In 2008, one day into my gig writing a column for the New York Times called Beauty Call – yes, it was sold on the strength of a pun – for which I played the straight man at outlandish brand events, I got a surprise lesson in gender dynamics. This was the height the Axe era and advertisements for Unilever’s unibrow grooming line for mouth-breathers were still all but guaranteeing penetrative sex. The big story? The brand was going to launch a macho loofah called the “Axe Detailer Shower Tool.” The design of the product had been outsourced Prime Studio, a Manhattan-based design firm, which produced a red-and-black product with tactical grips. The thing looked like a cross between a pistol and a spare tire.
“Those features,” boasted Prime in a case study on Axe, “combined with its overt, masculine styling gave the Axe Guys permission to play in the shower.”
This struck me as funny at the time because the idea of giving grown men permission to play in the shower is, objectively, pretty funny. But what my hot take — basically, that it was absurd — on the new shower appliance didn’t take into account was that I had spent a lifetime seeing various iterations of that tactical shower tool. Every time I had engaged in my mid-1980s hobby of shoplifting MicroMachines from the local pharmacy (while my babysitter picked up Xanax), gendered messaging had come at me hard. Boys are told to be boys in a wide variety of ways — and often directly too — but one of the most effective ways that demand is made is through material culture. For every brightly colored Lisa Frank notebook, there’s a dour gray Sony Walkman ready to play Aerosmith’s Walk This Way on repeat.
Most products are not gendered in the literal sense. They don’t sport penises or vaginas (despite, in some cases, having secondary sexual characteristics). But the market for almost everything children use is defined by aesthetic assumptions. To attempt to understand why is to get tangled up in the oldest of thickets: the nature versus nurture debate. Do products designed for boys look the way they do because boys biologically prefer them or do boys prefer those products because they are told to prefer them? Boy, it would be great if experts could cough up a convenient answer for that.
Unfortunately, they can’t.
“Right now, the most popular opinion is to say there are no differences between boys and girls and such differences there may be are the result of nurture,” Gloria Moss, a professor of marketing at Buckinghamshire New University and author of Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots. “That’s a very common argument and one you’ll find it in the works of sociologists,” Professor Moss explains. “But psychologists tend to have a different view. They’ll often talk about ‘essential differences,’ the differences rooted in biology.”
The most notable proponent of the essential differences school of thought is Borat’s brother.Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at Cambridge University, wrote the 2007 tome Essential Difference, which argues that visual preferences begin to appear at the end of a baby’s first day. In a famous — and controversial — experiment, Baron-Cohen found that boy babies preferred objects while lady babies preferred to gaze at people and from this — and many other studies and some amount of speculation — he concludes, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”
Moss is not the hardliner that Baron-Cohen is, but she’s sympathetic to his ideas. She has spent twenty years studying gender and design and divides her research into two categories: preference and concept, what her subjects prefer and what they themselves design. In one of her most well-known experiments on adults, she found that men preferred products designed by men and women preferred products designed by women (naturally, participants were not informed of designers’ gender). She recently repeated the experiment with 111 children ages 7 to 11, presenting them with a pair of cushions from IKEA, a pair of Christmas Cards, a pair of drink cans, and a pair of fish stick packages. The result was the same.
One of the explanations she suspects is evolution, which she calls the mid-point between nature and nurture. “When I dug in the psychology,” she says, “visual and spatial skills are not the same in the boys and girls. We don’t see in the same way. Men have better 3D vision and rotation skills, they have better targeting accuracy than women have. On the color front, they can see fewer colors than women. No man has more than three color pigments. Fifty percent of women have a fourth color pigment, they see hundreds of millions of colors.”
This, understood in the context of seminal research like Maria Majewski’s 1978 study finding boys prefer rectilinearity and girls roundedness, explains why products for men tend to be darker and more simplified in their color schemes and harder in their edges. Men had to hunt, women had to gather, and children had to be prepared for their respective roles. But as Jane Eva Baxter, a scholar of material culture at DePaul University, explains, it’s naive to think that this is just about evolution. AXE is not a product of natural selection.
“If we focus on the 20th century it is one long journey to deepening capitalism,” says Baxter. “Advertisers began targeting kids really early on and with the proliferation of consumer goods for children, the gender binary has only grown.”
Parents have gone along for this ride. Gender announcements traffic in pink and blue — colors department stores used to juice sales starting in the 1930s — and, even before they were born, my boys had a veritable traffic jam of toy trucks at their disposal (Thank you Aunt Linda and Uncle Jeffie!). What began as an evolutionary predilection has turned into a profit driver for large corporations. Rubber grips retain their hold on material culture.
“Toys used to be homemade objects. As soon as they were mass-produced consumer marketplace goods, you began to see this differentiation become more pronounced,” says Baxter. “Toys began to reflect the idea is that… boys they’re going to be in the real world. Their toys encourage action, interaction and competition to the world of business, commerce and public life.”
This sort of design, like many modern disciplininary practices, seems to encourage boys to become good workers and to accept a view of themselves as competitors in a capitalist space. For some, this might be healthy and in line with natural attitudes. For others, not so much. And what looks like choice in a toy or even skincare aisle is actually not a choice at all. It’s a message about what constitutes normal.
The good news, says Baxter, is that design doesn’t live in a vacuum. “The material world responds to social change,” she says. Unilever, for instance, is now responsible for the very woke Dove Men+Care line. It’s grey, true, but rounded. There’s not a tactical grip in sight.