The Sad Side Effects of Gender-Based Marketing

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Recently there was a story about 9-year old Grayson Bruce who was bullied for bringing a My Little Pony lunch sack to school.  His North Carolina school responded by asking the child to leave the bag at home as it was a “trigger for bullying.” 

In this industry we talk a lot about gender, gender-based marketing, and the idea of gender-neutral products.  We talk about how girls are often more willing to play with boys toys than boys are to play with girls toys – and Grayson’s situation is a glaring example as to why.  Was it worse because it was a little boy using a brand marketed to girls? Maybe. But I’d guess that if a little girl showed up to that school with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox I’m sure some of her classmates might look at her a little funny too.  Regardless, the fact that children are bully due to gender-based marketing is sad.

Through years and years of marketing, we’ve ingrained both children and adults with the idea that there are “boy’s toys” and that there are “girl’s toys.” While we’ve never come out and said it, the marketing implies that playing with a toy that’s for the other gender isn’t right.  Yes, there are some open-minded parents, like Grayson’s mom, who allow their children to play with what they’d like regardless of gender, but overall our society tends to adhere to the gender stereotypes we’ve latched onto for years. 

This is not a problem we can solve overnight.  In fact, it may take a few generations to stop labeling products “for boys” or “for girls.”  Consider that little boys once wore dresses and that was a societal norm.  Things take time to evolve – in any direction – but nothing is ever going to change if we don’t start taking baby steps in the right direction. 

Sadly, Grayson’s experience isn’t the only one regarding a boy being bullied over enjoying My Little Pony11-year old Michael Morones tried to commit suicide in February after being incessantly teased for being a fan of the show. Grayson and Michael's experiences are just two examples of many (not all involving My Little Pony either) and if bullying based on gender-based marketing isn’t a call to action to make marketing less gender-focused, I’m not sure what is.

6 thoughts

  1. I’m not sure the situation is so clear cut – gender marketing does negatively impact kids who happen to have product tastes across the “line” but My Little Pony is an example of a modern brand that happily endorses all takers. It is not unusual for an MLP fan to be male – heterosexual, homosexual, whatever. The TV show does strong numbers with male audiences and Bronies has spawned gatherings and even a comic book series. Yes, the toys are sold in the girl aisle and that could be remedied with retailer support, but the brand itself has shown a lot of love for all audiences.
    I’m not saying these biases don’t exist, but I am saying we need a larger societal acceptance of gender role variations across the spectrum. The bigger problem here is that those children’s guardians and teachers failed them in every way. Not bringing a lunchbox a kid likes isn’t a solution. It’s only serving to amplify the problem. If we teach acceptance it will lead to more acceptance.

  2. Excellent point ! I admit I have read ‘Girls’ Annuals/Comics, more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else. And found the stories (even some of the features) Interesting ! And in the case of the stories, Very Enjoyable.
    There is a ‘middle ground’ such as dolls. Give a girl a ‘barbie’ it is a Doll, give a boy a ‘Action Man’ (or similar) It’s a Action Figure!
    So sad that we Live in the early 21st Century, yet to some we still live in mid 20th Century !

  3. We at QuERI are working to address the issue by pushing for pre-service education and professional development opportunities for teachers and other school professionals on gender policing, the gender binary in curriculum and classroom management, and to examine their own biases. Gender policing is bullying and we have written a good deal about this. Most teacher education programs do not require courses in diversity or multiculturalism and many educators enter the workplace having never considered how their own biases (on race, language, gender, sexuality, etc.) could impact children.

  4. Sadly there are tons of other examples of being bullied based on using a product “for” the opposite gender. One being the little girl being bullied for wearing “boys shoes” and her teacher suggested her mother bedazzle or put glitter on them to stop the bullying – much to the astonishment of her mother. Gender-based bullying absolutely goes both ways and I think it’s traumatic for both genders (and their parents).
    Our industry, as well as the clothing, entertainment, and many other industries, market products toward a certain gender and we are seeing and hearing more and more about the unintended consequences of these marketing strategies. We know how marketing influences consumers – maybe it’s time for our industry set and example and strive to make some changes at the top.

  5. “But I’d guess that if a little girl showed up to that school with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchbox I’m sure some of her classmates might look at her a little funny too.”
    Why yes, girls ARE being bullied–sometimes to the point of suicide–both by boys and by femme girls who consider them insufficiently stereotypically “girly!”
    Where’s the national outrage when a girl is bullied for wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and instead of punishing the bullies, school officials tell her to not wear “boy shirts” to school?
    Where are the fundraisers for the girls who attempt suicide after years of being bullied for being more interested in science and technology than makeup and boys?
    Fauxminism at its finest: boys who break gender stereotypes are heroes, girls who break gender stereotypes are “rejecting their femininity” and “femmephobic” and “men with boobs.”

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