Friday, July 29, 2011

Gender Shopping: Boys want Nerf or Nothing!

While shopping either physically at a store, or via the internet, it would be hard to ignore the rash distinctions between what toys are marketed for boys and girls. While I was shopping for a six year old boy, Michael, I was reminded of all the toys he is supposed to like as a male in our society. The pink aisle next to the boy’s aisle is where toys are marketed to female consumers, but as seen through the eyes of a male, this aisle looks like it is comparative to death.  I saw a young boy walking past was keeping at least a fifteen foot buffer zone! I began to realize through this shopping experience that boy’s toy’s in particular gun products, promote and create generations of boys who idolize violence, warfare, and gender ideologies of overly masculine heteronormative men who are afraid of being labeled as anything less than macho.

Michael’s wish list included a Nerf Gun, and knowing little about these toys, I decided to look them up online before heading off to the store. Hasbro’s website bombarded me with loud men yelling, running and jumping and repeating, “it’s Nerf or nothing!” While this statement is a good marketing ploy to lure boys in to only want Nerf products, the men in this advertisement looked like they should have put down the Nerf product about ten years earlier. Set in an arena type setting, the men shown were as rugged, powerful, aggressive and violent, while women stand on the sidelines and cheer. Nerf is reinforcing gender stereotypes of males by providing older muscular male figures to promote their products, sending the message to boys that by using Nerf guns, this can be you!

While searching through the toy products, the placement of violent and male directed vocabulary are peppered throughout the toy’s descriptions, words such as: dominate, attack, blast, perfect, powerful, superiority, victory, weapon, firepower, win and fight. Now at six years old, Hasbro believes that a Nerf gun is an age level appropriate toy, lending to what David Neman said about gender and identity socialization, “how we learn to think, act and perceive ourselves as members of a particular group, [determines] how we incorporate those perceptions into our personal identity.”(Newman, 109) Males are being sold violence, and warfare as a part of their heteronormative gender socialization into our society. Even the packaging states, “it’s more than just a game”, fostering the idea that battles and combat should be taken seriously unless you want to lose. The social ramifications for a boy who doesn’t care about winning or losing would as Neman describes, categorize him as a sissy, “he is suspiciously soft and effeminate”. (Neman, 108) The Nerf gun does not market their products to reinforce a “sissy”, their young consumers are designed to be masculine and dominating, and if they are not, Hasbro hopes to convert any lingering males to the macho side.

The Nerf gun reproduces the hegemonic macho stereotype that males are supposed to desire. Each line of products produced by Nerf lends to the notion that bigger is better. Each new product that Hasbro introduces to their Nerf line, is more superior and supersized then the last, indicating that at all costs to be a male you must never lose, unless your masculinity will be challenged. We often tell our boys that it’s for the fun of the game, but as Michael Messner concluded, “Being out there and participating is certainly presented to boys as a good thing, but being better than the others is the key to acceptance and approval.” (Messner,129)

As for young Michael, I am positive that he saw a friend with a Nerf gun and simply wanted the toy just to play with. I’m sure Michael did not ask for the toy because he wants to start and army on his own, but with each toy and gender orientated product we sell to our boys, we are only furthering gender identities that promote poorly idealized messages to our society about how males and females should act. By exaggerating gender differences we create attitudes and behaviors that further emulate a society dominated by violent men and machismo attitudes. Homophobic tendencies are created out of boys who never grow culturally aware of the harmful marketing ploys created by such toys. Nerf toys have been around for generations, creating boys that simply are just learning from their social environment. I think I will opt on buying something in the educational section for Michael instead!

Work Cited

Messner, M. ”Boyhood, Organized Sports, And The Construction Of Masculinities.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 18.4 (1990): 416-44. Print

Newman, David M. “Chapter Four Learning Difference Families, Schools and Socialization.” Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality.
Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.

Photo Credit:

Google.Photograph. Web. 28 July 2011.

Hasbro Nerf. Photograph. Web 28 July 2011


  1. This blog post was very informative! I never realized nerf guns were advertised so violently. I liked the picture reference, it helped me visualize the marketing strategies. Also I liked the speculation at the end about why Michael would want the toy. The analysis in the third paragraph is quite thorough and impressive. However, I would recommend having more quotes to structure the analysis better. Also another point of improvement would be to organize the paragraphs a bit better, I felt like it jumped around a little. The final suggestion would be that you could analyze the social impact on nerf guns a bit more in depth. Does the fact that the gun is a social toy affect how popular it is among boys? Overall great post!

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