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Playing with Gender: Toys, Gender, and Inequality over the Twentieth Century

This research offers a new historical context within which to situate the segregated pink and blue toy market we see today and in doing so explain the paradoxical resurgence of heavily gendered toys even as overt sexism has waned. Drawing from a content analysis of over 7,300 toy advertisements from a sample of seven Sears Catalogs that span the 20th century, I analyze how the gender-based marketing of toys and the particular gender messages embedded in toys have varied over time in ways that both reflected and reinforced dominant social beliefs about gender in any given era.

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Dissertation Research

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

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? 

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Article Manuscript 

“She’s a Dream Come True…” Femininity and the Fantasy Princess in 20th Century Toy Advertisements 

The princess role is dominant among contemporary dolls, marketed almost entirely to girls. But have princesses always played such a central role in the world of dolls, and if not, what explains their emergence? Using an original content analysis of 7,366 toy advertisements from a sample of seven Sears catalogs, I analyze changes in the gender marketing and stereotyping of dolls over the course of the twentieth century, situating these changes within a broader social and cultural context. I find that the extent to which dolls have been marketed to girls – either explicitly or implicitly – and the social roles embedded into dolls have varied over time in ways that mirror larger cultural shifts related to gender. Dolls marketed to girls in the first half of the twentieth century revolved heavily around mothering and homemaking, and it was not until the last decades of the century that the fantasy princess doll made an appearance in catalog toy pages. From this analysis, I argue that dolls which emphasized traditional femininity waned during the second-wave feminist movement as gender stereotypes and social beliefs about gender difference were challenged.  The glittery pink princess doll emerged in the last decades of the century as the idea of essential gender difference regained cultural traction and enduring gender stereotypes were repurposed and repackaged into fantasy toys for children.

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Collaborative Project with Mary Jackman

Beauty and the Beast: Beauty and Violence in Gender Relations

We use Jackman’s (2002) definition of violence to analyze a wide range of physically injurious female beauty practices across different cultures and historical periods. We analyze the ways in which the politics of gender govern the practice of beauty, examining the social and economic incentives and sanctions that induce women to engage competitively in violent beauty practices.

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