Thursday, November 29, 2012

Barbies and Legos for All!

For those of you not linked in with the Trans and Godless facebook page, I posted this yesterday:

Dear Toy Advertisers,

Is this really so fucking difficult? Rather than making kids feel bad about playing with toys they enjoy, why not just admit that toys don't have a gender? They're just toys! No boy ever "turned gay" from playing with a doll and no girl "turned lesbian" from playing with guns. Besides, Nerf guns are fucking awesome.

Sincerely yours,

The image in question comes from a Swedish toy catalogue that works as an importer for Toys R Us.  Last year they were in some hot water for violating Sweden's laws against sexist advertising.  Yes, you read that correctly.  There are laws in Sweden against sexist advertising.  How.  Fucking.  Cool.  Is.  That?  You may also recall from previous posts that many European countries have laws that limit or prohibit the types of pervasive marketing to children we have in The States.  This means Swedish children may have the least amount of brainwashing when it comes to selecting toys they enjoy.  It means Swedish children will be more creative with their play because they're not just mimicking what they've seen advertised ad nauseum on television.  It means Swedish children can have more fun and enjoy their toys more.  And because they're not being told to limit their selection to only one half of the store, they have more variety to choose from and the toy sellers have twice as many opportunities to sell the same number of toys.  If nothing else sinks into the heads of Corporate America, that concept should.  Why on earth would you intentionally alienate half of your potential buyers for a product?

Here's the problem with sexist advertising.  While the intention is to alienate half of the population in order to win the loyalty of the other half, such as saying Barbies are only for girls so that girls will like it more, you still end up alienating your intended consumers as well.  Plenty of women will tell you they had no idea what they were supposed to do with Barbie, but rather than just shrug it off as not being a toy that holds their interest, they start to wonder if there's something wrong with them instead of the toy.  She may think, "Girls like Barbies, so if I don't like them what does that make me?"  This creates a whole group of girls who may resent Barbie for making them feel confused about their gender.  These girls grow up to be women who don't buy Barbie for their daughters.  Meanwhile, their daughters may actually enjoy a Barbie doll and resent their mother's for not buying one.  All this over a 12-inch piece of plastic!  Meanwhile, a boy really wants a Barbie doll so he can brush and style her hair, but he can't have one because "Barbies are for girls" and his parents don't want him to grow up gay/queer/trans/"different".  So you've got a girl who hates her Barbie and a boy who desperately wants one and neither of them can be happy because of the sexist marketing designed to induce loyalty.  Can anyone come up with a more fucked up system?

Let's imagine, just for a little while, that we live in a world where toys are marketed by their function and not by their non-existant gender.  Barbies and Superheroes and Dinosaurs would be on the same "Toy Figures" aisle.  This means you could have some cross-over rather than a huge divide.  Barbie could go on away missions as a secret spy and later go on a Triceratops ride with Batman.  (By the way, this is how I played with our toys as a kid.  If my sister's Barbies weren't being lesbians, than they were dating Superheroes.  Even as kids we could tell Ken wasn't really interested.)  You could have a "Make Believe" aisle, with all the play kitchens, mini lawnmowers, and baby dolls that let kids imitate their parents and pretend to be grown-ups.  And since men and women become parents and cook and shop for groceries there is really no need to segregate.  There could be a "Dress-Up" aisle, where you have princess dresses and firefighter coats and ten-gallon hats with cap guns on holsters and all kinds of other costumes that are a ball for any kid to try on.  There could be an "Outdoor" aisle, with Nerf guns and supersoakers and hula hoops and jumpropes and balls and all the other fun stuff you can do outside.  What girl wouldn't have fun playing capture the flag with her brother? 

My point is, you don't have to radically change toys in order to appeal to all genders.  A lot of the most popular toys out there are popular because they're fun to play with.  Legos are awesome!  Nerf guns are awesome!  I loved my baby doll as a toddler and learned to double-dutch when I was in elementary school.  We shouldn't try to limit who is allowed to play with toys or tell kids how they should play with them.  Playing is how kids learn.  It's how they figure out the world and decide how they're going to fit into it.  If they want to coordinate Barbie's outfits and style her hair, that's great.  If they want to strip her naked, paint a costume on her, and have her fight crime, that's great too!  Toys are fun and kids don't need any help from adults figuring out how to play.  It's when adults get involved and start trying to make rules that we stunt their imaginations and limit who they can be.

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