gender roles

Looking Deeper into Gender Roles in Toy Commercials

When looking at things through a semiotic lens, we have to assume that everything is potentially meaningful. Doing so is no chore when looking at the following children’s toy commercials. Many toy commercials contain blunt messages for the gender roles and socialization of children and the following videos are shining examples.

In this commercial for the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, six girls go through a montage of cooking with the product while dancing synchronously in matching aprons. The first striking thing about this commercial may be that the girls—at least in their early teens—are far older than the target buyer of the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, which Hasbro states to be as young as eight. It’s pretty safe to assume that these girls left their Easy-Bake Ovens in the attack a few years back.

Interesting so far. Let’s dig deeper.

At twelve seconds into the commercial, an older woman, who is clearly meant to represent a mother, turns around to the girls cooking and gives an approving smile as she works on a cooking project of her own—presumably the same pastries the girls are making. The next time we see her, which is also the last time, is at twenty-one seconds wherein you only see her from behind walking away, leaving the girls completely on their own.

So what does a girl, say eight or nine years old, see? In this case, you don’t need to be a girl to see. A bunch of cool-looking older girls using the Easy-Bake Oven. Furthermore, the mother of these girls happily lets them do it by themselves—granting them not only womanhood, but the proper womanhood. Through two higher generational layers—those of the hip young teenagers and the wise mother—the eight or nine year old has absorbed a rather blunt message: This is what women do. This is where you belong.

This next commercial for Robocop and Ultra Police action figures is another gender role-reinforcer—this time for boys. Unlike that of the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, this commercial does not show a role as specific as that of a housewife. It does, however, promote a value message which, in itself, implies multiple kinds of roles.

The commercial starts off with footage from the original Robocop movie, which introduces/reminds the boy viewers to the character in which these action figures represent. The commercial then presents its own narrative split from the movie footage wherein the action figures, through no other agency than firepower (the action figures do not ‘walk’ or ‘run’ anywhere). As the commercial states, “The Ultra Police, protected by robo-armor, bring Robocop even more fire-power.”

As the good guys claim victory over Head Hunter and Nitro by no other virtue than fire-power, an ethical message is formed: justice and righteousness is ultimately attained through violence. The role of the boy, by that value, is can be narrowed down by a process of elimination of any other problem solving: negotiation, pacifism, reason, etc. Furthermore, the toys that the characters represent serve as models for the boys–physically ideal (muscular and touch-looking) to translate into them as ethically and methodically ideal characters: problem solvers by means of violence.