Elizabeth V. Sweet​ Ph.D.

Copyright @ Elizabeth V. Sweet. All rights reserved.

Dissertation Research

Boy Builders and Pink Princesses: 
Gender, Toys, and Inequality over the Twentieth Century


Children’s toys are cultural products which embody and transmit ideological messages about gender. While gender inequality has diminished over the past century, gender stereotypes have become an increasingly important feature in the design and marketing of toys. My dissertation offers a historical context within which to situate this paradox, addressing several key questions: How did the presentation of gender in toy advertisements and the gender-based marketing of toys vary over the 20th century? Why did gendered toys become especially prevalent in certain eras? And finally, how are gendered toys related to larger social structures of gender inequality and cultural belief systems? 

In Part I of my dissertation, I offer an in-depth content analysis of toy advertisements in a sample of five Sears Catalogs from key time-points over the 20th century to analyze changes in the extent of gender-based marketing and the depiction of gender in toys over time. Results show that the extent and mechanisms of gender-marketing, the portrayal of gendered roles, and the prevalence of gender stereotypes in toys have been fluid over time. In 1905, gender played a minor role in toy advertisements but by 1925 and 1945, approximately one half of toy ads were gendered and many reflected traditional gender stereotypes. In the 1970s, gender-neutral toys and ads that challenged gender stereotypes became more common, but by the close of the century the gendering of toys had reverted to levels similar to the mid-century and new mechanisms of signaling gender had emerged.

​In the second part of my dissertation, I use historical demographic data, secondary data sources, and public opinion polls to assess possible explanations for these variations. These analyses suggest that gender ideology played a central role in both the processes that sustained gender inequality and in the gender definition and stereotyping of toys over the 20th century. In certain eras, marketers strategically employed particular gender stereotypes to transform consumer behavior and to encourage sales. In doing so, they added to—and perpetuated—evolving cultural narratives about gender that justified and sustained the unequal distribution of resources. My work contributes to sociological and historical research on children’s consumer culture by offering a long-range, empirically-derived description of the role of gender in 20th century toys, adding a necessary historical context within which to situate what we see in toys today. This dissertation also adds to the body of research on gender inequality by bringing to light an important, yet often neglected, site where cultural beliefs about gender are transmitted to children. With gender-differentiated toys, the preferences, attributes, and expectations of children are narrowly circumscribed and this lays the groundwork for gender inequality processes over the life-course.