We first start learning about gender roles and identity at a very young age. Social structures are reinforced from what colours children wear to what toys they play with. Everything is rigid and binary. “Blue is for boys, pink is for girls”, “Girls play with Barbie dolls, boys like cars” – we hear phrases similar to these repeated by those around us. We even hear them recited by children, regurgitating a mantra they have not yet thought to question. The rigid differences between genders, and the rigid structures of genders is constantly, and often subliminally, bombarding us from the first moments we understand that there even are different genders.
Traditionally, children’s entertainment has emulated and even exaggerated the socialised gender norms. There is a clear difference in the characters and personalities depicted in entertainment aimed at boys and those aimed at girls, not to mention a lack of representation aimed at those who may not fit within the confines of a gender binary and who may need characters they can relate to more than others.
The differences are obvious when you consider the television shows Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. Both these are Japanese animated cartoons which were first aired within a few years of each other. Dragon Ball Z was marketed towards boys and Sailor Moon was marketed towards girls. In Dragon Ball Z, the strength of the individual is made eminent, and there are many high-action fight scenes and training sequences. The plot mostly emphasises the journey of a single protagonist. Compare this to Sailor Moon, which was marketed towards girls in the same age bracket. This show emphasises team work and relying on others. There is much more romance involved in the plot, and the strength of the individual is downplayed.
While both Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon had a similar premise, they reinforced different aspects of the audiences they appealed to. Dragon Ball Z taught it’s audience to believe in their own ability and always push themselves forward. Sailor Moon taught that it is better to try together than to try to be the best.
The subtle messages that are internalised from entertainment sources such as these impact the way children play with each other, their imaginative play, and possibly their eventual future plans and aspirations. If someone has grown up believing in and imagining their unstoppable success, they will aim for the top. If someone has grown up believing that they need others to succeed, they may never try to stand alone.