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.


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