Ages 10-12 (Tween)Ages 2-5Ages 6-9Media & Technology

Why “Just Don’t Buy It” Just Doesn’t Work

Originally published in slightly different form at I’m Just Not Impressed on October 14, 2011.

At least once in pretty much any discussion about patronizing idiot-chic tee shirts, uber sexy Halloween costumes, or itty-bity sexpot bikinis for 2 year olds, at least one person will take the time to comment “If you don’t like it, just don’t buy it.” It’s one of many phrases that could (and does!) fill an anti-sexualization/anti-stereotyped gender roles bingo card (along with comments about pedophiles and gender neutrality making kids homosexual). And on one level, it’s a reasonable assertion – if we don’t like a particular consumer product, rarely, if ever, are we forced to spend our hard-earned money on that product.

But it’s also extremely short-sighted.

As Melissa at Pigtail Pals, Ballcap Buddies has eloquently stated, it’s not about the t-shirt, or the costume or the bikini or the miniskirt or whatever. It’s not about crushing our tween’s budding sexuality or prudishness. It’s about recognizing that the singular product(s) that garner media attention are but a drop in an ocean of sexualization and negative stereotyping of our children that masquerades as “positive” sassiness. It’s about recognizing that children who are bombarded with image after image of boys being active and girls having tea parties and dressing up as princesses start to see these roles as their rightful place in the world.

Do I think that I, as a lawyer and a feminist and an active, powerful woman am the strongest role model my children have for what a woman can be? Absolutely. And I’m thankful every day that my kids have fabulous women and men in their lives who provide them with terrific support and examples.

But I don’t think for one minute that these are enough. Because we do not live in a bubble. My kids see supposedly “educational” programming that relegates women to cute supporting roles. They see toys in the toy aisle that encourage little girls to project an image of adult women dressed for a night at a dance club. These images are so pervasive that kids only see the “novelty” in each doll – hey, that one looks like a werewolf instead of a fairy instead of a mermaid instead of a doctor wearing clothing that is completely impractical for practicing medicine (ever try to rush around a hospital and stand performing surgery in stiletto sandals? Yeah, me neither). They see images of boys rejecting anything “feminine” and being told to be a “real man”.

And even if I could raise my kids in a bubble of non-sexualized, non-stereotyped messages until the age of 18, I wouldn’t want to. My job as a parent is to teach my children to successfully navigate the world as it is, not a magical land where no little girl feels like she needs to dress as a sexy witch for Halloween or no little boy is ashamed of liking pink toenail polish, much as I may wish that were actually our culture. I talk to my kids about the messages they see in media and how those messages might be mixed at best and I am thankful for communities of other parents who are doing the same thing. But my job as a human being is to want something better for all little kids – not just those with parents who see this stuff and talk about it, but those who don’t – even those who actively encourage gendered play and stereotypical, even oppressive traditional role. The kids of parents who see nothing wrong with a t-shirt proclaiming that their daughter is too pretty to do homework or their son is a chick magnet may be my daughter’s daycare classmate, or my son’s date for the prom. All kids deserve better, not just mine.

So sure, I won’t buy the t-shirt or the costume or the bikini. But what I want is not a culture in which no one is allowed to make such things, but a culture in which no one wants to.

Featured image via Jonathan Harford (cropped from original, all rights reserved).

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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  1. I think there are multiple levels on which that advice fails
    1. AS you mention, it doesn’t change the culture
    2. YOu cannot not buy. WE might be able to avoid the worst offenders, but in the end we don’t live in places where we can let them run around naked all day.
    3. At some point the only person who pays a price is the child. IF my daughter’s heart was set on stupid Monster High, and all her friends were in total Monster High fever, then the only person suffering from my ban on Monster High would be her. FUrthermore I would teach her that girly things are bad.
    I’m not saying that there aren’t instances where we should absolutly draw th line, but that needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

    1. There’s a lot of privilege, at least in the US, in being able to opt out of some of the worst offenders. Whenever people start putting together lists of alternate places to buy clothes or toys or pretty much anything, it’s almost inevetably more expenseive stuff than what you can get at a big box retailer. Prices for a basic colorful tee shirt are a lot higher at some of the awesome independent retailers – understandably – but even if you pick and choose and buy only things from Target with non-branded kittens or solid colors, there’s still that element of almost shaming a kid who wants the same sparkly flowers or video game characters they see their friends wearing. I particularly love your last point for that reason – I don’t want my kids to feel bad for liking gendered things. I want them to be aware of it, and to understand that they are not limited to those things, but at the same time, I want them to be media literate and be able to see things for themselves.

  2. I keep pondering these issues now that I have 2 little girls. I read “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, which I took to be part humorous and touching memoir, and part interesting and informative history of marketing to girls.

    More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that the toys, marketing, and media are less part of the problem, and more a reflection of a society that is still sexist in many ways. I love your walk-off sentence where you say you wish you lived in a world where people don’t wants these products. Because that – the fact that a lot of people in our society want to strongly reinforce potentially damaging gender roles – is what does damage.

    This is a difficult subject for me right now, since my older daughter is 4, and all into being a princess and dressing up. At first I got all upset when she started turning into a girlie girl. But things came to a head when one day we got into an argument about her wanting to change her clothes yet again and put on yet another fashion show. I used the excuse that I didn’t want to have more laundry to clean, but really I just didn’t like her being so obsessed with fancy clothes and accessories. In the heat of a frustrating moment I yelled, “I think pretty dresses are stupid!” She then gathered herself and shouted back, “Pretty dresses are not stupid, mommy! I love pretty dresses!” I have adult women friends who are strong, independent, and ambitious, and who obsess over clothing and love doing makeup and hair and accessorizing. I would never shame them for expressing themselves that way. So why was I failing to support and celebrate this one interest out of many diverse interests? Am I really afraid that if she plays fashion show that she’ll grow up to willingly subjugate herself to misogynists? That she’ll be an airhead? No. I’ve decided that I need to support any and all of my daughter’s interests, from millipedes to ballet, monsters to modelling fancy clothes.

    People complain about the Lego Friends sets being too stereo-typically girlie, even though they get girls who wouldn’t otherwise to play with building sets, and there’s certainly a small number of effeminate boys who love those sets too. A doctor might not practice medicine in high heels, but a doctor might put on heels when she goes out for the evening, so is Dr, Barbie a mixed message, or just a simplified meshing together of career and gender?

    1. NO, I think that ït’s her choice” is too simple as well. ALthough I totally agree with you that shaming our girls is wrong, I also don’t think that uncritically supporting them in everything is right either.
      THe sentence I took from Orenstein’s book was “There’sa multi billion dollar industry telling our girls what to like but I’m not allowed to have an opinion?” (Quoted from memory)
      WHat honestly hurt so much when my oldest started to become stereotypically girly was how rapidly her world shrunk. SUddenly she didn’t like things she always enjoyed anymore because “they were not for girls”.
      ANd then there was the day she told me that she needed to be pretty so that people would like her and she would have friends. SOmething died in me that day. BEcause the message they get from Dr. BArbie isn’t ” you can have it all”, it’s “no matter what you do, it still only counts if you can do it while being pretty.”

      1. “BEcause the message they get from Dr. BArbie isn’t ” you can have it all”, it’s “no matter what you do, it still only counts if you can do it while being pretty.””

        EXACTLY. I think there’s a decent move afoot to show that women and girls can be both feminine and smart, but the next step is to get farther with deconstructing what feminity is and represents. That world shrinking is what terrifies me looking ahead.

      2. I think the difference in our personal experiences is that that whole world shrinking thing hasn’t happened to my daughter. My daughter gets the Lego magazine in the mail, and she squeals over the newest princess and Friends sets, but she also says, “Whoa, awesome!” at sets of giant robots, garbage trucks that transform into flying machines, and recently asked for the tow truck (which incidentally comes with a woman minifig in a business suit and her car which is being towed.) My daughter has all kinds of interests that cross gender stereotypes or which are gender neutral, which is why I’m not concerned that she gravitates the most toward the girlie stuff. If she didn’t, I would be concerned, and I definitely would be taking action.

        One of the ways I dealt with these difficult issues was to try to talk about the difference between masculine and male, and feminine and female. That people of both sexes can have both masculine and feminine traits and interests, and that’s part of normal variety of personalities. If a boy friend of hers plays with a doll, I point it out to her, “See, some boys like to play with dolls, too.” The concepts of fancy girls and tomboys, tough boys and princess boys are observations of different peoples’ preferences and personalities, not a basis for condemning those who frequently cross gender lines.

        We definitely have to stay vigilant. My daughter likes to play doctor, and when one day she said she wanted to be the nurse instead because “girls are nurses, boys are doctors”, I immediately set on a quest to dispel that bullshit. We viewed countless images on Google of men in nurses scrubs, and women in labcoats. And when we next went to visit her dad in the hospital where he works, I said let’s play a game and count all the doctors we see walking around (which we identified as people in labcoats) and more than half were women. After that she went back to playing doctor.

        The devil (so to speak) is found in the details. A little girl being really interested in fashion and accessories and makeup isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s bad if she’s only doing it because she feels pressured or is pressuring other girls to be into it because of rigid and limiting concepts of gender roles.

        As for Barbie, I think Barbie looks like what she looks like for the same reason all the actors on tv and film are more conventionally beautiful than their real-life counterparts. You are right, it does do harm. Not just to girls, but women. I don’t usually have body issues, and I’m always more concerned with health than weight or being conventionally attractive, and yet if I’m tired or cranky, and a commercial with a mom with kids and a minivan, but who looks like a supermodel comes on, I feel a burst of rage. I feel like I’m being pressured to look like that. But it’s just that beauty sells. Ken and the men on tv are more handsome, too. I know a few guys who developed complexes about being too thin and “wimpy” looking in school, and no doubt that’s perpetuated by action figures and superheroes that look like they spend all day in the gym. It’s not right. It is something harmful about our society. It hurts all of us, not just our kids, and not just girls.

        I’m sorry if it seemed like I was simplifying this issue too much. It not a simple problem, and there is no simple solution.

    2. It is *hard*. My 3 year old is huge into pink and always wants to wear a tutu so my bottom line is nothing that won’t allow her to play. She can wear all the flouncy skirts she wants as long as she can still climb a ladder or take on her brother and his friends in a Nerf battle – like you, I’m cutting for the middle. She can wear all the pink she wants, as long as she still feels comfortable getting in the dirt and playing with trucks when she wants. One of the mantras that I’ve picked up from the Pigtail Pals site, which is part of why I feel so at home with Melissa’s philosophy is “I’m not against pink, I’m against limitations” – if she’s offered 5 colors freely and chooses pink, so be it. And I do think there’s something to meeting people where they are, which is part of why I’m conflicted about LEGO Friends.

      1. Yes, that’s a rule we have here, too.
        I’m totally willing to buy pink trekking sandals, and I am even willing to add 200 hotfix crystals, but I’m not going to buy the flimsy sandals she can’t run in.
        ANother rule is that she has to wear shorts underneath her dresses and skirts in summer. Not because OMG people could see her undies, but because sand and stones do not belong in vaginas, where they inevitably end up if you’re playing in the dirt for some hours.

        HOnstly, me forbidding or even arguing against pretty dresses and unicorns and fairies would be simply dishonest. THere are replica of movie princess dresses in my wardrobe, I love all things fantasy. SO I’m trying to show her that yes, you don’t have to limit yourself. THat I love dragons as much as unicorns and pirates as much as fairies and that I have pretty dresses and pretty swords and that I’m not only the resident cook and seamstress but also the resident repairs person.

        1. Exactly. I make her tutus with cheap tulle from the fabric store, which she wears over sweatpants half the time, because a skirt *must* be worn, regardless of how odd it looks to an adult eye. And I have no room to manouver regarding a lot of traditionally feminine things – I have hundreds of little bottles of perfume, and dozens of pairs of shoes (and a reputation to uphold for having fabulous footwear, natch) and quite a lot of jewelry. And a tarantula skin from when my long ago pet, Shelob, shed her skin that one time.

  3. A great book about this topic is Packaging Girlhood by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown.

    Seriously… I would do this book’s taxes for free I love it so much!

    It breaks down in great detail what the many pitfalls of the “pink culture” are, and how the marketing easily transitions girls from “sassy” to “sexy” to self objectifying. The authors discuss ways to talk to your girls at different ages (starting as young as 4) about the messages they are getting on t.v., in the toy aisle, and from their clothes, with the end goal of raising children who are media savvy and can see the detrimental messages for what they are. They emphasize NOT arguing with or shaming your kids, but instead asking questions to try to get them thinking. It is also not about dismissing or demeaning “girly” things – there is actually a pretty big section about how female friendships are portrayed in our culture (spoiler: often they aren’t… women hate each other right?) and how to try to counteract that message. I cannot overstate how helpful it has been to me as I start to gear up for the inevitability of my (now 2 year old) daughter starting to see and absorb these toxic messages.

    On a side note, I really hate the Lego Friends sets. A girls building toy centered around beauty and leisure activities… just what we needed. It isn’t even so much that there is a bakery/juice bar/stage/pet salon/beach house etc, it’s that there ISN’T a firehouse/police station/hospital/mad scientists laboratory/spaceport (you get my meaning). Could the Lego Friends girls have jobs or go on exciting adventures? No, that’s silly – they’re GIRLS. For a culture that keeps telling girls they can do anything, we’re sure intent on showing them what their priorities have to be if they want to be valued.

    1. I need to grab that book – I’m familiar with the authors, but haven’t actually read it, but it sounds like exactly what I need to ground me a bit as my daughter approaches 4. (HTH is this happening!)

      I confess, I’m really conflicted by LEGO Friends – so much of the criticism has been wrong headed- calling them dumbed down, for example, that I tend to automatically go into defensive mode. My biggest issue with them is not so much what they do show – there’s nothing inherently wrong with bakeries or juice bars, or performing, and they do have a really cool science lab and a pool and lots of situations where they show girls being sporty and outdoorsy and responsible citizens and business operators (it’s just that the jobs are persistently girly), but the lack of epic adventures and the implied segregation from “regular”, ergo “boy” Lego.

    2. Do you have any experience with the Lego Friends sets? They are the reason Legos are one of my four-year-olds favorite toys, and she now loves anything Lego, and collects not only Friends sets, but Creator, City, and Princess sets. Are karate and water sports not adventurous enough? Not to mention all the stuff that goes on in any kid’s imagination, for example when a giant eagle attacked the queen’s castle, and the viking warrior woman came in riding her giant zebra to save the kingdom. But as far as I can tell, most of what they do in her little world is give medical attention to their pets and hang out together as friends. Every time she gets a new friends set, the first thing she does (after building it, meticulously following step by step instructions) is play act the new girl meeting all the other girls and being accepted into their group of friends – so positive female friendships are being encouraged here. I’m sick of people hating on the Lego Friends sets when it seems clear to me that they are a million times better than Barbie and other fashion dolls – which are the most popular toys for girls. Lego Friends figures don’t depict unrealistic beauty standards and they get the girls to creatively build, opposed to just change doll clothing. Critics seem to think all kids do with these sets is built it once and then never take it apart, change it, and only play with it within the limited scope of what is superficially presented. But kids are naturally way more creative than that.

    3. This is the best article I’ve read about the issue of Lego’s marketing for girls, and it directly addresses the Friends sets toward the end of the article. To quote a line: “Many people have praised Friends as a way to broaden the LEGO fanbase and bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise play with LEGO. Will Friends really act as a gateway to the rest of the LEGO product line for those builders, or like Belville will it just create a separate, less building-intensive universe?” I’m sure it will act as a gateway for some, but not for others. It has certainly been a positive gateway for my kid, for which I’m incredibly grateful. My kid put together a set that had 67 pages of instruction with only a few minor errors that she was able to correct mostly herself. With her friend who is also only 4 years old, they were able to complete the Creator Fierce Flyer scorpion which is geared toward kids ages 7-12. Again, she’s doing this instead of asking for fashion dolls to dress up – which is most certainly what she’d be asking for if she wasn’t so into the Legos.

      The article suggests that history of Lego indicates that the mini-doll in the Friends and Princess sets will not last and dilutes the Lego brand, and also suggests that parents try to ditch it. Which I find interesting, because I’m noticing my kid begin to ditch it on her own. In playing with different sets, many of which include traditional minifigs (Viking woman, princess, business woman, nurse) she’s learning that they are more versatile than the mini-dolls, and she’s starting to play with them more than the dolls, or at least incorporating both minifigs and minidolls into play together.

      I’m not saying Lego is perfect. It is still a reflection of a sexist society, like almost everything else out there. But it is a much much better alternative for girls who are drawn to girlie toys IMHO.

        1. The article was good, thanks for linking!

          To answer you question, no, I don’t have any personal experience with the Lego Friends set, only what I have seen of it on the Lego website and read online. I may, depending on my daughter as she gets older, be forced to have personal experience with it – but I really hope to avoid having to give the company sales numbers to back up its segregation. Yeah, I’m sorry, but I have a really visceral extreme dislike of that set.

          I guess I want to say that I in no way want to imply that you or anyone else is a bad parent for buying it, or that their children are somehow wrong for wanting it. This issue is complicated and because of limited options and media representation we are often forced to make the best of a bad situation. (It’s like politics that way). What I strongly object to is the notion that maybe the situation isn’t so bad.
          I also need to apologize for the massive amount of sarcasm directed at the Lego company to follow… I tried, but apparently I can’t write about this without resorting to it.

          I particularly object to the argument that “they get girls who wouldn’t otherwise to play with building sets”. Wow Lego, so good of you to try to “fix” a problem that you helped to create, and coincidentally, to do it in a way that will cause parents to be forced to spend extra money on different sets of blocks for their children of different genders! But gotta give ’em props for trying, right? No. I really don’t. Anita Sarkeesian breaks it down better than I can say it in one of her two part videos on Lego:

          I guess the other thing I wanted to respond to is the notion that the Lego friends girls aren’t depicting unrealistic beauty standards. That is technically true, but what they did instead of just using minifigs is give us something slimmer, and PRETTY (never mind that they lose poseable articulation in the process). All the Lego friends are very pretty, and that’s just super important for us girls, right Lego company?

          They HAVE added to the different options since I last looked (good), but no, karate and water sports are not adventurous enough for me, giant feminist wet blanket that I am.

          So to sum it up, the good: Showing female friendships without “mean girl” narratives and catty competition, some emphasis on caring, pro-social behaviors, actual inclusion of POC in the minidoll characters (Lego needs to do a LOT more of this and FAST).
          The bad: Complete segregation from the “regular” (read, boys) Lego products, with a very healthy dose of problematic stereotyping thrown in without enough non-stereotyped options to balance it. Also, for the love of Dog, can I get a decent mix of colors? Pink & Purpleville just isn’t working for me. >.<

          It may seem to you that my anger is out of proportion to the problems in the product, but I submit that in my view the Lego Friends set is just one more rock in the landslide of crap that is being peddled to our daughters, and my anger is directed at said landslide. I expect better.

          1. I forgot to say that I agree with your assessment that Lego Friends is a better “girl” toy than Barbie. It’s just that being able to say “it’s better than the alternative” is not the same as being able to say “it’s a good toy”, and I (obviously, lol) don’t think it IS a good toy.

            I don’t want to discount your experience, and I’m glad that it has helped to usher your daughter into a love of building. The fact that it became a bridge for her to start to enjoy the “regular” (read, boys) Legos does kind of suggest to me that if they hadn’t locked her out of the clubhouse to begin with she may well have been playing in it all along.

          2. Silver feather, I agree with just about everything you’re saying. Separating the harmful from the harmless is an endless challenge (for parents of both genders, I have Quaker friends who are trying to keep their boys away from toys that glorify violence. Although I would say that today there are no generic Legos. They are all part of a themed line, and not all lines or sets in a line market to just boys. Creator is definitely gender neutral. And this month the free giveaway set for kids is a spring tree with happy face.

      1. My 3 year old plays with traditional and girly-figs pretty interchangeably. Mostly, she just really really likes seeing anything that she feels includes her. Just as she can comprehend the idea that there might be different sized dolls or animal figures or any other toy she plays with, she doesn’t really seem to see or care about the difference in sizing. Granted, she is not the target audience for Friends – we don’t need a “bridge” to Lego over here, but we have enough pieces to build one if we did. Lego’s big failing with Friends was not the sets themselves, but rather the failure to encourage more cross-gender, cross-line interaction.

        I’ve talked a lot about Friends in the past and am overdue, it would seem, to do so over here – mostly just waiting until we build the Cinderella’s Castle set Mo’s asked for for her birthday. 😉

        1. Wow, you have a lot of Legos! XD
          I’m glad to have it confirmed by someone who is likely as close to “Lego expert” as I will find that the Friends sets aren’t dumbed down in terms of building experience. I would add it to my list of pro’s above, but that would be setting the bar too low I think. I really liked your links, and think that this subject absolutely warrants more discussion!

  4. I try not to support companies I don’t like by buying mostly thrifted, a lot of which ends up being new Target stuff for both twins (boy and girl). I am aware that technically this doesn’t help companies I do support because I don’t always buy from them, so I’m not “letting my money speak” or whatever, but I can’t afford to only buy from “approved” companies because I’m broke.

    As far as princess stuff, my daughter likes to put on any dress and claim she’s a princess. She still hasn’t shown a preference for pink though, but my son seems attracted to pink and bright colors and will sometimes want to wear dresses and I don’t have a problem with that. They will be 4 years old in May. My son is also the one that prefers legos and cars, even though I don’t buy specific toys for each of them for the most part. I buy a toy thinking both of them will use it. My daughter is also the one that enjoys painting and drawing the most and he doesn’t really like getting dirty with the paint. I just try and make sure they both have access to different sort of toys and not to encourage gendered use of toys. I don’t mind them liking tutus because tutus are fun. I have noticed that some family gives them gifts by gender and I try to balance that. My mom seems to have given up on my boy liking girly things and will now try to accommodate that in her present buying which is great.

  5. I had an epiphany around my oldest’s 5th birthday. I went looking for some gifts and I was like “damn, I would love to buy this truck or that construction kit and this dinosaur shirt, but I know she wouldn’t like them”. So I gritted my theeth and bought a beads set. And when we made necklaces and bracelets together I noticed how much she was learning. Fine motor skills, planning ahead…
    Now we have a big collection of beads and stuff. More cheaper plastic for the kids, more glass and semi-precious stones for me.

    1. That is great! It is very important that we not devalue stereotypical “girl” activities in our quest to include a complete range of activities. I struggle with this myself, and try to keep it in mind when I am looking for activities for my little one.
      Plus, I love beadwork!

  6. I think its important not to make this an issue just for girls. Boys need to have a much wider range of choices as well. Part of not denigrating “girly” things (good point silverfeather13) is to make it ok for boys to like and do those things.

    1. Absolutely! I completely agree, although I maybe didn’t address that as clearly as I could in this post, since most of the time when I see the “just don’t buy it” argument, it’s related to objections to products directed primarily to girls. That’s actually part of my objection to the pushback against Lego Friends (referring back to some of the other comments) – the issue shouldn’t be that the girls in the line are shown doing “girly” things, it’s that the options are largely limited and segregated.

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