Sometimes, in a land full of shopping centers with pink and blue aisles, it’s hard to fight against the near tidal wave of gender messaging inundating our culture, even as a grown up. For children, the images must be constant. As a parent I sometimes wonder if I am fighting a losing battle when it comes to ensuring my children know they can play with, wear, or grow up to be anything they want, regardless of whether they are male or female.
Luckily, these two young women are inspirations that give me hope that my own children will be able to find their own way through society’s pressures to have them act within strict gender roles.
Antonia Ayers-Brown wasn’t even a tween when she decided to take on the McDonald’s fast food chain, declaring a war on gender bias when it comes to their Happy Meal toys. According to Antonia, the franchisees were asking customers if they wanted “girl toys” or “boy toys” with their meals and, often, not respecting a child’s wishes if he or she asked for a different toy than the one that went with his or her perceived gender.
Testing out her theory with an undercover investigation, it turned out that almost all of the stores she visited made the same pitch, using the terms “girl” and “boy” to describe the toys, and refusing to switch toys of the child showed an opposite preference. When she was unable to get an adequate response from McDonald’s, who said she was exaggerating to create a story, she spread out her research and engaged more children to test her theory.
“In a series of 30 visits, we sent boys and girls, ages 7-11, into 15 McDonald’s stores to independently order a Happy Meal at the counter,” writes Antonia in Slate. “We found that 92.9 percent of the time, the store, without asking, simply gave each child the toy that McDonald’s had designated for that child’s gender—a Justice fashion toy for girls and a Power Rangers toy for boys. What’s worse was the trouble the children encountered when they immediately returned to the counter and asked to exchange their unopened toy: 42.8 percent of stores refused to exchange for an opposite-sex toy.”
After taking that information back to the CEO of McDonald’s a wonderful change occurred: a new policy that asks workers at counters to refer to the toys by type versus “girl” or “boy.” “When a customer orders a happy meal you must ask ‘will that be a My Little Pony toy? Or a Skylanders toy?’ We will no longer refer to them as ‘boy or girl toys,’” a McDonald’s manager’s notice reads.
Antonia managed to make a difference for any child who wants the toy he or she prefers, regardless of whether that toy is perceieved as a “boy” toy or a “girl” toy, and will allow him or her to pick it without assumptions or shame in his or her choice. Antonia’s quest took many years to complete, however, and may still take longer to fully implement.
Madison Kimrey knows all about taking the long term approach to overthrowing gender roles. Madison Kimrey has been active in the North Carolina Moral Mondays effort, and has been trying to get the governor to talk to her for almost a year now. That’s a pretty long time when you are only 12.
Now, she’s taking on conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, whose recent comments that women need to keep earning less money than men so they will be content to get married has reminded many of just how far the GOP still has to go when it comes to understanding women.
Madison makes it clear to Schlafly that, when it comes to influencing young women, she’s doing it wrong. “What you’re doing, Ms. Schlafly, is contributing to something very disturbing I see happening with some of the teenage girls I know,” writes Madison. “At a time in their lives when they should be free, independent, and exploring and preparing for the possibilities they have in the future, many of them are worried about getting or keeping a boyfriend. There are young women my age who are extremely smart but they hide it because they get messages from women like you that if they are too smart or successful, boys won’t like them. They get messages from women like you that pleasing a man should be their number one goal.”
In a society where kids are bombarded with gendered messages, it’s good to see that our youth are still determined to fight back and find their own paths, regardless of the pressures put on them to conform to the alleged stereotypes of their own sexes. Thank you, Madison and Antonia, for fighting back for all boys and girls.
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