Gender, Play and Corporate Consumerism

There’s an interesting battle going on at the moment between Sweden’s Trade Ethical Council Against Sexism in Advertising (ERK) and Lego, with the former accusing the latter of “promot(ing) a stereotype that is degrading to boys and girls” through its colour-coded advertizing campaign that relies heavily on the gendered distinction between fire trucks and princesses. One might think of Lego’s classic little plastic blocks as being among the most gender-neutral of mass-produced toys, with their bright and diverse colours and determinedly open-ended constructive purpose, but in recent years Lego has been producing different kits to compete against various other popular toys – such as Lego Racers to compete with Hot Wheels and Lego Scala to compete with Barbie. Not sure what the pirate ships were to compete with, but even I think they’re pretty cool.

When bright pink blocks were made for the first time, along with little mini-figurine heads and mascara and lipstick in the Paradisa kit, they were packaged up in separate boxes (Paradisa and Scala lines) and marketed as part of the giant pinkification of ‘toys for girls’ that can be seen in any large mainstream toy store. Parallel to this, of course, other kits were becoming more emphatically blue and aggressive for the boys. Feministe sums it up nicely, saying:

The marketing and packaging kept getting more and more aggressive and jagged for boys, and more and more pink for girls, and that’s how we ended up with Bionicle, where scary-looking technorganic robots surf on lava and shoot fire blasts, and Belville which is… you know. Princesses.

Lego spends significant time and money with developmental psychologists and has since the 1970s – back when the fashionable emphasis was on the similarities in (and at) play between boys and girls, rather than the differences. The point then was that children need varied and open-ended play opportunities, but this point has been lost in their desperation to produce new and fashionable market-led television-tie-in products that have the child build a miniature American High School to match the one on the box – and incidentally cost an absolute fortune.

The writer of this blog post at Feministe used to work for Lego, and has the following to say:

One interesting thing I noticed during my tenure in the land of plastic bricks — when someone’s watching them, peers or adults, kids are much more likely to adhere to stereotypical divisions of play, and gravitate away from what’s clearly labeled as “for the other gender.” When we looked at statistics from the Lego website, however, where kids of a certain age range were often playing by themselves in front of a computer, we often found that the gender division of who was playing little online web games was much more gender-neutral. In other words, girls on the Lego website were playing the sports and (Lego-sanctioned, relatively non-violent) combat oriented games. This wasn’t a huge surprise, since the conventional wisdom was that of course there were some girls who liked “boy stuff,” and nobody bothered to market to them separately. More surprisingly, there were plenty of boys who also played the princess dress-up games. I always though that spoke volumes about the role of social observation in many kids’ adherence to gender rules.

The point now seems to me that we, as the adults who are in a position to design, inform, critique or purchase these toys, need to stay vigilant about the kinds of play experiences currently being marketed and delivered to children. They are neither produced without thought nor used without influence, and the ways in which we as adults insert ourselves into children’s play bear close examination.

Children play differently when adults are watching them. They play differently with some toys than others, and in some locations than others. Children today are at the centre of a storm of issues around gender, consumerism and the external control of intensely personal experiences. They need our help to gain access to the opportunities to figure out their own ways through this storm, and sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is simply leave them to it.

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