Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘gender’

The Woes of Mr. Potato Head

“In 1952, Hassenfield Brothers, a maker of pencil boxes and other school supplies, began advertising its new toy product, Mr. Potato Head, on TV.” (Chudacoff 172) The original Mr. Potato Head was actually relevant to a potato, or any fruit or vegetable for that matter. They were sold by Hasbro in $1-2 accessory packs to stick into fruit that was bought separately by the consumers’ own means. The entire idea was that children could create faces that never looked the same.

“A crucial shift involved consumer items for very young children. Soft, cuddly toys, like the teddy bear, appeared in American markets” (Stearns 7) like many of those things, Mr. Potato Head lost its original intent and Hasbro started producing plastic “potatoes” with holes for the accessories. Children didn’t get a chance to play with fruit anymore. Mr. Potato Head has created a huge revenue as he was featured in the Disney movie “Toy Story.” When I went to Disney world 12 years ago I remember going on a “3D adventure” with Mr. Potato Head. All of this was born out of simple appendages stuck into fruits and vegetables.

Screen shot of the search "Mr. Potato Head" on Google, showing the "classic" look of Mr. Potato Head, in all of which he looks the same

The true value of this toy was that it promoted creativity in children. They could make a potato look happy and a squash look mean. The plastic potato that is now sold was obviously a successful way to make more money from parents who don’t want their children wasting food and have to deal with the tantrums from the children who want to keep rotten Mr. and Mrs. Cantaloupe Heads. However, now all Potato Heads look the same. There are only so many looks you can give the potato without buying more accessories to go with it. Mr. Potato Head went from being a $1-2 toy, to essentially a gender neutral Barbie, always needed a new accessory. This fixed the problem that “boys and girls were attracted to dissimilar products,” (Chudacoff 180) but created a new one: You have to continue to buy accessories to personalize your Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads. An accessory kit can run about $20 each according to Amazon but at the rate of childhood boredom, will one be enough?

All Girls Are Princesses

A Little Princess movie cover (1995)

One of my all time favorite movies is A Little Princess. It is based on the 1905 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story line follows a young girl named Sara Crewe who is born and raised in India to her wealthy soldier father. He sends her to an upscale London boarding school to receive a formal education. The headmistress, Miss Minchin, is cold and cruel to say the least. Then, when she receives word that Sara’s father was killed in the war and would not be paying for Sara to stay at the school, she tells Sara her only choice is to live in the attic as a servant or else she will be kicked out on the street. Sara never loses hope or the ability to see the good in everything. Her father always told her elaborate stories about princesses in India and she used those stories to keep the other girls at the boarding school feeling positive. They would meet her in the attic nightly and secretly listen to her optimistic stories. Miss Minchin does everything in her power to keep the girls from using this power of imagination. She believes it to be a waste of time and that they should be doing more productive things with their time. She even takes Sara’s locket, the only part of her father she has to hold on to. (Spoiler alert) In the end, she finds that her father is much closer than she thought. He is alive and recovering from an explosion with the help of a friend from India. They are reunited and Sara takes one of her new orphaned friends with  her and her father back to India after ensuring that Miss Minchin is fired.

Needless to say, the moral of the story is that imagination is a powerful tool that makes life better and can helpThe orphaned girls tell stories in the attic you through hard times. Another main point is to never lose hope in yourself or others. This is a powerful message to send to children considering, the issues we have been discussing in class. Combining my love for this movie and my new knowledge from class, an idea from our Chudacoff reading came to mind. “Advertisers quickly learned that they could merge a “backstory” of fantasy with a product to create a meaningful relationship between product and child.” (course packet) I realize this is not necessarily a product advertisement but this movie is definitely pro-imagination and the writers use this dramatic story line to drive home the point that children need imagination in their life.

We discussed in class whether or not children should tap in to this source of creativity when they play or if play should be focused more on productive ideas like easy bake ovens or toy work benches. My answer is no. The ability to be optimistic and make light of a challenging situation begins with the ability to see the good in everything. I believe this starts with the ability to be creative and expand the definition of real life.

A very important line from the movie is when Sara says “All girls are princesses”. This brings to mind the Free To Be You and Me readings and discussions. I believe this movie is very relevant to this piece. The story, “Ladies First” seems to say that girls should not claim to be ladies or princesses based on the entitlement that comes with it. However, this movie shows that this gender idea can be used for good to make a young, troubled girl feel special and loved.



The first book I remember reading cover to cover (without being required to), was Wringer by Jerry Spinelli, published by HarperCollins in 1997.  It tells the story of ten year old Palmer LaRue, who is faced with a moral dilemma.  In Palmer’s hometown, it is a tradition for all the boys who have turned ten to wring the necks of injured pigeons on Pigeon Day. Thousands of pigeons are released and shot as a way to raise money for the city park. This is considered an honor and a rite of passage for the boys. Everyone around seems to be looking forward to it, except Palmer. The idea of it tortures him; he is taunted by the thought.  He even ends up taking in a pet pigeon, who he names Nippy. The only person who knows about his new pet is Dorothy, his best friend, who is also against the festivities on Pigeon Day.

Palmer fakes enthusiasm to fit in with his guy friends so that he is considered “cool”. On Pigeon Day, Palmer finds out that Dorothy accidently let Nippy out of his cage near the area where pigeons are captured for the festival. Palmer rescues an injured Nippy from the shooting zone in front of the entire town. The story ends with a little boy, while watching Palmer, tell his father he wants a pet pigeon.

We have talked a lot in class about the gender roles in children’s toys and books. This book is the exact opposite of the gender focused books described by Elizabeth Segel. Palmer is not very adventurous and he relates more to his best friend Dorothy than the popular boys in his class, Mutto, Henry and Beans. There is definitely male focused comedy associated with these three boys, (bathroom jokes, etc). The combination of the soft thoughts of Palmer and the rowdy boys in his class allows for this book to be appreciated by both boys and girls.

I never understood until recently why this book meant so much to me. At the point when I was reading this I was eight years old, so I did not think much about it. Looking back today I realize it is because the story is about a boy who does not fit into his society’s idea of what a boy should be or act. I was a girl faking it with my friends and family, though I did not know why. Now I know why I felt so different, I am gay. Palmer’s story of fighting for how you feel inside, even though everyone around you may reject you, is something that sticks with me to this day. This book bends the gender roles we have established for our children. It says: be who you want to be, no matter what the world is telling you.

Coca-Cola Soccer Kit

The year was 2001, and I was 9 years old. My dad had come across a pair of tickets to a home game for Honduras’s national football team against Mexico, and asked me whether I wanted to come along with him. I’ve heard that every man at some point during his life takes, as a wife, one sport. While he may be unfaithful at times by engaging in other sports, it is to this sport to which he will be permanently bound for the remainder of his life. My father’s sport was baseball. That probably explains why, unlike every other child in Honduras, I lacked any sort of familiarity on football and did not partake in the religious fervor that its fans tend to engage. That all changed on a chilly October day in 2001. Out of pure curiosity for the event my school friends had been ranting about for the last month or so, I agreed to go with my dad (mostly because I wanted to know what made football more interesting than Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which despite my high praise had somehow failed to elicit anything more than a “whatever” from my friends). Once at the stadium, a wave of excitement drifted over me and I ran ahead of my dad so that I could see where the deafening noise was coming from. Then I saw it. The green pitch, the chanting fans, the waving flags. They say when you meet the love of your life time stops, and that’s true. I felt like I stood there for an entire lifetime before my dad snapped me out of it and walked me to our seats. There isn’t enough space in this post to describe how I felt during that game, but suffice to say Honduras won by three goals, and I had fallen in love for the first time in my life.

Following the game, and to advertise Honduras’s campaign towards reaching the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, Coca-Cola (the national team’s main sponsor) released a kit that included a soccer ball and the two small goals. You could not buy the ball in stores- it could only be purchased by redeeming 12 proof of purchase stamps from qualifying products. To promote the kit, Coca-Cola aired commercials showing the national team’s players doing tricks with the ball and scoring into the goals. The day after the game my friends (not a single one surprised at my overnight transition from indifferent to obsessed about football) and I consumed more Coca-Cola than should be humanly possible and redeemed our purchases to the nearest distribution center. Every week one of us would get to keep our new found treasure at their house, with possession changing hands on Fridays. Every Friday we would set up the goals on somebody’s street, place the ball in the center of our “field”, and a metamorphosis would occur. The walls around us turned to fans. The asphalt beneath us turned to beautiful grass. We were no longer children, but instead became our idols. Afterwards we refreshed ourselves with (big surprise!) ice-cold Coca-Colas.

Thinking back, this is a perfect illustration of the phenomena described by Howard Chudacoff in Children at Play:

Advertisers quickly learned that they could merge a “backstory” of fantasy with a product to create a meaningful relationship between product and child. The licensing from movies, television programs, and sports gave toys a very explicit significance… most children understood the product in a way that most adults did not. (Course Packet page 180)

In Honduras the vast majority of children (especially boys) loved Honduras’s national team, regardless of whether or not they liked football. It was a way we all bonded, came together, existed as one. There were no boys and girls, no kids and adults, no rich and poor. For 90 minutes, we were all just Honduran. Coca-Cola used that indescribable (at least to children) feeling of belonging, of unison, to advertise their product. By merging the national team and Coca-Cola products, the line between them became blurred. We saw Coca-Cola as the moment when a player made an extraordinary dribble, or as the feeling when all the crowd roared and danced when Honduras would score a goal. Coca-Cola became pure, unfiltered happiness. I saw anyone that chose Pepsi over Coca-Cola as hating the very core of being Honduran, of conspiring to deprive us all of the joy of qualifying for the World Cup. Many of my friends shared those sentiments. The kit Coca-Cola provided took it all a step further. After watching their commercials, we all wanted to use the same ball that the players used, and to score goals into the same posts that they did. We wanted to dribble the same, and shoot the same. We came to believe that the “magic” the players had was a product of the Coca-Cola ball itself. The ball and goals became mystical figures, items that when in our possession made our skill-set limitless. We were capable of any trick, could score any goal, and would eventually make our way into the national team to play alongside our idols. My parents and many adults did not and could not understand why we felt so strongly about these kits. How could they, after all? They were too old to play on the national team, so we figured they would never understand. Those days we existed for one ideal- “Joga Bonito”, play beautifully…

Coca-Cola Ball, courtesy of the Coca-Cola Store

Honduras National Team sponsored by, you guessed it, Coca-Cola. Courtesy of

Playmobil Empire

I blame the occasional lower back pain I experience today on the years I spent bent over on my bedroom floor playing with the toys that dominated my childhood, Playmobils. The plastic dolls and furniture produced by the Playmobil line provided me with countless hours of entertainment. For years, the carpet of my bedroom remained unseen, and in its place was the Playmobil empire I had constructed.

The Playmobil Company was founded by the Brandstätter Group, headquartered in Zirndorf, Germany. The Playmobil was first introduced at the International Toy Fair in Nuremburg in 1974, and in 1975 Playmobil went global. The first Playmobil sets offered revolved around the themes of: knights, construction, and Indians. Once Playmobils hit the market, they were an instant success amongst children, and continue to maintain their popularity today.

Playmobil produces a variety of thoroughly detailed and realistic-looking toys, ranging from plastic dolls to plastic mansions furnished with plastic Playmobil furniture. The dolls, male or female/ adult or child, all have big smiles, no noses, and all sport different outfits, hairstyles, skin color, and more. Playmobil also provides children with lavish furniture to decorate your Playmobil home with. Playmobil products are typically sold in sets, so the price ranges based on the Playmobil item or set that you purchase. Typically, Playmobil dolls cost around $3.00 sans any additionally accessories, and sold sets can cost anywhere between $10.00-$100.00. The lucky children who somehow manage to persuade their parents into buying them a three-story house or castle pay as much as $160.00.

Playmobil creates hundreds of different play sets based around various themes, and one might conclude that some sets are designed with the intentions of being geared towards a certain gender. Howard P. Chudacoff mentions in his work, “The Commercialization and Co-optation of Children’s Play, 1950 to the Present”, that some theorize boys and girls to have different play habits and interests. Chudacoff states: “Boys were said to desire power and thus needed to be represented as playing with action toys that emphasized success…by contrast, consultants assumed that girls craved glamour and were more likely than boys to sit indoors where they quietly played with dolls and games” (180). Playmobil offers children a variety of sets based around differing themes. One such set is pirate themed, and comes equipped with a ship and dolls accessorized in pirate gear. Another set offered by Playmobil is a nursery set, which comes with a crib, rocking chair, baby doll, and more. Chudacoff mentions that boys are more prone to play with action toys, whereas girls prefer “glamour” and quieter activities. If these assumptions are correct, then in order for Playmobil to market to both genders they need to create action and adventure orientated toys as well as ones that “glamour” and nurturing themed, hence the pirate ship set and the nursery set.

Chudacoff also includes an argument made by Susan Linn pertaining to the idea that toys today no longer encourage creativity. Linn believes that: “Traditional construction toys such as Legos and Lincoln Logs no longer come boxed as collections of materials that would encourage a child to use them freely. Rather, she observes, they are packaged in “kits,” complete with explicit instructions…for putting the blocks together” (“The Commercialization and Co-optation of Children’s Play, 1950 to the Present”, 185). In contrast to Linn’s argument, I believe that Playmobils prompt children to use their imagination, whether it be freely choosing how to decorate a room with Playmobil furniture, or imaging that your bedroom floor is the ocean that your Playmobil pirate ship rides on. Playmobil simply provides children with realistic-looking toys, and the rest of the play is up to the child. As a kid, playing with my Playmobils meant entering an imaginative world, a world in which these plastic toys allowed me to construct a town, zoo, or any other setting that I could imagine.

Playmobil kitchen and dining set sold at Toys R Us for $29.99.

Baking is for Girls

Easy-Bake Oven in the 90's from Website Children of the 90's

One of my most prized possessions throughout my childhood was my Easy-Bake Oven. I loved to spend all my time baking things and pretending I was a real chef. Easy-Bake Ovens were first came out in 1963 and are now manufactured by Hasbro. They first used a lightbulb to cook the products and now use an actual heating element to bake. The Easy-Bake Oven is created for girls to mix and bake cookies and cakes to decorate and eat. It is a small version of a real oven and is safe and easy to use for kids. There have been many different versions throughout the decades that it has been around and is still sold today. When you bought the oven it came with a few mixes and the result would be a very small cake, cookie, or brownie that you would eat. The price for an Easy-Bake Oven now can be anywhere from $40-15. In 2007 Hasbro had to recall over 900,000 Easy-Bake Ovens because kids could get their fingers caught and potentially burn their hands.

As a kid I never realized the implications this toy had for gender roles. It was a baking kit made for girls. Looking at this now it is funny to see how stereotypical this product is for women and their domestic role. In class we discussed the different ways toys and television shows can effect children and the Easy-Bake Oven is a good example of how girls might think it is their job to be the domestic one in the family. They later came out with a boy version in the early 2000’s but it focused on making gross looking food like mud cakes. This toy is promoting a clear separation of what girls and boys roles should be as kids. When I used this toy almost every weekend in the first grade I didn’t realize that it could have lasting impacts on my model of what a woman should do. Considering that I still love to bake now it could have had an impact on my life, but I don’t think it had any serious affects relating to my role as a woman.


Grease Lightnin’

As a child, Grease was one of my most watched movie, mostly because it was one my grandma’s favorites, so I’d see it every time I went over to her house.   The film was produced by Paramount Pictures and released in 1978.  A PG13 film due to sexual content and references, teen smoking, and drinking, Grease exemplified many of the fears that were present in the delinquency and rebellion of the generation of adolescents. The film, although released in the late 70s is set in 50s America, traces the lives of a couple rebellious high school seniors, the T-Bird boys and the Pink Lady girls.  Throughout the movie, the T-Bird boys are seen pushing their masculine and rebellious role, spending their time working in the school auto shop, chasing girls, and causing trouble along the way. The Pink Lady girls, on the other hand, are shying away from some of the more typically female characteristics, within the realm of maintaining their womanhood.

In the back, Sandra D sits in the pink skirt, before her rebellion; in the front, smoking, is the new Sandra D after the influences of modern pop culture have influenced her. Created by a Grease fan at

Most notably, Rizzo spends her time trying to act like one of the guys; chasing guys instead of letting them chase her, and promoting the “sexualization” of the teenager through her actions and dress.  By the end, Rizzo has not only exemplified a change in the meaning of womanhood, but she has also transformed good-girl Sandra D into a rebellious girl like herself.  The growing movement of female gender roles expresses the clear change that was occurring in the 50s.  Parents were no longer able to restrict the pop culture of the generation’s adolescents.  In addition to the importance of changing gender roles, the film expresses some clear moral panics of the ages through the story.  The rebellious girls are able to take in Sandra D and transform her from a feminine ideal girl to a rebellious, sex-driven teenager, which exemplifies the fears of the previous generation of parents.  Even the most feminine and traditional of girls could lose their way in modern pop culture. The film clearly shows the moral panics of the previous generation of parents and the ever changing gender roles of the newer generation in the 1950s.