Exploring Gender in Advertisements

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My students’ drawings of boys and girls

This week, my students and I have been exploring how gender stereotypes are exploited in advertisements. First, my students and I revisited the concept of a stereotype, which we had already covered during our “Draw a scientist activity” (featured in an earlier post). I had my students fold a piece of a paper in half and, without any directions, draw a picture of a boy on one side and a picture of a girl on the other. When students finished their drawings, I displayed all of their work on our whiteboard in the gallery depicted above. I gave my students several minutes to look at the drawings and to think about what was similar about the drawings and what was different.

After taking time to look at the drawings, students reported out what they noticed about the boys and girls that they had drawn. I recorded their observations (see picture below) and then reintroduced the word stereotype. After reviewing our second-grade definition of a stereotype — something that many people believe but actually isn’t true — students then considered whether the ideas that they had just shared represented stereotypes. They caught on very quickly to this activity — citing examples of girls they know with short hair and how Scottish men wear skirts. I followed this lesson by reading aloud Oliver Button is a Sissy to reinforce that deviating from stereotypes is a good thing if it lets you be yourself.

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Stereotypes about boys and girls seen in student drawings

The next day, I had students look through a number of catalogues with clothes or toys for kids. Working in pairs, students flipped through the pages. While they could easily identify whether a product was being targeted toward a boy or a girl, I challenged them to think about how they knew that an item was for a boy or for a girl. Many of the students found this challenging, saying things like, “just because,” which reflected how deeply ingrained these stereotypes are — my students barely recognized them without being asked explicitly to do so.

After flipping through the catalogues, I had the pairs report out about what they noticed about the techniques used to sell products for boys and products for girls. The students came up with a great list (see picture below). I then had my students share whether they had ever wanted a toy for the opposite sex (almost all of them raised their hands) and then whether they were allowed to get it. Many of my students reported being frustrated about not being allowed to have a toy because it “wasn’t for them.” Many of them really started to see how advertisements use gender stereotypes to try to sell their products and to designate who they are for.

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How we can tell if advertising is for boys or girls

For the last lesson in this sequence, I had students use laptops to spend five minutes exploring Barbie.com and five minutes looking at GIJoe.com. Students were given a sheet to record their observations about the two different websites. Following the website exploration, my students shared their observations about the two sites and we created a Venn Diagram (see below). My students found it especially difficult to think about how the two sites were similar, because they seemed so dramatically different. When I asked them whether the websites were advertisements, the majority of my students agreed that they were, because there were ads on the pages for Barbies and movies and other toys. They were also able to identify who the target audience of these ads was.

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Comparing Barbie and GI Joe

At the conclusion of the activity, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had enjoyed visiting the website that was “not targeted at them.” While none of my boys were willing to admit that they’d been smiling on the Barbie site, almost all of the girls said that they liked the GI Joe website. All of the students, however, agreed that girls and boys should be able to visit any websites and that sometimes it can make things feel “off limits” if it is advertised in a way that exploits gender.

While these activities have not necessarily cataclysmically shifted my students’ views of gender, I am pleased that my students have become aware of the stereotypes about gender that are all around them and that they are, slowly but surely, starting to develop the ability to think critically about what these messages mean and how they impact them. I look forward to seeing how these views develop as we tackle topics related to gender throughout the year.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Gender in Advertisements

  1. Gender and popular culture are fascinating in the elementary school world. I’m glad you’re making your second graders aware of what the consumer culture pushes at them. You should have many more interesting conversations.

    • Thank you. My students are really starting to “get” it. Each time we revisit these topics, they develop richer and richer schemas. It’s also great to hear them applying what they’re learning to real-life situations.

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