We frequently take on cases of blatantly sexist advertising around here. This stuff tends to show up online from all over the world — well, from everywhere except perhaps Sweden, because in Sweden they have the Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising (ERK). The ERK recently accused Irish airline Ryanair of sexism after they rolled out an ad-campaign featuring a Britney-Spears-style schoolgirl. A campaign which didn’t cause anyone to bat an eyelash in Ireland or the UK because what, girl-flesh being used to sell something, whoa stop the presses yawn.
Of course, they’re right that relying on traditional “sex sells” tactics is sexist, since it almost always involves putting women who meet conventional beauty standards on display to attract the male gaze. It’s just that most of us are so thoroughly inured to this tactic that our mouths would seize up from saying “sexist” too much if we tried to point out problems in advertising. It’s refreshing, but kind of surprising as well.
The ERK’s latest target is Lego, the beloved Danish company that makes billions of little interlocking plastic bricks (and my former employers, I should mention). Lego has always liked to think of itself as a fairly enlightened and progressive company, but now the ERK has accused them of sexism as well — could this cause a flare-up in the age-old Svensk-Dansk rivalry? Riots on the Oresund Bridge? Probably not. I just find inter-Scandinavian enmity amusing.
Sweden’s Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising (ERK), has lambasted Lego for a recent catalogue that features the photos of the kids in their colour-coded rooms.
The girl’s picture is captioned “Everything a princess could wish for…” and features a pony, a princess and a castle. On another page, a boy is pictured playing with a fire station, fire trucks, a police station, and an airplane with the caption “Tons of blocks for slightly older boys.”
ERK has expressed concern that this type of portrayal promotes a stereotype that is degrading to boys and girls.
However, Lego has defended the catalogue, pointing out that other photos in the catalogue show boys and girls playing together.
I am shocked…. SHOCKED! — that any toy company in this day and age would depict a little girl as a princess playing with a pony in the midst of a whole lot of pink, and a boy playing with trucks and airplanes. It’s as if they think society has some kind of gender-stereotyped idea that boys and girls play with different toys! No, seriously: I’m fairly sure this comes as a surprise to nobody, not even ERK. The Swedes are correct that it’s a classic case of gender stereotyping in action, but the issue of how “boys’ play” is segregated from “girls’ play” runs a lot deeper than the thoroughly predictable mise-en-scène of this winter’s Lego catalog.
Let me tell you a little story about toy design. Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Denmark…
… in a long-ago age known as the 1970s, there was a toymaker named Christiansen who had some friends who were wizards, by which I mean developmental psychologists. The psychologists said “what wonderful toys you make — they are good for boys and girls alike! Our research shows that the most important cognitive development in children is not all that different, and every child should be exposed to many different kinds of play, including building things wtih bricks. You should sell your bricks to boys and girls alike.” And so the toymaker continued to sell lots of bricks — especially in Germany, for some reason, but also in the United States and many other places.
Many years later, when He-Man and She-Ra were each getting their own TV show, and the Transformers and My Little Ponies had their great war (or was it a tea party, or both) in the backyard, the little Danish gnomes who sold the bricks came to the toymaker and said, “Look! We have these new demographic reports that show that people are still buying our bricks by the caseload for little boys, but we’re still not doing so well for little girls! Jens here who’s been working on that gets mocked ruthlessly by the Barbie salesgnomes! He woke up last night with a decapitated Tawny head in his bed and the words ‘YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE PINK BRICKS’ written on his wall in lipstick!”
And so it was that pink Lego bricks were created, and little Lego minfig heads with lipstick and mascara. The variety was certainly a good thing, but all the new bricks were packed up in a special section called Paradisa as if they might infect the other bricks. As every hard-working marketingnome and salesgnome knows, little boys won’t be caught dead playing with any toy that has any pink in it.
The years went on and Lego kept trying to grow and compete with other toy companies, like the big hungry giants from America, Hasbro and Mattel. They made Lego Scala to try and compete with Barbie, Lego Racers to try and compete with Hot Wheels, and although they couldn’t really win those battles, it didn’t really matter because they still had millions of adoring fans who just wanted more bricks, and if you looked hard enough, they were still selling big buckets of those bricks, and some pretty decent castles, and occasionally a pirate ship. 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.
Meanwhile, the developmental psychologists had kind of backed off their original “gender-neutral play” claims, and quite a few of them were riding the wave of new research pointing out all the cognitive differences between little boys and little girls, since that seemed to be a lot more interesting than pointing out the similarities for some reason.
I still love Lego, and there are plenty of movers and shakers there who understand that the real strength of their toy line is in how utterly flexible and non-representational it is, how Lego bricks let you make pretty much anything. They have whole lines that are just devoted to advancing that principle, and they get letters constantly from parents who want more girl-friendly construction kits. (Uh… Clikits? Hmmm….) At the same time they’re a big company that’s always struggling to grow and stay afloat, so it’s hardly surprising that they get sucked up, just like most large toy companies, into the gender-segregated target marketing that dominates childhood play.
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.
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