The present research investigates subtle yet powerful differences in the language present on cultural artifacts marketed for girls and boys. Through a content analysis of the verbs written on the girl-oriented and boy-oriented sides of all 56 McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes distributed between 2011 and 2019 in the United States, I uncover stark differences in the implied ability, activity, and agency levels of boys versus girls. The mixed methods nature of my exploration allows for statistical testing coupled with analysis of the language in context, revealing pervasive, nuanced differences that bolster our understanding of the complexity of the messages being relayed to children about what is appropriate and expected for boys versus girls. Central findings include the subtle, yet pervasive implication that girls are less active, less powerful, and in need of more detailed instruction and help, and they draw on a narrower set of skills as compared to boys. Through differential language, boys are also challenged at a qualitatively different level than girls and are assumed to have greater levels of ability (e.g., girls “try” and boys “aim high”). Girls’ agency is directly questioned, implying a lack of general confidence in the child’s ability to succeed, which is not the case for boys. Such subtle messages perpetuate insidious gender stereotypes and reinforce inequities in power and privilege.
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Kristen Lee Hourigan, Department of Sociology, California State University, Los Angeles.
I would like to express my appreciation to my dedicated research assistants, Andrea Jackson and Crystal Pesquiera, for their work on this project.
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This study was not supported by grant funding.
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The author declares that she has no conflicts of interest.
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Hourigan, K.L. Girls Try, Boys Aim High: Exposing Difference in Implied Ability, Activity, and Agency of Girls Versus Boys in Language on McDonald’s Happy Meal Boxes. Sex Roles 84, 377–391 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-020-01173-7
- Gender roles
- Content analysis
- Mixed methods research