Friday, December 16, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Subtle Sexism Edition

As promised, I have a "real" weekend reading post this week. This week's links are all about how men and women (and boys and girls) are treated differently, even when they're doing the same things.

First, in the adult world, here is a really good column about something I missed entirely (because it was in England)- but which makes a general point (that Nicoleandmaggie had also made in their post about the Womanspace fiasco) about how men making a feminist point are treated more respectfully than women making the exact same point.

Next, do you remember the little girl who was bullied at school because she was really into Star Wars, which was supposedly a "boy thing", and how a bunch of adult geeks rallied to her defense? CNN had a follow up on her. She's doing great. Her school has a new anti-bullying policy, and she recently came to the defense of a little boy at a birthday party who wanted his nails painted like the girls. She sounds like an awesome girl.

Finally, those of you who follow me on Twitter already know how I feel about Lego's new initiative to make more "girl-friendly" sets. If your initial reaction is similar to that of the tweet that brought it to my attention- i.e., that all Lego is for girls, I encourage you to (1) read the article before you judge Lego, (2) go look at the Lego sets aimed at ages 5 and up, and (3) wonder why no one raised an eyebrow when Lego decided to skew so "boy" awhile back. Why, when no one questions the existence of the umpteen-million warrior themed Lego sets, are so many people are bothered by the idea of sets with pastel colors and traditionally "girly" things?

Personally, I'm glad they are going to bring out some sets that aren't so aggressively "boy"- otherwise, I am afraid I'll struggle to keep Pumpkin interested in Lego, which is a great toy for stretching spatial reasoning skills and problem solving skills.

To give you an idea of why I think there is a problem now, look at this castle set, which we considered buying for Pumpkin for Christmas:

And tell me what is missing.

The princess.

In the article, it says that Lego's research showed that boys around the world think that a castle without a dragon is worse than no castle at all. Well, Pumpkin would think that a castle without a princess is not really a castle, and I suspect a lot of other little girls would agree with her.

(Sorry for the Amazon picture above- it was the easiest way to get the picture in, and this month, I'm all about easy.)

We bought her a house set instead. I was annoyed, because she wants a castle for Christmas, but I knew that the Lego one would not be acceptable to her. If that toy was really "unisex" it would have the knight and the dragon and a princess.

I've written before about how I am annoyed by the feeling amongst some feminists that pink and princesses are necessarily bad. My opinion is a bit more subtle. I wouldn't want my daughter to be into princesses to the exclusion of all else, and I'm not thrilled by the fact that Disney seems to be the sole arbiter of what it means to be a princess these days, but I don't think the fact that my daughter is going through a princess phase is a sign of doom, particularly if I can find Lego sets and other "good" toys that work with that interest while also letting her stretch some of the skills that are considered traditionally male (like spatial reasoning). I think this quote from my earlier post sums up my thoughts nicely:

So I guess what I really want is for people to start standing up for the right of people to be a little bit "male" and a little bit "female"- mixing things however their interests take them. Let the boys wear pink and purple if they want, and don't assume that a girl who loves princesses is not going to kick the world's butt some day.

And, as I said in that earlier post, parents of boys don't get a free pass, either- in some ways, it is harder to let a boy explore all of his interests than it is too let a girl do so. It is far more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be viewed as... what? There isn't even a non-perjorative term for a boy who is into feminine things!

Micro Dr.O had a good post about this issue this week- go check it out. As I said in my comment there, I think boys today are missing out on arts and crafts. I don't just mean the fancy stuff from Oriental Trading that shows up at almost every girl's birthday party we go to- I mean the basics, like coloring, and cutting and taping papers. All of the art supplies seem to be marketed at girls, and I have heard the little boys at Pumpkin's day care say things like "stickers are for girls". Maybe Crayola needs to take a page from Lego's book and go study how to get boys interested in coloring again!

Update: I wrote some more thoughts on gender specific toys.


  1. our first lego loves here were the castle line, all for fMhson (when fMhgirl was still of the age to eat a lego rather than build with it).

    fMhgirl attended lego camp this summer, but yes the lack of "girl" sets is a hinderance. I'm trying to get her started on the Harry Potter this year for xmas.

    I too wish we could have a broader "range the gendered play spectrum" but since we don't I do worry a little about the message of the princesses. I've got a post coming up about fMhgirl's desire for blonde hair. When three out of the four princesses on her shirt are blonde haired/blue eyed, I don't have to look far to wonder from where she is getting some this beauty ideal

  2. Anonymous5:25 AM

    I was flipping through castle sets, and the castle rescue has a princess (~$70). Somewhere there's a set with a queen. And you can buy LEGO fairy tale historic figures that have a few female options.

    But yes, most of the sets don't have any female characters, and in general you have to spend more to get female figures. Trio doesn't look any better. We'll have to see what sort of stuff is in the super fancy wooden castle the in-laws got. (Whether or not DC likes it, I can't wait to play with it.)

    I like the way they put in a token girl in the ads or on boxes when I was growing up. I'm glad we aren't exposed to a lot of advertising these days (Netflix doesn't have commercials) but DS probably is affected by the lack of women in Heroica.

    Everyone who doesn't already own it should pick up a copy of the Free to Be You and Me CD. :)

  3. paola5:55 AM

    I haven't found that boys miss out on A&C at all, but maybe it depends on where you come from. In Italy because they spend so long at nursery/kinder (3 years) it is a huge part of their school program, and even when they do get to Primary at 5.5/6 yo, they still spend a lot of time colouring and drawing. My kids do an after school Art Club run by the school which has an equal number of boys and girls, but to tell the truth, Noah is most definitely the eldest boy. I guess7 year old boys are more likely to be doing soccer or some other sport.

    I hadn't noticed about Lego for girls, but the ack of mre girly themes probably does explain Zoe's ack of interest.

  4. @feMOMhist, thank you for your comment. It reminded me that we're lucky not to have that particular toxic aspect of the princesses to deal with, since we're all blond and blue eyed here. Except, of course, Pumpkin has decided that Ariel is her new favorite princess, and has asked for a red wig.

    I'm not AT ALL happy with some of the messages in the ancillary princess crap. So far my approach has been to point it out and try to get her to see that it is limiting. Who knows if that will work? But I just couldn't see trying to forbid her from something that she is so interested in.

    @nicoleandmaggie- I did not do a comprehensive search, but the only castle set I found with a princess was for older kids. We need the 4-7 age range right now.

    I had the Free to be You and Me album as a kid! I'll have to get that for the kids sometime soon.

    @paola- the boys at our day care do the class art projects. But they generally don't choose to go to the art station during free play, and their coloring (as displayed on the class board) is definitely not in the same league as most of the girls. I think that is due entirely to the fact that the girls practice more. The only reason I think this matters at all is that the girls also tend to have better writing, which I am sure is due to the fact that they have practiced using writing implements more. However, the fact that boys "lag" with respect to writing and other fine motor skills is often used as a reason to redshirt them (i.e., hold them back from starting kindergarten for a year), and surprising number of people think this is an innate difference. From what I've seen, I agree with Lise Eliot (in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain): it is mostly down to differences in what skills the kids practice during play time.

    An interesting anecdote: one little boy we know was recently moved to a different day care, because his parents thought he wasn't learning how to write fast enough at our day care. Leaving aside the question of whether that really matters for a 4 year old... we gave that boy our standard 4 year old gift of a coloring book, an activity book, and a set of markers, and the thank you note said something about how it was his first activity book. Pumpkin had been having fun with activity books for almost a year at that point. I suspect that explains why she was writing and he wasn't more than any deficiencies in our day care.

    Now, I'm not saying that it is WRONG that he hadn't been playing with activity books. I'm just saying that what the kids play with will impact what they get good at. Which seems obvious to me.

  5. Anonymous9:20 AM

    We've been completely ignoring age ranges on the Lego stuff. The stuff DC is *really* into right now (Heroica) is 7+... and we've been giving the $15 set (Draida) at 5 and 6 year old birthday parties as our go-to gift when the gift closet runs low.

    DH was, in fact, just commenting the night before last on how useless the age ranges seem to be after the choking hazard stage. ("How do they decide these things?" he bemoaned. "They're always totally off in one direction or the other.")

    So yes, point taken that they don't have princess stuff labeled at the princess-loving age range... but from a practical standpoint if one wants a princess and is willing to pay through the nose for it, they can be obtained. Even better would be some lady rangers or clerics, but what can you do? I guess go Star Wars for Princess Leia.

  6. @nicoleandmaggie, good point about the uselessness of the age ranges. We're basically looking for fairly simple sets right now, because she is just now transitioning from Duplo- because we are just now hitting the point where Petunia doesn't put everything in her mouth! So Pumpkin's a little "behind" on the lego sets.

  7. My son gets the shaft for a lot of marketing for his age now because he wants boy stuff, but not always violent or scary boy stuff. (His Montessori school has a no-action-figure-ad policy.) In clothes, it manifests as: we can find fun designs or old Beatles logos up to 5t or for grown men, but NOTHING for the youth boy sizes. The youth girls sizes have some stuff, Beatles & Peanuts for example, but they all have pink backgrounds. In Lego, it manifests as: he has no idea what the Pirates of the Caribbean story is, or Star Wars, & he'snot interested. The playmobil Egypt line saved us the past couple of years. But I think he'd like Lego sets, but there are so many that are branded to the hilt. (I mean, yes Harry Potter & City, but why so often so formulaic?)

    And don't get me started on the anxiety he had when he wanted to tell his school friends that he takes ballet but didn't want his friends to make fun of him. His sister takes karate, too--no one's giving her grief about that. (Well, one kid did: "How come you do girl things & your sister does boy things?" but I tried to explain to my son that this was ridiculous--if there's no male dancers in ballet, who do they think catches the girls? Who do they think is the Nutcracker on all the posters we see around town?)

    Anyway, my point is just that, yes, girls need access to Legos & swords & babydolls & pink & black & brown & you name it. But, frankly, boys do too--this weird thing of exclusive-to-limited-demographic marketing comes with, I believe, a societal cost that will feel really expensive to us all in the long run.

    It's good to hear other people think about this sort of thing, too.

  8. Sonia3:32 PM

    I heard a piece on NPR about this the other day. I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, my sister and I grew up playing with Legos, way back in the 80s (we're both in our 30s now). We loved the little minifigures, and everything else Lego. So, I wonder why girls nowadays don't seem to like Legos the way my sister and I, and other girls our age, did. On the other hand, good for Lego for paying attention to how girls play, and designing something appealing.

    Do girls play differently now? Have they been conditioned differently, however subtly? I know Lego changed its focus to more branded/boy specific sets relatively recently, but the big random bins are still easy to come by. So I guess I just don't understand how Lego lost their appeal to girls between my childhood and my children's childhood. I've got two boys now, and we are knee deep in Lego, and I love to play with them now just as much as I did as a kid. My husband, on the other hand, would rather play anything but Legos with the boys.

  9. @Sonia, yes, I played with lego a lot as a little girl, too.

    I am not really sure what has happened. Maybe it is all down to the Disney marketing machine- I don't remember the princess thing being such a huge, all-encompassing deal when I was little. We try to fight it... to a certain extent. But we're just one family and those damn princesses are everywhere, on everything. And all of her friends at day care are into them, too.

    But I also thing that toys in general have gotten more gender-divided. I suspect that is a toy marketing thing. Avoiding toy ads is the main reason that we don't watch any live kids TV other than NickJr and KPBS (which don't have ads).

    But really, I don't know. Someone should study it! Maybe we're all just looking back with rose colored glasses? Or maybe the toy scene really has gotten worse.

  10. Anonymous5:45 PM

    Didn't that lego article address how over time they realized the need to gender segregate because they were getting questions about who toys were for? Or was that another article I read recently on the same topic? I'm also remembering something about how doctors kits used to be unisex (I had one-- it was Fisher Price colored with bold primary yellows and blues) but now they come in pink and blue... so maybe it was a different article.

    But in short: Yes, unisex toys didn't used to be so gender segregated. Toy manufacturers in the US have specifically focused on adding more gender segregation. At least according to something I read on the internet last week that seemed to be reputable.

    There were girls on the lego boxes in 1960... and 1970 and in the ads in 1980

    Also, growing up we were in the Free to Be You and Me Generation-- there was a big push socially to let girls play with boy toys. Even (gasp) to let boys play with dolls so they "could be daddies some day." Maybe I'm just living in the wrong part of the country, but it seems like there's been a big push-back on that idea. I wonder what that's going to mean for the next generation... seeing this generation of Dads more involved but also the toys and the tv shows so very gender segregated in traditional roles (I miss the Cosby Show). I hope we keep moving forward.

  11. I'm suffering from a nasty cold and won't try to comment intelligently. Basically, I'm with you. Though I despair, honestly, that we've come to Lego kits (even were they perfectly fabulous) at all. Why in my day, we snapped a red 1*1 square on top of 2 stacked yellow 2*2 squares and called THAT a princess -- and we liked it! (and playing pretend with non-representational figures improved our imaginative capacities -- didn't it?)

    But if you're desperate for a princess-like figure not included in a kit (I mean, to add to one), try searching on ebay. Within about the first 25 items I saw when searching on "Lego princess" I found a "Lego Minifigure Female Princess" (not to be confused with a male one, I suppose) new, shipped, for $5.95. That may not be quite right, but I'd bet you could find something (sadly in those same first ~25, I also saw a "Pricess Leia Slave" figure from which I may never recover. Not-so-subtle sexism embodied in ... Lego. Argh).

  12. Anonymous6:24 PM


    Before our house succumbed to the Heroica craze (which are both legoes AND board game), we were spending all our time on these Pixelblocks:

    Each one is a lego square, but they can be attached to each other on all sides, not just top and bottom.

    They are the ultimate in creativity. (Also: note: unisex!)

  13. Well the thing about the castle without a princess is that without a princess it's actually without a female figure. I have vivid memories of playing with gender-neutral Legos as a kid in the 70s (pre-princess craze) and I longed for a female character, and I wanted her to wear a DRESS. In fact, I figured out a way of fashioning her a Lego dress because it bothered me. And of course there was only one girl figure and the rest were boys. My point is that as girls get older it's about *representation* rather than about princesses per-se. in fact I would argue that a huge part of the princess craze is that it is apparently the only gender-approved way of having girls exist. I noticed from a very young age that there weren't any girls in the books I loved.

    I completely agree about how important it is to be equally outraged about the masculine hypergendering as the feminine. Those Lego sets make me crazy. my husband also pointed out that they have removed more and more of the imagination in the sets. (Because they are cross product placement - Star Wars! Harry Potter! The kids are doing less on their own. The beauty of Lego was that it was kind of a blank.) We have a really nice Duplo set that is totally gender neutral, with one boy and one girl figure.

    Yes, they gender segregated the toys on purpose in order to make more money. same with clothes. And it has had, IMO, pretty unhappy results for children.

    When the boys were very small, they had only gender-neutral toys. Now that they are older, we don't sweat it too much - our house is filled with trucks and cars and trains. I don't think gender neutral parenting is exclusive to the toys they play with, and esp small children are going to gender conform the majority of the time because they want to be like their peers.

    @Cloud - yeah, it's wild that people think those differences are innate, when it's clear that girls are encouraged, however subtly, *not* to be by physical, rather to be quiet and still and engage in focused work like drawing and writing, whereas the opposite is true for boys. Do you remember, Cloud, a long time ago someone over at Moxie - Hedra? - posted something about play and parental signaling. That is, that studies had shown that very small children were always wanting their parents' attention even when it wasn't obvious. And that parents tended to linger their gaze on their children longer if the child played with a gender-appropriate toy. Thus the child learned that parental approval was attached to gender appropriate toys in moments that were essentially comprised of seconds. I was really struck by that, because it shows just how subtle and unconscious it all is.

  14. also - on the Lego article, I loved how the Lego folks were all wringing their hands like, "why don't girls like our products! Waaaa!" When in fact they'd spent years *alienating* girls from their products by making them violent-boy themed.

  15. @feMOMhist's point about the princesses' looks also concerns me, as the mom of a 1/2 white, 1/2 Indian brown haired brown eyed girl.

    After returning a slew of princess gift stuff to the Disney store I was at a loss for what to buy her. I ended up getting her a stylized cartoony Princess Tiana shirt (which BabyT pointed out that she is BROWN, mama) and some Toy Story Legos, which I just found out later have a piece that shoots some sort of projectile.

    Seriously, I can't believe how much time we have to spend making sure toys are appropriate and not sending the wrong messages. It's exhausting sometimes, especially when explaining to older relatives. Thank god for the Amazon wish list, and for you folks for recommending things like CastleLogix.

  16. On books, I love Encyclopedia Brown (for the 1st-3rd grade age range). His junior partner is Sally Kimball...she's the prettiest and toughest kid in the 5th grade.

    On Lego, seriously, what is the deal with kits to make a specific thing? I want a big bin of blocks (for creativity...uhhh, for my kids...not for me, much). I had some sort of architerctural bin when I was a girl. I built a lot of houses. We didn't have any Lego people so I used to use other figurines for people or build my own people. The houses I built were sometimes awesomely detailed and structurally sound. I don't think I had any wheel sets so I didn't build vehicles. (I also had a Barbie dream house...but I used to make her leave the house and go camping!)

    We're very into arts and crafts and activity books, but coloring took a lot longer to get the boys interested in than I thought it would. They much prefered painting at 2 and 3. I do encourage a lot of cutting with scissors (which is hugely popular) and manipulating play-do to strengthen their hand muscles in preparation for writing, when they're ready. The crafts involve a lot of tape (OMG, the amount of tape they use), cardboard, staples, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, googlie eyes, pom-pons, etc. It's not just coloring or stickers. It's building whatever you want (and decorating it however). The 3-yo is beginning to enjoy stickers. We have a lot of Thomas Train and Hot Wheels. Glitter stickers and puffie stickers are popular too.

    Our day care gave each child an activity book and a box of crayons every year as a holiday gift starting around age 2. I've since found out that there was one teacher behind that (she bought the crayons for a dime a pack at back-to-school time).

    My go-to 1-year old girl gift is a pink race car with a female race car driver (wow! toys). If they made a blue race car with a female driver, I probably would have bought it, but the car is pink so that's what they get. I also like playmobil for very gender-indifferent playsets. The princess carriage set has a princess and a footman and a prince and a lady in waiting or something. We have a wooden play kitchen and (healthy) plastic food. Some people think play kitchens are "for girls". My boys like to hand me the most disgusting combinations of food (bacon with whipped cream and cherries or brocolli with pie) and deliver it on a plate brought to me on the back of a semi trailer, so there might be some gender bending going on.

  17. I was shopping for a playmobil travel set recently and all they had at hellonearth (toysrus) were violent and yet more violent ones. I was so disappointed. B would LOVE pirates -- but not the weaponry. And what's up with the whole cops and robbers thing, too? I finally found a horse set and though "great, so girls get unicorns and horses, how nice."

    We try to stay away from disney princesses, but not princesses altogether. In fact, I love the book Paper Bag Princess and highly recommend it to any parents of little girls. We read it all the time, and the Paper Bag Princess is a true modern-day heroine: smart, able to defeat a dragon and rescue a prince, and then able to tell the prince off when she realizes that he's a total shit.

  18. As much as I loved Encyclopedia Brown as a kid, I always thought it kind of smacked you in the head with its sexism. Yes, Sally's a tom-boy-- she's a foil to scrawny yet brainy EB (haha, look at them switch gender roles). But there are mysteries that are solved (and always the ones that Sally solves rather than EB) because of a sexist premise.

    For example: the one where the bad guy had to be a man because a woman couldn't possibly have that much strength, and lo! Sally shows through her feminine knowledge of etiquette that the criminal was dressed in a woman's dress even though he was a he, because she knows that women always sit in the corner of a booth rather than the outside. (Yes, this one still bugs me 20-odd years later.)

    I always figured EB was "a product of its time" and should be given lee-way in that respect. But feminist? Definitely not.

    Paper bag princess is awesome!

    But my favorite of all time is The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. About a little brown country bunny who makes good as a single mom, through love, hard work, and persistence. Written in 1939.

  19. @NicoleandMaggie good to know -- thanks!

  20. Amen to what everyone has said about Legos. When I was a kid my sets were generic (pirate ship, castle, and beach party). Castle had the token princess, and beach party a good mix of both genders. I agree with what everyone has said about too much focus on the brands and not enough on the generic sets where a child can make their OWN story instead of just going off of a world that already has a story. But last time I went to Lego site I was just disappointed how few women characters there were in anything. In fact blogged about, old post though:

  21. I LOVE Paper Bag Princess. I have given that as a gift many times. And whenever the Disney princesses get too dominant here, it suddenly goes into heavy rotation for bedtime reading....

    On the lego thing- it has been interesting reading everyone's reactions, both here and out on the web. It seems that a lot of people on the internet are ready to condemn Lego for the new sets without even seeing them. I'll wait and see them before I form a final opinion. But I am amazed by the fact that so few people have picked up on the issues with the current sets. Several people have tweeted that Lego already has sets for girls- all of them. I think that those people haven't looked at Lego lately.

  22. Oh, and @FrauTech- thanks for posting that link. It was a good post!

  23. the milliner7:45 AM

    I'm thinking that Paper Bag Princess should be a book that DS has.

  24. Sonia6:14 AM

    I know I'm a bit late coming back to the party here, but I just showed my boys (just about 8, and 4.5) the new Lego Friends line, and they thought they were SO COOL. These boys live and breathe Lego -- my older one would spend all day building if I let him. The little one loved the home page for the friends line -- he kept asking me to let him see the girls hugging because they like each other. Even the 8 year old -- who is unfortunately becoming quite conscious about what is appropriate for girls/boys to play with -- was excited about the flowers, the pie, the other little touches that are supposed to make the line appeal more to girls. He especially loved the tree house set.

    I showed them all the sets I could find online, and they both oohed and ahed about everything they saw. I would definitely buy either of them a set of it if they asked. So, while I am still annoyed that Lego felt the need to have lines intended for either girls or boys, my boys were super excited about them. And maybe they will make legos more appealing to girls, or parents of daughters. Now if they would make crossover sets, or sets that would be equally appealing to boys AND girls....

  25. @Sonia, that is really interesting. Thanks for coming back and sharing that. I wonder if the retailers will be shooting themselves in the foot with their stated decision to put the new sets in the "girl" section instead of the LEGO section?


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