Book review: Packaging Girlhood

An alien anthropologist, studying North American culture, might wonder why it is that despite the increasing economic and political power of women over the last forty years, appearance and behaviour seem to be more gender-typed than ever. A walk through any department store would give this anthropologist a clear notion of gender roles in children and teens: boys are warriors and superheroes, clad in camouflage (the new blue); girls are princesses, dressed always in pink. Packaging Girlhood, by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown, acts as a guide to parents and teachers who – perhaps remembering a time of boys and girls in t-shirts, jeans or unisex overalls – may be as perplexed by all this as our alien would be.

Packaging Girlhood is an invaluable resource for anyone raising (or teaching) children today. Lamb and Brown look closely at how consumerism and traditional gender roles have formed a vicious cycle: advertisers sell women a desired gender identity, which makes that identity more powerful, which makes it more valuable to advertisers. As they put it in the Foreword: “What choices, what ways of being a girl are offered to our girls as they make their way in the world? … Look beyond the particulars and start to see the big picture. Examine that cute pink purse and jeans on a popular doll, in a popular movie, in a popular magazine; see it talked about in a popular book series and worn by a popular artist on a popular Web site and on a popular book's cover. You will begin to appreciate the impact of marketing on your daughter.”

Lamb and Brown explain how media promise girls the power to choose their own identities – but only from a carefully selected range: “Acting on girls' worst fears that they will be labelled by someone else, magazine articles ask them to label themselves.” The authors don't, however, lay particular blame on any one medium, but rather on the web of media that constantly reinforce the messages children receive. As they say, “You may think it's best just to turn off the TV. It won't work – at least not for long… It's not just the world of TV that is bombarding your child with products and gender messages; there are also Web sites, fast-food restaurants, movies, billboards, and toys. The real issue is the big corporations that are out to sell your kids everything.”

As a result, one of the most eye-opening aspects of this book is when Lamb and Brown show how products that may seem inoffensive or even empowering in one medium do not necessarily carry the same messages in another. Dora the Explorer, for instance, is a children's television character often pointed to as a positive role model for girls: she is active, intelligent, and a problem solver who wears a practical outfit of t-shirt, sneakers and shorts. (The t-shirt is pink, of course, but you can't win ‘em all.) When the authors look beyond the TV show, however, exploring the Dora merchandise at their local toy store, they find “Dora in a bikini and flower bracelet or Dora in a yellow princess gown, fully decked out with a bracelet, ring, necklace, earrings, a yellow cone princess hat.” Girls are told that you can watch Dora exploring as a passive viewer, but if you want to be Dora then you must take on a more traditional “feminine” role.

Packaging Girlhood is not without its flaws. One valuable resource in the book is a list of suggested alternatives to mass-market books, videos, and so on, but in some cases the authors may have needed to do a bit more research: they present a very positive attitude, for instance, towards Japanese animated films such as Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away. Both are fine films with good female role models, but parents whose children go on to explore further into the genre might be shocked at some of the gender stereotypes often found in Japanese anime; these two movies are really exceptions, as some of the American movies listed are, and parents deserve to be informed of it.

A more serious problem comes with the “suggested dialogues” that are sprinkled throughout the book. These are scripts for discussions between parents and daughters, aimed at defusing some of the effects of media and challenging the gender stereotypes that are communicated. This is a worthy idea, but unfortunately the dialogues are so wooden as to be occasionally hilarious. For instance, in one section dealing with issues around food, the reader is instructed not to say “I'm on a diet” but rather “I wonder why there's such a fuss about carbs. I love potatoes. They're delicious and nutritious. Surely, they'll be back in everyone's diet soon.”

Is it fair to ask the writers of such a thoughtful book to also write convincing dialogue? Perhaps not, but when you're up against media it's important to be able to meet them on their own terms. The overall vulnerability of young people to advertising remains unchanged, but they've become resistant to overt marketing messages: in other words, while they're still entirely capable of being manipulated by media, they simply tune out this kind of blunt sloganeering. Telling your child something is “nutritious and delicious” will earn you an eye-roll at best. Clearly, what's meant here is to make parents understand that when it comes to body image, their own behaviour and attitudes are an important influence on their children. Giving key messages, or talking points, might have provided the necessary jumping-off point for these conversations without the unintentional humour these dialogues provoke.

These, though, are minor flaws in an otherwise excellent book. Lamb and Brown, to their credit, recognize both the difficulty and necessity of answering back to media: “How can kids compete with the likes of major corporations that are relentlessly pushing a strictly gender-coded version of beauty and toughness? Maybe they can't, but you can offer even young children words and questions that open up possibilities and help them hold on to all the things they love.” To illustrate the difficulty of that task, they relate a student's experience in buying a present for his niece. “The salesclerk asked ‘What does she like to do?' He replied, ‘She likes to swim.' The clerk took him straight to the Barbie aisle and pointed out the pool set.”