Would a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz White House host an event challenging gender stereotypes in children’s toys and television shows? Probably not. But the Obamas are still in the house, which is why Wednesday will feature a symposium on exactly that subject.
The conference, “Helping our Children Explore, Learn and Dream without Limits: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes in Media and Toys,” aims to encourage more girls to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and math by rethinking both the products companies make for kids and the media these children consume. Bringing together a group of toy, media and retail executives along with activists, parents, academics and youth group leaders, the event aims to eliminate the gender divisions that define the media and toy market for young Americans.
Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, said redefining how the country’s children play, watch and read could have long-term implications for the makeup of the nation’s future workforce. Right now, it is one where 71 percent of science, technology, engineering and math jobs are held by men, while three-quarters of teachers and 91 percent of nurses are female.
“And research shows that the toys that kids play with and the media they consume has a real impact on the skills and interests they develop over their lifetimes, and the careers they ultimately pursue,” Tchen told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. “So we think it’s important for children’s media and toys to expose kids to diverse role models, and teach them a variety of skills so they can fulfill their potential and pursue their passion.”
Nine companies and groups have made pledges in conjunction with the event, which is co-sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Education Department, and the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative. The most modest one comes from the Toy Industry Association, which has vowed to include a session of its annual conference, PlayCon, to highlighting gender issues.
Several media firms, by contrast, have agreed to alter their programming in response to these concerns. The magazine FamilyFun “will consider whether toys perpetuate or break down gender stereotypes as one of the judging criteria” for determining its annual best toys and tech lists, according to a White House fact sheet. Netflix is commissioning two more series of its tween series, Project Mc2, which chronicles four girls who leverage their science skills to join a spy organization. And TIME For Kids will launch a new feature this fall that “will focus on stories about people, programs, or initiatives that break gender barriers,” according to the fact sheet.
Jess Weiner, an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said the gathering aims to highlight “solutions” as well as existing problems. “We’ve got folks creating movies that are inspiring girl protagonists and powerful female superheroes, and we’ve got some folks who are revamping iconic toy brands to make them more empowering, relatable and acceptable for both boys and girls.”
Still, Tchen acknowledged that consumer demand, not regulation, will determine what kids watch and how they play. “And at the end of the day, consumers and parents can vote with their wallets to determine which products and media are created,” she said.
Conference organizers have taken a big-tent approach to the sessions, inviting companies such as Disney—arguably the nation’s most effective promoter of princess worship among the toddler set—to a session on gender stereotypes.
“And they’ve been actually a terrific partner with us in talking through these issues and thinking about that,” Tchen said. “It’s a lot of thinking that I know that they’ve been doing within Disney as well.”
What about Mattel, the maker of Barbie and her loyal companion, Ken? They're on a panel as well.
And while America may have to wait to see how Cruz or Trump would tackle this issue, one thing is already known: Cruz has a favorite when it comes to some of the cartoon characters that loom large in the psyche of many young American girls. In January, the Texas Republican discussed the series “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” with a little girl who favored Twilight Sparkle (arguably the most powerful of all the magical horses). But he then declared his fierce allegiance to Applejack, who is known as a “farm gal” and has a deep, country-inflected twang. “I just think she’s funny,” the senator said.
Ironically, the creator of the My Little Pony animated series, Lauren Faust, has said she set out to shatter gender stereotypes with her work, by showing "cartoons for girls don't have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness.”
So maybe there could be a second annual conference under a President Cruz after all.