Stepping Out of the Toy Box

A doll packed toy aisle

There’s no denying that children’s toys are marketed by gender. Walk through the pink, princess packed, plastic-gem encrusted isles of your local Toy’s R Us and you’ll see it for yourself. These isles are “supposed” to be for little girls – and majority of the children you will see playing on the boxes of these toys will be girls. Move over to the next isle and it will be completely different sight. You’ll find an isle packed with robots, train sets and tinker toys in every shade of blue and green – in boxes covered with little boys.

The Spacial Advantage

A spacial abilities test

A spacial abilities test

The marketing of toys by gender not only limits what little boys and girls are being shown what is “appropriate” to for them to play with – but it is starting to affect their abilities.  A recent article from Psychology Today reports that first grade boys and girls test significantly differently in spacial abilities, a math based skill that is not taught in schools. Boys and girls can typically increase their results overtime by how much they practice this skill. The conclusion from this study is that girls have less experience with spacial tasks than boys. The researchers explain that playing with Lego’s was one of the ways that boys have the advantage to practice these skills, there for playing with Legos can help little girls close this gender gap in spacial abilities. The difficult part of this is finding ways to encourage little girls to play with toys that will increase their spacial abilities, hand eye coordination and creativity.

The theory of social learning developed by Walter Michel, can help explain how boys and girls gravitate to their “appropriate” toys. In Gendered Lives by Julia T. Wood social learning theory is described as process that individuals learn to be masculine or feminine primarily by imitating others, and getting responses from others to their behavior. As a child grows older, they begin to learn what behavior is appropriate for their gender by the communication they receive from others and through imitating the behavior of people around them. This communication can be about what they where, or what toys they should play with. Because children respond well to rewards, they are likely to develop gendered patterns that are approved by others. This could be in the form of a parent awarding a child with a gender “appropriate” toy, which may end up disadvantaging their development.

Getting the Girls to Build

Lego Friends play set

Recently Lego has created a line of toys market to little girls, the “Lego Friends” line. While the line has received a lot of criticism for continuing gender stereotypes like having “Beauty Shop” and “Bakery” kits, the line of Lego toys is encouraging girls to construct things. It takes a toys like this to spark the interest in little girls who may only be interested in the “Beauty Shop” aspect of the toy set to create things with their own hands, which may improve their spacial skills and encourage them to keep building.

There have also been other toys created to spark the interest of girls to get into the field of engineering, a field that women are traditionally underrepresented, like the Hummingbird, a robotics kit designed to encourage older girls to build. We can only hope that toys like these will create an interest in more girls to build, and eventually begin to bridge the gap between boys and girl’s  spacial skills.

Think like a Man, Born like a Lady

Are you male or female? It seems like an easy question right? For some yes, for others I’ve come to realize it’s the farthest thing from easy. Imagine walking into an emergency room with concussion like symptoms. The nurse examines you and fills out the form saying you are a female, and you leave it there. But later they somehow check your other medical records and it reads male. They are confused, they call you a liar, and they don’t know what to think. The problem is, your birth certificate says your born sex is male but, your gender presentation is female.The following video shows a male to female transformation in 30 months.

Moving Outside of the Binaries

I personally have a few friends who don’t follow the gender norm. With her permission, let’s look at my friend, we call her Bug. She was born a girl. She still has feminine qualities, but her gender presentation is male.  She also has a girlfriend but doesn’t consider herself Gay or a lesbian. We call it free love. For her friends, we don’t over think who Bug is, or how she identifies herself. She is just Bug. And I hope one day society can see her as just that. I hope one day we can walk through a store without people staring and wondering and just see her as a person. According to an article on CNN, one writer shares “Most transgender people I know have felt a gender incongruity for as long as they remember, and evolving science says we were probably born feeling like this. The only thing that changed along the way has been our awareness that there are others like us We didn’t “decide” to be transgender.” I hope one day society can realize this and come to accept everyone for who they are without judgment.

Bug when she was younger

Bug Today!

The Difference Between Sex and Gender

According to our text book, Gendered Lives, Communication, Gender and Culture and information we have learned in class, it is safe to say there are distinct differences between sex and gender. Sex is biological; it is how you were born. Whereas gender is your cultural identity. Sex is defined as male or female, your personal characteristics are determined by biology. An example for before where I stated her birth certificate shows she was a male explains her sex. She was born a male but her gender is female.

Gender is masculine or feminine.  We as a culture create our genders. Gender varies across cultures and over time. We learn these gender norms through more than one place. What some don’t understand is that there are a range of genders and most people have a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” gendered behaviors. The range of gender I wanted to mostly focus on what transgender. A transgender is a person who feels like her/his gendered identity is inconsistent with her/his biological sex. It is also important to understand that your gendered identity does not determine your sexuality.

Building Understanding

 It’s probably not something you think about unless it’s a part of your life. The difference between sex and gender.  That being transgendered doesn’t mean just dressing up like your opposite sex. Your sex is how you were born. I was born a female. By friend Bug was also born a female.  When you look at her she clearly looks like a boy now, but when asked, if she has to pick her gender what would she identify with more? To my surprise she said female.  Bug doesn’t consider herself transgendered either. She likes to say you can’t define me, I am just me. To me she is one of the most admirable persons I know. It is important to understand the difference between sex and gender because they are at many times mistaken for the same thing, when in fact they are two different things. Also someone who is transgendered usually feels as if they are trapped in the wrong body. I can’t imagine how this feels, to not be comfortable in your own skin, and when you try to match the inside to the outside, you’re judged. I hope with this information people will realize how important it is to understand the differences between sex and gender, and what transgender actually is. You need to first understand all of the facts before you judge someone, for just being who they are.



Seeing Pink: How Pink Toe Nail Polish Destroys Lives (but only if you’re a boy)

OK, I admit it.  When I was growing up I apparently did something horrible to my brother.  I encouraged him to dress like a girl when we were playing games.  I may have even painted his toe nails once or twice.  Little did I know that by engaging in this behavior we were running a terrifying risk, or at least that would be what some would have you believe based on the recent national media attention given to a J. Crew advertisement.

A small picture in the summer catalog sparked outcry and national news coverage because it featured J. Crew president Jenna Lyons painting her young son Beckett’s toe nails neon pink.

Pink Toe Nails! The horror!

Apparently, neon pink toe nail polish can be very dangerous in the wrong hands (or at least on the “wrong” toes).

The horror!  Psychiatrist and Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow stated this “homogenizing males and females” was tantamount to “psychological sterilization,” which contributes to no one wanting to nurture young children, create families, or become soldiers. Seriously.Apparently, neon pink toe nail polish can be very dangerous in the wrong hands (or at least on the “wrong” toes).

The “wrong” toes are the crux of the whole controversy.  Of course, if Lyons had painted her daughter’s toe nails pink, no one ever would have noticed.  Furthermore, if Lyons had been engaged in a more “masculine” activity with a daughter like affectionately placing eyeblack on her daughter’s cheeks while her daughter donned her softball cap, no one would have claimed that it was “blatant propaganda celebrating transgender children” such as the widely reported conclusion conservative think tank Culture and Media Institute reached about this picture.  Some parents expressed concerns if this type of “gender bending” would “turn” children transgendered.

Gender Or Sex?

A number of issues have been lost in the kerfuffle over little Beckett’s pink toe nails.  Communication Studies and gender scholar Dr. Julia T. Wood reports that the terms “gender” and “sex” are very different.  Sex is determined by biological characteristics such as our physical bodies, hormones, and chromosomes.  However, as the uproar over Beckett’s pink toes illustrates, gender is another concept altogether.  Gender is the meanings that a society places on the sexes – our understandings for how the sexes “should” act.  Unlike the bodies we are born with, our culture creates these meanings through communicating what we think is appropriate and desirable for girls, boys, men, and women.

We often act as if these gendered norms – these socially constructed meanings – are completely natural, unvarying, and unquestionable. This is why people like Ablow state that parents should ensure their children “become comfortable” with the gendered identity they “got at birth,” as if gendered identity was the same thing as being born with an XY or XX chromosome.  According to Wood, since gender is created through interaction rather than innate with our bodies, ideas of how the sexes should behave and appear changes over time and cultures.  This is why in the United States, we no longer believe that the best option for women is to be homemakers or expect men to wear heels and powdered wigs like our country’s founders.

In fact, it’s not just pink toe nail polish that is the issue.  These gendered norms extend from minute requirements about appearance (“appropriate” colors, hair styles, and clothing for the sexes) to how we are “supposed” to act and what we are capable of achieving.  Over time, we have radically changed our ideas of careers, family care taking options, and civic work that are possible for the sexes.  Do we really want to move back to the days when narrowly defined gendered identities people were thought to be “born with” included women being only suited for domestic tasks and men as the stern breadwinner?

As our culture moves forward, boys and girls are earning more freedoms to express themselves in different and creative ways.  As parents, educators, friends, and family members, we need to allow children and ourselves the freedom to develop identities regardless of sex.  If we do that, it won’t only be our toes that are rosy pink – it will be all of our futures!

Dr. Naomi, the Tupperware Bowl Incident & Gendered Me

I’m Dr. Naomi Johnson (aka “Dr. Naomi”), associate professor and chair of Communication Studies at Longwood University.  I love my job!  My students are energetic, smart, and optimistic – they help keep me young and I learn from them.  I teach a variety of subjects at Longwood including gendered communication, organizational communication, interpersonal communication, and communication research.

If you’d asked me when I was an undergraduate student if I would be a professor of anything, I would have had told you you were crazy!  But, after 11 years in corporate life where I worked as a reporter, news editor, and district manager for a construction news organization, I decided I was ready for a change.  Eventually, I landed at University of North Carolina where I was fortunate to work with Julia T. Wood, a well-known gender and interpersonal communication scholar.  The research I conducted there under her supervision was profiled in The New York Times and Newsweek, among other news sources.

Boy or Girl?

While I enjoy teaching all my classes, the gender and communication courses hold a special place in my heart.  This is because I can see how gendered norms have influenced me from my earliest memories.  For instance, when I was seven, my mother gave me what we now refer to as the “Tupperware bowl haircut” in which it appeared that she placed a bowl over my head and chopped accordingly (she didn’t, but if your mother is an attorney, I don’t recommend that you see her for hair styling).  This situation was only exasperated when a passerby commented that I was a “cute boy.”  I cried and cried over this!

So, this idea of how something so small as chopping a few inches from my hair caused such distress and the fact that I knew at a young age what my hair was “supposed” to be like is the type of gendered norm that fascinate me.

Dr. Naomi a bit more recently…

I hope to both teach and learn more from my students in Gender and Communication about how routine and extraordinary interactions influence how we see ourselves and others.   I want to challenge restrictive gendered norms and open up new ways of thinking to live fuller lives.

Welcome to COMM/WGST 470 Gender & Communication Blogs!

I’m an athletic woman, so I like to dress up when I go out so people recognize my feminine side.

My girlfriend always wants to talk abut our relationship – why can’t we just enjoy each other’s company?

As a guy, people expect me to put up a fight when I’m insulted or I get called a pussy.

When I was a kid, my Mom cut my hair short and the kids at school called me a boy.  I cried and couldn’t wait for it to grow back out!

A baby girl!  She’s so pretty and sweet!

A real man can provide for his family.

I’m a feminist, but sometimes I don’t think others know what that means.

Communication is a element of our lives so fundamental we often forget we are engaging in it.  But if you think about it, communication – both in routine everyday interactions and in life changing moments – profoundly shapes and changes your gendered identity .

How we talk to and nonverbally communicate with one another develops how we believe we should act as women and men.  Beyond that, communication with others shapes how we envision ourselves and how we judge those around us.  Sometimes this communication restricts what we believe is possible for ourselves.  Other times it enriches our lives by opening up new forms of personal expression.  Communication about gender is a vital factor in crafting our identities.

That’s where this blog comes in – to explore some of the complex issues we face in our personal relationships and society in crafting gendered norms.  What you’ll see here is the work of Longwood University Communication Studies students who are delving into the routine and the extraordinary moments of gendered communication that shape our lives.

Their task is to demonstrate for you how to better understand and expand your understanding of gendered norms based upon the research findings of communication scholarship and other helpful sources.   So explore, respond, and enjoy!