Skip to main content

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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Anderson, D. A., & Hamilton, M. (2005). Gender role stereotyping of parents in children’s picture books: The invisible father. Sex Roles, 52(3–4), 145–151. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-1290-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Auster, C., & Mansbach, C. (2012). The gender marketing of toys: An analysis of color and type of toy on the Disney store website. Sex Roles, 67(7–8), 375–388. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0177-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Beall, A. E. (1993). A social constructionist view of gender. In A. E. Beall & R. J. Stemberg (Eds.), The psychology of gender (pp. 127–147). New York: The Guilford Press. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1099-0720(199704)11:2<183::aid-acp465>3.0.co;2-1.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  4. Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 352–364. https://doi.org/10.1037//0033-295x.88.4.354.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bem, S. L. (1985). Androgyny and gender schema theory: A conceptual and empirical integration. In T. B. Sanderegger (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Psychology of gender (pp. 179–226). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

  6. Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. London: Penguin Books. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1968.70.4.02a00870.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  7. Beyer, C. E., Ogletree, R. J., Ritzel, D. O., Drolet, J. C., Gilbert, S. L., & Brown, D. (1996). Gender representation in illustrations, text, and topic areas in sexuality education curricula. Journal of School Health, 66, 361–364. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1746-1561.1996.tb03393.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Black, K. A., Marola, J. A., Littman, A. I., Chrisler, J., & Neace, W. (2009). Gender and form of cereal box characters: Different medium, same disparity. Sex Roles, 60(11), 882–889. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9579-z.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Blakemore, J. E. O., & Centers, R. E. (2005). Characteristics of boys’ and girls’ toys. Sex Roles, 53, 619–633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-7729-0.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Clark, R., Guilmain, J., Saucier, P. K., & Tavarez, J. (2003). Two steps forward, one step back: The presence of female characters and gender stereotyping in award-winning picture books between the 1930s and the 1960s. Sex Roles, 49, 439–449 https://link.springer.com/journal/11199/49/9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Clark, R., Lennon, R., & Morris, L. (1993). Of Caldecotts and kings: Gendered images in recent American children’s books by Black and non-Black illustrators. Gender & Society, 7(2), 227–245. https://doi.org/10.1177/089124393007002005.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Collins, L. J., Ingoldsby, B. B., & Dellman, M. M. (1984). Sex-role stereotyping in children’s literature: A change from the past. Childhood Education, 60(4), 278–285. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.1984.10520665.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Connell, R. (2000). The men and the boys. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Davis, A. P., & McDaniel, T. R. (1999). You’ve come a long way, baby – or have you? Research evaluating gender portrayals in recent Caldecott-winning books. The Reading Teacher, 52(5), 532–536 https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/loi/19362714.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Davis, S. (2003). Sex stereotypes in commercials targeted toward children: A content analysis. Sociological Spectrum, 23(4), 407–424. https://doi.org/10.1080/02732170309220.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Denny, K. (2011). Gender in context, content, and approach: Comparing gender messages in girl scout and boy scout handbooks. Gender & Society, 25(1), 27–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243210390517.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Diekman, A. B., & Murnen, S. K. (2004). Learning to be little women and little men: The inequitable gender equality of nonsexist children’s literature. Sex Roles, 50, 373–385. https://doi.org/10.1023/b:sers.0000018892.26527.ea.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Eagly, A. H. (1987). Sex differences in social behavior: A social-role interpretation. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (1991). Explaining sex differences in social behavior: A meta-analytic perspective. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 17(3), 306–315. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167291173011.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Evans, L., & Davies, K. (2000). No sissy boys here: A content analysis of the representation of masculinity in elementary reading textbooks. Sex Roles, 42, 255–270. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007043323906.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Fitzpatrick, M., & McPherson, B. J. (2010). Coloring within the lines: Gender stereotypes in contemporary coloring books. Sex Roles, 62, 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-009-9703-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Geis, F. L., Brown, V., Jennings (Walstedt), J., & Porter, N. (1984). TV commercials as achievement scripts for women. Sex Roles, 10, 513–525. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00287260.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Grauerholz, E., & Pescosolido, B. A. (1989). Gender representation in children’s literature: 1900-1984. Gender & Society, 3(1), 113–125. https://doi.org/10.1177/089124389003001008.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Grohmann, B. (2009). Gender dimensions of brand personality. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(1), 105–119. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmkr.46.1.105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Hamilton, M. C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M., & Young, K. (2006). Gender stereotyping and under-representation of female characters in 200 popular children’s picture books: A twenty-first century update. Sex Roles, 55, 757–765. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9128-6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Harris, J. L., Hyary, M., Seymour, N., & Choi, Y. Y. (2018). Parents’ reports of fast-food purchases for their children: Have they improved? UCONN Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. http://uconnruddcenter.org/files/272-10%20%20Healthier%20Kids%20Meals%20Parent%20Survey%20Report_Release_8_31_18.pdf.

  27. Hourigan, K. L. (2018). The intersection of race and gender in the portrayal of family structures and familial roles in contemporary children’s storybooks. New York Sociologist, 7. https://nyssa09.wordpress.com/about/the-new-york-sociologist-journal-of-nyssa/.

  28. Johnson, F. L., & Young, K. (2002). Gendered voices in children's television advertising. Critical Studies in Media Communications, 19(4), 461–480. https://doi.org/10.1080/07393180216572.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kahlenberg, S. G., & Hein, M. M. (2010). Progression in Nickelodeon? Gender-role stereotypes in toy commercials. Sex Roles, 62(11–12), 830–847. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-009-9653-1.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kimmel, M. S. (2011). The gendered society (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Kohler-Flynn, H. (2003). Gender and race portrayal in children’s picture books: An analysis of recent Caldecott medal winners. Australian Journal of Psychology, Supplement 50.

  32. Kortenhaus, C. M., & Demerest, J. (1993). Gender role stereotyping in children’s literature: An update. Sex Roles, 28, 219–232. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00299282.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Larson, M. S. (2001). Interactions, activities and gender in children’s television commercials: A content analysis. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 45(1), 41–56. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15506878jobem4501_4.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Leaper, C., Breed, L., Hoffman, L., & Perlman, C. (2002). Variations in the gender-stereotyped content of children’s television cartoons across genres. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 1653–1662. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2002.tb02767.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Lott, B., & Maluso, D. (1993). The social learning of gender. In A. E. Beall & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The psychology of gender (pp. 99–123). New York: The Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. McCabe, J., Fairchild, E., Grauerholz, L., Pescosolido, B. A., & Tope, D. (2011). Gender in twentieth-century children’s books: Patterns of disparity in titles and central characters. Gender & Society, 25, 197–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243211398358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Meyer, E. (2009). Gender, bullying, and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Mulac, A., Bradac, J. J., & Gibbons, P. (2006). Empirical support for the gender-as-culture hypothesis: An intercultural analysis of male/female language differences. Human Communication Research, 27(1), 121–152. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2001.tb00778.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Murnen, S. K., Greenfield, C., Younger, A., & Boyd, H. (2016). Boys act and girls appear: A content analysis of gender stereotypes associated with characters in children’s popular culture. Sex Roles, 74, 78–91. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0558-x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Owen, P. R., & Padron, M. (2015). The language of toys: Gendered language in toy advertisements. Journal of Research on Women and Gender, 6, 67–80 https://journals.tdl.org/jrwg/index.php/jrwg/article/view/24.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Pennell, G. E. (1994). Babies in Toyland: Learning an ideology of gender. Advances in Consumer Research, 21, 539–564.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Pike, J. J., & Jennings, N. A. (2005). The effects of commercials on children’s perceptions of gender appropriate toy use. Sex Roles, 52, 83–91. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-1195-6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Sigalow, E., & Fox, N. (2014). Perpetuating stereotypes: A study of gender, family, and religious life in Jewish children's books. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 53(2), 416–431. https://doi.org/10.1111/jssr.1211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Taylor, F. (2003). Content analysis and gender stereotypes in children’s books. Teaching Sociology, 31(3), 300–311. https://doi.org/10.2307/3211327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Thompson, T. L., & Zerbinos, E. (1995). Gender roles in animated cartoons: Has the picture changed in 20 years? Sex Roles, 32, 651–673. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01544217.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Turner-Bowker, D. M. (1996). Gender stereotyped descriptors in children’s picture books: Does “curious Jane” exist in the literature? Sex Roles, 35(7–8), 461–489. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01544132.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Unger, R. K. (1990). Imperfect reflections of reality: Psychology constructs gender. In T. Hare-Mustin & J. Marecek (Eds.), Making a difference: Psychology and the construction of gender (pp. 102–149). New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Valkenburg, P. M., & Janssen, S. C. (1999). What do children value in entertainment programs? A cross-cultural investigation. Journal of Communication, 49, 3–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1999.tb02790.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Weitzman, L. J., Eifler, D., Hokada, E., & Ross, C. (1972). Sex-role socialization in picture books for preschool children. American Journal of Sociology, 77(6), 1125–1150. https://doi.org/10.1086/225261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Welch, R. L., Huston-Stein, A., Wright, J. C., & Plehal, R. (1979). Subtle sex-role cues in children’s commercials. Journal of Communication, 29, 202–209. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1979.tb01733.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Williams, J. E., & Best, D. L. (1990). Measuring sex stereotypes: A multination study. Newbury Park: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Sources of Financial Support

This study was not supported by grant funding.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kristen Lee Hourigan.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that she has no conflicts of interest.

Statement of Compliance with Standards of Research Involving Humans as Subjects

This study does not involve human participants.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

  • Gender
  • Sex
  • Culture
  • Gender roles
  • Bias
  • Stereotypes
  • Language
  • Content analysis
  • Mixed methods research
  • Qualitative