys. […]

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