Thursday, June 14, 2012

June 14, 2012: Playing with America, Part 4

[The fourth in a series on toys, games, and American Studies. Nominations, suggestions, nostalgic childhood memories, and all other responses very welcome!]
On the contexts and logic behind and yet the downside of the new girl-centered Legos.
Larry Summers got in a lot of trouble a few years back for saying something not entirely unlike this—although (I hope) significantly dumber, especially in Summers’ attempt to ground his ideas in pseudo-scientific authorities—but I can’t deny that it has been my experience: that once you have kids, you start to realize that there are indeed some innate biological differences between girls and boys, some seemingly born-in, gendered interests and identities. Obviously there are no absolutes, and my two boys are in many ways as different from each other as they are from any young girl; but nonetheless, they’ve both had (for example) strong interests in vehicles and superheroes from a very young age, interests that we didn’t instill so much as simply observe and try to respond to. Something in these subjects seems to speak to something in them, and to do so differently (from what I can tell) than how they and other subjects speak to most of the girls who are their peers.
If you want evidence that’s a little less anecdotal, I direct you to the commercials for kids’ toys, and more exactly to just how gendered so many of those commercials (and those toys) are. They may be a bit outdated, and are perhaps extreme examples, but I think these early 1980s commercials for G.I. Joe figures/vehicles on the one hand and the new Crystal Barbie on the other illustrate my point pretty thoroughly: the dirty, loud, frenetic outdoor world of the boys playing with the Joes couldn’t possibly contrast more with the pristine, elegant, peaceful indoor world of the girls with Crystal Barbie. (The 1990s talking Barbie figure who famously complained that “Math is hard” connects these trends to Summers’ comments quite explicitly.) As we’ve moved into the 21st century, you might expect that this kind of gendered categorization of and marketing for toys would have evolved, but that doesn’t seem to have happened; and one of the most famous and controversial recent toys, a new line of Legos intended especially for girls (Lego Friends), provides ample evidence that this kind of gendering remains at the center of much toy design and marketing.
Again, having seen my boys and their interests and those of their peers develop, I get it—many if not most Lego sets are of vehicles of one kind or another, and I don’t doubt that not as many young girls as boys are thrilled at the prospect of building a Lego steam train. Moreover, if this new line can get more girls using Legos than would otherwise be the case, then that could in fact push back on narratives like Summers’, on the idea that girls are somehow less interested in or adept at mathematical or scientific skills. Yet on the other hand, even if there are some innate differences between boys and girls, it seems to me that one crucial purpose for children’s toys—just as for early childhood education and other aspects of young socialization—should be to push beyond such starting points, to challenge kids to go outside of their comfort zones or initial identities, to help them become part of broader communities that feature many different such identities (within as well as across genders). Not all toys need to provide such challenges, but I would certainly argue that toys such as Legos, which are not in and of themselves connected to particular subjects or themes, aren’t doing what they could do best if they’re fitting into established gender dynamics and categories.
Final (planned) post in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? And the weekend post is still entirely open—any ideas? Within this series or outside of it, I’ll take any and all suggestions as always!
6/14 Memory Day nominee: Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be more than sufficient to earn her a nomination, but whose long and expansive writing career extended well beyond that most influential work for sure.

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