Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Toy Binary

This morning, I spotted an article on the girls' toys/boys' toys issue that I found rather distressing.  The article is about Lego's attempts to better market to girls (read it here).  While the column raises some decent points, the author's critique is problematic and confusing.  He seems to criticize Lego for the stereotypical implications of its new "Lego Friends" line aimed at girls, while himself buying into many of the same assumptions about gender that appear to be driving the folks at Lego.

Here's the deal: Lego has come out with a new line of toys, called "Lego Friends," which is supposed to appeal to girls.  Apparently Lego attempted to do some anthropological analysis of how boys' play differs from girls' play.  Their conclusions?  Boys like to build stuff and then put it up for display.  Girls don't like to build stuff, but rather care more about the characters and being able to play with the thing once it's built.  Really?  I'd like to see how this study was conducted.  Did they watch kids play in mix-gender groups or same-sex groups?  Did the kids get to choose toys from lots of diverse options?  How old were the kids?  Did they come from a wide variety of backgrounds?  In what ways had the kids' families and communities socialized their notions of gender roles?

The author appears to accept this "study" without question.  While he does cite a neuroscientist who states that boys' and girls' play is more similar than different; an author who was concerned that the new Lego line doesn't feature enough occupations that might encourage girls to pursue science and math careers; and an 11-year-old female Lego enthusiast who pretty much thinks the new line is stupid, he more or less accepts as gospel that toys people might generally believe to be appealing to boys won't be appealing to girls (and vice versa).  This is made clear in his opening anecdote about his own children, including the so-called conundrum he claims to have faced last month while trying to find an "appropriate" Lego set for his daughter.  He states:
"If you know Legos, then you know the difficulty of my quest.  Buying Legos for my 9-year-old son?  Easy.  Harry Potter, Star Wars, Alien Invasion, Prince of Persia, Pirates, Ninjago.  The list of boy-oriented Lego themes is long.  Girls are another story.  The choices are close to nil."
I'm sorry.  Did I miss the memo that said that Harry Potter and Star Wars and pirates are only for boys?  Or the one that said that "boy-oriented" toys and "girl-oriented" toys cannot possibly be the same?   Geez, I must have stuck those notes in my file of Stuff That Belongs In The 1950s. 

It's true that the Harry Potter story, for instance, revolves around a male hero, but it's also true that the books include a strong, smart female main character, and last time I checked, the stories were beloved by boys and girls alike.  The author ends up choosing an ambulance set, which he describes as "gender neutral," for his daughter.  By what logic he arrives at the conclusion that an ambulance is "gender neutral" but other Lego sets are not is a mystery to me.  He does mention that his daughter liked the ambulance set because it had a female driver.  If he means to say that Lego could include more female figurines in its set, I wouldn't disagree at all.  But if he means to imply that girls just aren't interested in outer space, medieval castles, or Harry Potter, or that they don't care for the challenge of building complicated stuff, I must heartily beg to differ.  I know very few folks from my generation - male or female - who didn't like Legos as kids.  I have plenty of female friends who liked building Lego sets and plenty of male friends who liked playing with them, and plenty of people in general who liked doing both.  This is all anecdotal, of course, but I think our own experiences ought to give us good reason to seriously doubt marketing "studies" that insist all kinds of nonsense about the "nature" of girls and boys and how they play.   I also think that if we're finding that girls have minimal interest in Legos, it may have less to do with the Legos themselves and more to do with how we teach little boys to be masculine and little girls to be feminine.  If we encourage very young girls to build with blocks and use their minds as much as we praise their cuteness and encourage them to carry around baby dolls, maybe we wouldn't have to try so hard to "market" Legos to them.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Hair is a really gendered thing.  For the most part, our culture dictates that long hair is best for girls, and that short hair is best for boys.  If girls are to have short hair, it must be styled a particular way, usually with those really annoying long wisps (sideburns? sidebangs? I have no idea) that go in front of your ears and that I cut off myself in the bathroom mirror for years when I simply could not convince anyone that despite being female-bodied I did in fact want a MEN's haircut.  If boys are to have long hair, god forbid they should wear it in a bun or curl it or have bangs or anything of that sort (though I must say that the hipster movement has made some headway here).

At any rate, yesterday I got my haircut, something I usually look forward to and dread in equal measure.  I look forward to it because getting a [good] new haircut is like getting anything else new - the novelty is really exciting for at least a couple of weeks.  I dread it because I have a tendency to get attached to my hair when it starts to grow out - even when it's becoming dangerously reminiscent of a mullet in the back or getting annoyingly into my eyes in the front.  I remain attached even when having a mop of unruly hair usually leads to my being mistaken for a teenager boy significantly more often.  One summer a couple of years ago, I let my hair grow really long - down to my shoulders - for the first time since my junior year of college.  I loved it, but found that others read my gender - and my queerness - differently when I had my hair long than when I had it short, even though I never did anything "girly" with my hair and even though nothing else about my mannerisms or physical gender presentation had changed.  The difference made me uncomfortable so partway through that summer, my long hair and I parted ways.

There are also other things that frustrate me about getting a haircut.  First is that haircuts in DC generally are expensive (another on the long list of reasons to miss Ohio).  It is very difficult to get a decent haircut here by someone who knows what they're doing for a reasonable price.  Second is that it is actually hard to describe to hairdressers - particularly those who aren't queer or who aren't familiar with my particular brand of queerness - what it is that I want.  I want a short, dudely haircut.  This is remarkably difficult for others to comprehend.  Third, places like to charge different prices for men's and women's haircuts.  I understand why this might be, but it sucks for those of us who don't fit squarely into one category, or whose hairstyles don't follow convention.  Why should I pay $5 or more extra for the exact same haircut as the dude in the chair next to me just because I don't share his presumed biology?  It's hard to avoid this predicament when I make appointments over the phone since people hear my voice and put me down for a women's haircut without thinking.

I've had a number of DC haircut mishaps relating to the above-mentioned three frustrations, including the time Olga at the Dupont Circle Hair Cuttery gave me a crooked $18 haircut which consisted mostly of her grabbing chunks of my hair and snipping it off while proclaiming, "See?  More better!" and then trying to blow-dry my sweater and fashion me a head covering out of a plastic bag because it was raining out and she thought I was going to make myself sick in the cold.  Or the time the "junior stylist" at Bang Salon cut himself no less than a dozen times during my haircut, making for a very nerve-wracking experience on my part.  Or the time the other "junior stylist" at Bang Salon, who could not stop her hands from shaking, informed me partway through my so-so marathon haircut that I was her first short cut...      

So yesterday I made a hair appointment online.  I bit the bullet and decided to go with a full-fledged hair-doer (my "junior stylist" days may be over...).  I also booked a men's haircut slot for the first time instead of a women's.  Which, like always, is what I got, but for the men's price.  I am happy to report that this time around, my hair is not crooked, my appointment was done in 30 minutes flat, nobody lost a finger (or an ear!), and I did not catch pneumonia or require any kind of hair poncho or blow-dry services for my clothing.