His & Hers TV TV Channels, Video Games, and Internet Sites Zero in on Girls and Boys

Article excerpt

Check out these blanket statements: Boys like toy trucks, and girls like dolls. Right? Sometimes.

Or how's this: Men like sports, and women like emotional dramas. If you're a football widow, the former is a no-brainer. If you're a baby-boomer parent whose heart lies with gender-neutral child raising, both of these unsettling cultural stereotypes may cause you more than a bit of consternation.

The success of books such as John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" suggests that gender-based cultural differences are at least back in vogue, if not always scientifically provable.

This growing emphasis on differences between the sexes raises the obvious possibility of commercial exploitation. Ever eager for a new demographic vein to mine, the electronic media are moving in with gusto.

Fox Family Channel premires the girlzChannel and the boyzChannel Oct. 31. Oxygen Media launches yet another women's cable channel Feb. 2 (or on 02-02-2000). Meanwhile, dozens of Web sites like www.Smartgirl.com and www.bChannel.com and www.gChannel.com (companions to the boyzChannel and girlzChannel), are targeting separate gender markets.

Original programming will include "bringing up boys" and "guiding girls," two half-hour programs for parents and children of each sex. Half-hour magazine-style shows such as "girlzopoliz" and "boyzopolis" will also deal with gender issues.

A parenting show called "Parentz101," features a companion Web site, parentzchannel.com. The channels will also feature a two-hour prime-time parenting block and a three-hour preschool block during the day.

Video games for girls

The video-game industry, long a bastion of boy-heavy marketing, is discovering girls with items such as the vast line of Barbie titles and the latest hit from Sony PlayStation, "Um Jammer Lammy," about a girls' rock band.

This rush to exploit the differences raises questions in the minds of many parents and media observers about what happens when the marketplace emphasizes differences rather than common interests.

The answer, say a wide range of industry analysts, media professionals, and watchdog organizations, is far from clear. But one thing is clear - the stakes are much higher when it comes to targeting children than adults.

"If everybody had their girls' and boys' channels," says longtime children's activist Peggy Charren, founder of the now-disbanded Action for Children's Television advocacy group, "it would be a disaster."

Picture a library with every book shelved under the heading boys' or girls' literature, Ms. Charren suggests.

"What kind of library would that be? We'd fire the librarian." Where, she asks, would you put the classics, books such as "Charlotte's Web" or "Stuart Little," by E.B. White, or any work by Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust?

"This is a return to an old, stereotyped idea that's sort of sad," she says, referring to the notion that certain content is appropriate for a boy and not a girl and vice versa.

Experts in the field of child development suggest the issue is more complicated than what they call "politically motivated interpretations" would allow.

"I had a practice in Cambridge, Mass., with all these intellectuals ... in the '60s," says T. Berry Brazelton, a renowned pediatrician who will host a parenting show on the new Fox Family channels.

"We were trying to make girls and boys just alike," Dr. Brazelton recalls with a laugh, suggesting that the very premise created as many problems as it solved.

"I knew it was going to fail, because at birth, girl babies and boy babies are significantly different in two respects," he says.

The first area relates to motor behavior. "It's not just that there's more motor behavior in a boy," he says, "but it's more vigorous and the boy obviously gets more satisfaction out of this vigorous behavior. …