Sissies, Tomboys and Toys

Are we in the toy industry missing out on the
Tomboy market?  And while we are at it, how big is the Tomboy population?

We will explore that today but first let me remind you that in my last article, “Gender
and Toys; the middle space
,” I wrote about society’s reaction to girls and boys
who inhabit the middle space between the genders. 
These are anywhere from children who strongly
feel they are  the opposite gender or just feel at times that they want
to do things that the opposite gender likes to do.

Society typically calls girls in
this middle space “Tomboys” and the boys “Sissies.”
The former has a positive connotation while the latter creates strong uncomfortable feelings in many people.  To
illustrate the point, here is how defines Sissy:  “An effeminate boy or man, a timid or cowardly person.”  And
here is how it defines Tomboy:  “An energetic, sometimes boisterous girl whose behavior and pursuits, especially in games and sports, are considered more typical of boys
than of girls.”

Doesn't it seem that the pivotal notion in the two definitions is that society sees courage is a manly trait?  That its absence is to be expected in girls but deemed unacceptable in males?  After all, based upon these definitions, when girls act like boys society sees them as courageous, a positive trait.  (Think Princess Merida in Pixar's Brave).

What is
interesting is that while boys who act like girls continue to struggle with society’s
reaction to them, there are more Tomboys than ever.  That, according to a New York Times Magazine
article “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”   Here is how The New York Times article puts

A 1998 study in the academic journal Sex Roles suggests just how
ordinary it has become for girls to exist in the middle space: it found that 46 percent of senior
citizens, 69 percent of baby boomers and 77 percent of Gen-X women reported
having been tomboys.

Let’s stop and think about that last
statement for a minute.  There was a
steady progression (from 46% to 77%) in the percentage of girls seeing themselves as Tomboys from the 1950’s through the 1990's.

Yet, over the same period, we saw a
steady trend towards toys being developed, merchandised and marketed that had become more
polarized into the “Girly Girl” and “Hyper Male.” 

Did the toy industry miss the boat?  Why has the toy
industry not responded to girls who desire(d) to play like males; in fact just
to play whatever way they wish?  Is this
one of the reasons that we lose girls at earlier and earlier ages? 

What do you think?


7 thoughts

  1. Thank you for your posting. It helps to confirm the decision we made on how to categorize our toys on our website. We do not have a Toys for Boys or Toys for Girls category as we do not feel it is our place to make that decision. We receive numerous searches on our website for Boys or Girls toys so we know our customer base expects those categories to be there.
    While managing a chain of Educational Toy Stores in a previous position, a customer wanted to purchase a pink doll house for her son. I showed the customer the pink one but also the natural color, wooden doll houses. I explained the benefit of the wooden one such as allowing her son to decorate it however he wished. The customer said she understood the points that I made but their family had made the decision to give their son what he wanted, not what old sterotypes state he should have. She bought the pink doll house and remained a good customer of the store. She opened my eyes and those of my staff as to why answering the customers questions without letting our sterotypes interfere was so important. She taught us all a valuable lesson.

  2. ouch! Now that the wounds are reopened as I’m reminded of the non male toys I kept and the grief taken for it let me say that while I never wanted to be a longshoreman and drive a monster truck either, this girl boy debate is still going strong in the minds of America. Why can’t we play with what we want for the shear interest of it? Who’s watching anyway? And why should I be afraid of what I like? Are parents really still hyping children in this direction?There are so many of the megawatt stereotypes in playland I don’t even know where to begin sorting it all out.somebody quick give me a chess board!

  3. Richard,
    We’ve found at that there is a lot of demand for a game that lets girls be kind, smart, independent and brave while having adventures.
    We’ve reached almost 300K registered members in 187 countries, all by word of mouth. The original book series that sold 15M copies features 3 girls who are “kind, independent and smart.” These characters do things, go on adventures, solve problems and help each other. It’s been gratifying to see that our site attracts girls and women of all ages, from 6 to over 80.
    Our active membership dwarfs sites that have spent ten times our development budget. Plus – A new research paper that will publish in the next month uses our site to study how gaming site’s visitors change when they play online. A similar study by the same author published a year ago proved that violent games reduce compassion and caring for others. ClubPonyPals works the other way — it teaches personal responsibility and pro-social values to the members who play.
    Toy manufacturers say that girls will play with toys aimed at boys, but boys will not. That leads to the Pink Princess Plaything Phenomena. Marketing hyper-feminized toys has lead to ongoing diversion from the real world, to the extent that I find amazing.
    Women and girls are not damsels, but rather are the 52% of workers who are the main breadwinner in our households. Yet getting only girly toys leads to some very odd things later in life.
    We are not all damsels who need rescuing, it is fun to have a chance to rescue others!

  4. The rise in “girly girl” toys and the rise in self-identified tom boys may be causally related. As the toys meant for girls get more insanely pink, more and more girls feel they fit better with the toys now identified solely with boys. When I was little playing with Lego bricks did not make you a Tomboy. Now it does.

  5. I think it is about the ingrained prejudice of us about “a girl’s abilities as a human”. Today, a toy producer’s toy subject for a girl directly comes to mind by what he(yes, boss is usually a man!) has seen in the market. The common idea in the society is “to underestimate” the skills of a girl/woman about making a difference, having a managing strategy and sharing the power of a man in life. The biggest expectation of a female is to give a birth to a male who has the potantial to make a difference and share the duty of managing the world. So that girls play with prepared toys that are not familiar with constructing, struggling, etc… the opposite of is not expected from girls. The lack of gender equality in many countries is the reason of that.
    Despite of this, if a few girls in the big percantage wish to play with toys for boys, that may be wellcomed by her parents as an individual effort of that girl who is willing to discover “what more she can do” and what more she can learn can be an additional value to her skill of fertility (for new generations) as a potential woman. Well, she may be assisted by her mother as an out-of-box girl, especially by a mother who is willing to see what her daughter can do more.
    However, if a boy wants to experience a girlish toy, it is not commonly wellcomed by the society as you claim. In my opinion, a potential woman sometimes can be busy with toys of boys(she will give a birth to a boy in future, it is a good experience for her), but the scenery of a boy does not include being fecund, and i think a boy playing with girlish toys make people limit him just to avoid from the idea of “man&fertility scenario”. Well, woman has permission both to be fecund and manager, but man only has ability to manage, not to be fecund.

  6. Thank you, Richard. A very thoughtful piece, and a welcome expression of acceptance in the increasingly polarized gender debate.
    By way of a comment on how attitudes change, I remember that in 1966 my parents expressed grave reservations about my boyish Christmas desire for the then hottest new toy: an Action Man! Despite his rugged appearance, manly scar, military uniforms and weapons, I was initially told, “boys don’t play with dolls.” They later relented, but were never entirely comfortable with my growing Action Man collection (even though it eventually included tanks, APCs, jeeps, and enough firepower to invade a diminutive country!).
    Coming more up to date, for the past 6 years we have lived in the middle of Chicago’s GLBT neighborhood. In this year’s Pride Parade I noticed that one of the biggest cheers from the crowd went up for the girls and boys of our local primary school who cycled the parade en-mass, all wearing extremely cool aviator shades, and all with rainbow streamers flowing from the handle-bars of their bikes. Maybe it’s just the ‘hood, but maybe, slowly, attitudes are changing.

Leave a Reply to Ermengrabby Cancel reply