Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the 2005 holiday shopping season begins in earnest, what’s out there for girls to find under the tree?

Across the spectrum of gifts and toys, most retailers have retreated to a pink-and-blue world, aiming products at the sexes as if they really did come from different planets. After a unisex phase, large toy stores have returned to boy and girl aisles because they are more profitable.

"The gulf between His and Hers sides looms like the parted Red Sea," writes Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at State University of New York, Stony Brook. "Woe to him who strolls inadvertently into Barbie-land from the land of the action figures. It’s not simply those cute blue-and-pink blankets anymore. Everything is coded."

As part of this coding, girls are pretty well immobilized.

In its newspaper supplement catalog, Toys "R" Us offers no pictures of girls on its sports page. Boys, meanwhile, are seen playing basketball, riding an arcade-style motorcycle and playing an electronic hockey game. No girls are seen in two pages of action-figure toys, nor in two pages of cars and trucks.

Two pages devoted to building feature boys playing with Legos, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and a huge "tube park." Girls are offered Cinderella Castle blocks (with a battery-powered waltz) and a cheap toddler block set. On a learn-and-create page, boys play with toy trains while girls seem delighted with a "glitter dream dollhouse."

Dolls Page Is for Girls

The dolls page, of course, is for girls. There you can find items such as a Cinderella carriage, a Barbie primp-and-polish styling head for hairdos, a Hollywood party limo and scores of Barbies. No boys are pictured.

None of which is to pick on Toys "R" Us. It was just the handiest example.

The aisles of most American toy stores or toy departments have the same gender-coded sections. Just walk through a store and that becomes obvious.

Hot items in Toyland are the big-eyed Bratz dolls, sporting navel-baring tops, hooker boots and miniskirts. The Bratz dolls are even more overtly sexual than Barbie. The toy industry–along with many parents–has noticed the so-called age-compression phenomenon.

Children are outgrowing traditional toys sooner. Not so long ago, girls up to age 12 played with Barbies.

By 2000, such "tweens" were plugged into Britney Spears gyrating on MTV. This growing-up-fast syndrome may be one of the engines behind the success of the Bratz, which are becoming more popular than Barbie.

Advertising Age reports that Barbie "has lost shelf space at major retailers and has been displaced by the edgy, hip-hop Bratz." Barbie’s third-quarter sales were down 30 percent in the U.S. compared to the same period a year earlier, says the magazine.

"It’s not the fact that children are learning about sex when they are young that is a problem," says Diane Levin, a professor of child development at Wheelock College in Boston. "The problem is what today’s sexualized environment is teaching them."

Kids are getting pulled into precocious sexual behavior for which they are not emotionally prepared.

So what’s next? A "Jailbait" line of dolls that offers price lists for sexual favors when you wind them up?

Virgin-Whore Syndrome

The virgin-whore syndrome is alive and well in your local toy or clothing emporium. One new item that has already gone beyond the pale is a T-shirt aimed at teens by Abercrombie. "Who needs brains when you have these?" go the words blazoned across the wearer’s chest. Female teens have already protested these shirts, calling them "degrading."

The protest started in Pennsylvania with the Allegheny Girls as Grantmakers program, which gives girls funds for projects on women’s issues, and has spread across the United States.

"The shirts make it OK to be stupid," one of the protest’s organizers, 16-year-old Emma Blackman-Mathis, of Pittsburgh, told the Columbus Dispatch.

Another growing trend is fantasy makeovers for girls 5 to 13 in local shopping malls sponsored by a group known as Club Libby Lu. The group is what’s called an "experience retailer." This means that they don’t sell just products. They package an experience together with merchandise.

Parents who want to sign up their daughters for a fantasy party purchase a "Libby Du" package. The choices are not exactly tailored to shoppers who want to inspire the girls in their lives with aspirations beyond that of fashion model.

They include a sparkle princess, a rock star, a fashion trendsetter and a drama diva complete with glittery sunglasses. Club counselors create fancy hairstyles and apply sparkly makeup to the little girls, who wind up looking like beauty pageant contestants. The fantasies being marketed are images of adult sexuality and overt consumerism.

If girls are learning sexuality from the marketplace, they are also getting lessons in passivity much earlier than we thought from what is supposed to be play.

Playtime Teaches Serious Lessons

For years, conventional wisdom had it that the play of preschool children was all about having fun. Newer research reveals that children at play are actively engaged in serious learning.

One of the things they learn is that the world abides by stark dominant gender roles. These toys teach girls who is in charge, which activities are "natural" and "good" for boys and girls.

These lessons are learned by age 4, according to Glenda MacNaughton, associate professor of education at the University of Melbourne, who has conducted extensive research on equity issues in childhood. A rash of new studies shows that boys and girls as young as 3 or 4 years of age indeed do get the gender-difference message.

In the pre-school world, boys are in charge, say a number of studies done by educators and social scientists. Boys appropriate the most active play areas, and they tell girls what they can and can’t do. Boys are learning that they are supposed to be the dominant sex and that they can treat girls as submissive and acquiescent.

Girls learn early that they should be accommodating so that when they grow they will be desirable to the men they are expected to marry.

Here is how Adam, a middle-class 6-year-old Caucasian boy, who is well-respected by the boys and girls in his kindergarten class, put it: "Look, boys are supposed to do boy things and girls, well, they do all those girly things. That is how it is! Boys play football. Girls are cheerleaders. And we aren’t going to mess with it. That is final!"

By contrast, the real world for which these children are practicing is one where most women will be in the work force and most men will be expected to help raise families.

Getting zipped into outmoded gender roles while they are still toddlers will only make their lives more fraught with confusion and conflict.

Any parents and teachers who intervene against the message of the marketplace are not being overzealous. Subverting this message can only help steer children toward happy lives.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are authors of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs" (Basic Books 2005.) Barnett is senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.