Gender Essentialism is Stupid and Bad for Everybody

So let’s learn to see it and call bullshit.

“Girly Legos Are Officially a Success. Now What?” asks Katie J. M.Baker:

We hate the idea of Lego Friends, too, and we’re not saying critics should give up, but don’t they need a new strategy if it turns out that most girls (and/or their parents, the ones actually buying the toys) aren’t turned off by princessy marketing and products?

Fellow critics: don’t give up! But we do need new strategies, because there are only so many ways to say “When you enforce a culturally constructed, gender essentialist approach to selling toys, you limit all children’s access to a diverse array of play.”

So what does Katie suggest?

Maybe the solution is to fund and promote alternative types of toys instead of continuing to try and convince a large, successful company to stop selling a super successful product.

This makes sense; fight capitalism with capitalism. If we who hate the idea of Lego Friends are having no luck convincing the Lego company to stop profiting off of reductive gender norms, then we need to shift the focus from the company to the consumer.

If we can encourage more conscientious consumption, we might see more toy departments take the gender-neutral route. But we have to teach people to see the problem.

For instance: click over to Toys R Us and you’ll find

Over at Amazon’s Toys & Games

When a webpage directs consumers to click on either “Boys’ Toys” or “Girls’ Toys,” it tells people that the world is divided into Male and Female, and that these categories are mutually exclusive.

In an essay featured in this fascinating book, D. Travers Scott asserts that

…the web is not neutral. The technologies that constitute the online experience did not appear out of thin air or descend from Olympus as gifts from the gods. They are not separate from culture, somehow innocent and pure…

The design and function of online technologies is far from immune to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social ills.

Sure, if you click “Girls’ Toys” you can easily click back to the “Boys’ Toys” option. But by confronting the customer with this gender binary, the company forces hir to conceive of gender as either/or.

So let’s make sure we are paying attention to this stuff, that we are thinking critically about what we consume and how things are sold to us.

Go paint the walls of the web with these links, buy a copy of Cinderella Ate My Daughter for everyone you know, and read this story and feel hope for a future free from reductive, restrictive, ridiculous, essentialist gender norms.

see also: Mansplaining Lego Enthusiasts Tell Women to STFU about Lego Friends
and: I Tell Mansplainers to STFU

One thought on “Gender Essentialism is Stupid and Bad for Everybody

  1. I was wondering when you’d chime in on those little plastic monstrocities…

    When I worked last Thursday I spotted the table with the Lego Friends sets…I wish I could remember all the snarky, sarcastic, and very negative comments that went through my head in addition to “Sweet Jeebus has Mychael seen these yet?” Off the top of my head I remember thinking “My effing GOD those are ugly!” (yes, I actually defaulted to “effing” in my head rather than going Full Nautical, extra-salty)…”Really…seriously…a more-or-less unisex toy has to have a painfully ‘girly’ version? Girls can’t play with the regular ones?”…and one that made me giggle to myself…”Now girls can build little houses and play Jersey Shore!” (okay, I was in a mood). Damn, the things are ugly…not so much the figures (okay, so I CAN see girls wanting something a little more “figurine”-like than a little block person), but the PINK…oh gods, the pink…and purple…the one time my eyes let me see purple and it’s THAT awful shade of purple (lighter purples look “grey” to me…a visual spectrum thing). I didn’t think a color combination would trigger an “Uncanny Valley” effect like that. I’m male, and have been all my life…I have no idea what girls really LIKE playing with (as opposed to the toys they play with other than what their parents buy for them), but I’m sure that’s not it.

    On one hand I want to agree with you…there’s a very noticeable gender bias when it comes to toys. Look at “girls’ toys”…dolls centered around a house, everything’s pink, tea sets (actually, I’m not going to gripe about that…if there’s one thing women do, it’s remind men to be civilized every once in a while), dolls that simulate caring for an infant (the more realistic the better! or at least more expensive), or everyone’s favorite…the kitchen set! Let’s look at boys’ toys…okay, in my day I played with Star Wars vehicles and figures, and G.I. Joes when they came around…trucks and construction equipment, building sets (Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, etc.), farm vehicles, race cars, sports gear, and GUNS GLORIOUS GUNS! What do we have for gender-neutral toys? Well, some cars I guess…a red Corvette’s a red Corvette, though parents would rather give a girl a PINK (if ever a color has earned a bad rap…”It’s not pink, it’s lightish red!”-Private Donut) one…stuffed animals, but the specific animal might seem “girly” to boys…Play-Doh if you avoid certain molds…and, until recently, Legos, where the only difference in the little gifures was whether the head had a smile or lipstick, and what hair/hat you threw on them. It’s as you’ve said many times: there IS a gender bias in toys and it seems to aim them for future professions…men build or destroy stuff, women make food and take care of babies. Sure, you can head it off by letting girls play with “boys’ toys”, but it’s not the same as unintentionally “steering” them down the path to domestic stagnation.

    On the other hand, up until a point kids almost don’t care…unless someone is sitting right there an saying “Don’t play with that, that’s for GIRLS!” (or my personal favorite “That’s GAY!”), boys will play with girls…with “girls’ toys”…rather than play alone. I remember doing it as a kid…my brother and I (my brother is a glorified primate…imagine my height but built like a gorilla…and damn near as strong as one…and both of us are not only proficient shooters but, well, when camping you can tell which trees we’ve peed on by the patches of missing bark) used to play with a pair of sisters we grew up with, using their Barbies if we were at their house or our Star Wars toys at ours, and at my current house my nephew frequently plays with my neice and the other girls. I see this as something of a sign…no one needs to MAKE boys play with girls, but simply remove negative reinforcement preventing them from doing so (either parents or other adults stopping them or being teased by older kids…around puberty things like identifying one’s self by gender and race start kicking in, even if it’s something as simply as being “cool” or “uncool”). The problem at that end is fixable by removing the bias at the parental level…integration will happen by the social pressure of simply wanting someone to play with.

    As for the toy companies “enforcing” gender stereotypes, I don’t really see much that can be done except, well, publicly mocking ugly-ass toys that make blatant gaffes like those pink & purple monstrocities, or things marketed to boys in gods-awful colors that no girl could stand to look at let alone play with (does something bright orange REALLY need fluorescent green stripes on it too?). But that’s the Wall Street solution…for Main Street, I recommend letting kids pick the toys they want, unless something’s blatantly unsafe…if Susie wants a Super Soaker, is that somehow more or less “moral” than Billy wanting a stuffed rabbit? Kids don’t freak out over it…it’s the parents that do…and the parents are the ones who actually buy the toys. And guess what…the parents are US.

    (okay, you know what I meant…I don’t even know that I CAN reproduce, let alone SHOULD…)

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