Sunday, January 08, 2012

Girls will (now always) be Girls

I've written about my love of Lego, stemming back to my childhood, on this blog before. And this Christmas I enjoyed building Lego spaceships with for my nephews. Every couple of months I receive the Lego catalogue, although this month was a bit surprised to see that there was a pink pull-out section in the middle which was aimed squarely at girls.

This new range, called Lego Friends, features female lego figures who are more shapely, with breasts, big hair and curvy bodies. Each one has a set of interests - one's into animals, another likes singing and dancing, and another one like organising parties. You get the idea. Apart from the one who is a bit of a science geek, they're all stereotypically feminine characters, and the sets come in soft pastel colours. There are no boy figures. But as Lego has been marketed mainly as a boys' toy for years, boys can buy the pirate ships, the space ships, the fire engines and tractors and digggers and so on...

Not everyone wants to be friends with the Lego Friends though. A petition at against Lego Friends currently has just over 3000 signatures. But there are also a lot of people who love the Lego Friends. This blog, called Feminists Freak Out Over Lego Friends, is dedicated to "shedding light on their omissions, skewed facts and images." And at Gizmodo, a cool and very butch-looking space-ship is built out of the Lego Friends blocks. The site claims that "feminists criticising the new Lego Friends sets just don’t get it."

People against Lego Friends argue that the set is restrictive, both to boys and girls. Girls are encouraged to confirm to feminine stereotypes, whereas it would be very difficult for any self-respecting boy to want to play with such a girly Lego set (personally, I would have loved some of the Lego Friends sets when I was a child, as long as there had been male figures to play with as well as the female ones). By narrowly defining what boys and girls are supposed to find interesting and the way they're supposed to play, the Lego Friends set ultimately limit possibilities for children - and potentially will result in a generation of very narrowly gender-defined adults who will have very conservative views about how men and women should act. God forbid it you don't "fit in".

I didn't fit in when I was growing up. I sometimes played with my sister's dolls (and when the two boys I hung out with at school found out, they refused to play with me ever again). I read far too many Enid Blyton books about upper-class girls' schools, and I played ballet music on the piano. I wasn't totally girly - I also had a lot of boy-geek interests - I had books about how to be a spy or detective, I liked reading about the solar system, I had a microscope, and I was into Dungeons and Dragons and writing my own computer games on my Spectrum 48K. And I played with Lego a lot. In the 70s/80s, Lego was still pretty gender neutral - you just bought blocks and created what you wanted. This advert, from the early 80s, shows how Lego wasn't seen as a boys' toy.

So while I did occasionally encounter hostility for not being the most masculine of boys, on the whole, my parents and peers didn't make too much of a big deal about it. I would hate to be a child again in 2012 - because even if you have very accepting parents, society expects boys and girls to act in very different ways from a much earlier age - and it's harder to get away with being gender-neutral or liking things marketed to the opposite sex. I've noticed it myself when shopping for my nephews - most toys are segregated into boys/girls sections in toyshops - and my nephews seemed able from quite an early age to figure out which ones were for them.

In some ways this seems surprising - especially considering that there have been moves to reduce sexism and gender stereotyping in wider society. I don't view the 1970s as a time of sexual equality. I think about sneaking downstairs at night-time to watch the Benny Hill Show and Miss World, and the mad housewife on the Shake and Vac Advert.

Actually though, 2012 doesn't seem to have improved that much.

The sexism and stereotyping of women is still there - for several reasons. First - it's validated by a jokey "lads", ironic stance. Second, men are objectified too (though not as much as women), so that makes it OK apparently. Yay equality!

Third, the left-wing political imperative to reduce sexism, is trumped again and again by capitalism and advertising. Having spent the last week in New York - the home of aggressive advertising, I saw even more adverts featuring idealised, stereotyped male and female bodies than I do in the UK. I always leave NYC feeling a bit inadequate - and part of that is due to the relentless advertising which is designed to make you feel miserable about yourself so you'll buy stuff.

The makers of Lego Friends have argued that the new set is based on anthropological research which examined how boys and girls play - and that they're giving children what they want. Defenders of Lego Friends have also pointed to other toys like Bratz, and My Little Pony - which have a similar aesthetic and are popular with girls. In fact girls' toys
in general have been redesigned to become more girly over time. So it's perhaps not surprising that girls like the Lego Friends - those girls are already growing up in a world where the concepts associated with Lego Friends are already marketed at them, and normalised for them. Imagine that for seven years you mocked a child every time they ate vanilla ice-cream and praised them every time they ate chocolate ice-cream, and then gave them a choice of a vanilla or a chocolate biscuit. Which would they chose?

And market forces dicate that you should sell stuff to people that they will buy. So it's very easy to simply go with the flow - and keep churning out increasingly girly, pink stuff for girls, and violent action figures and spaceships for boys.

I don't believe that children are completely blank slates and we can turn them into anything - I've noticed that my nephews tended to be very interested in trains, diggers and dinosaurs even before they could speak. They are typical little boys. I suspect most children do tend towards gender stereotypes - although I believe that they aren't as far towards the stereotypes as the toymakers would have us believe. My nephews also engaged in less masculine behaviour at various points when they were younger. But most kids generally go with the stereotyped toys, just because it's easier. It's like being ambidextrous or bisexual - you just end up being right-handed or living a heterosexual life - because it's easier that way, and most of us go with the flow.

How do I feel about the Lego Friends? When I saw the Lego Friends set in my catalogue, I thought "Oh Lego, why have you betrayed me!" But my fella (who always plays a great devil's advocate) pointed out that I'd quite happily bought the Star Wars Lego sets for my nephews this Christmas and hadn't complained about gender stereotyping there. My (rather poor) response was that stereotyping when it's done on boys isn't as bad because boys' toys tend to emphasise power - so that'll help to prime them to get powerful positions in society.

But he's right. If I'm going to get annoyed about Lego Friends, I should also be annoyed about all other toys, including the way that the other Lego sets are marketed at boys.

Anyway, I've signed the petition. I doubt it'll change anything. Feminists have such a bad PR these days that even the word "feminist" seems to evoke visions of angry, irrational, man-hating lesbians.

What the Lego Friends represents to me then - is a kind of final rejection of feminism - and a triumph of the New World Order - where men are men, and women are women.

Can I be your friend?

1 comment:

Paul Brownsey said...

A friend tells me that you can't get gender-neutral clothes for very young (2-3-4) children any more. A generation ago, when she had her son, there were gender-neutral dungarees and suchlike that she and her friends handed around as the infants grew out of them: her boy might wear what someone else's wee girl wore last spring. Now, though, tots' dungarees are embroidered either with things like pink girly flowers or with butch little cars and 'planes.