Emile Durkheim, founding father of sociology and author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, would love the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Consider this excerpt from a British observer, Jonathan Raban, who watched the parade twenty years ago from a window on Central Park West. The parade, he said, was…
…the secular, American descendant of the European Catholic Easter procession in which all the icons and saints’ bones are removed from the churches and carried ceremonially around the town. The baseball hero, the gaseous, rubbery Mickey Mouse, the Mayflower pilgrims were the totems and treasure relics of a culture, as the New Orleans jazz and Sousa marches were its solemn music.
Had a serious-minded Martian been standing at the window, he would have learned a good deal by studying the parade’s idyllic version of American history. [guns, refugees, rebels]… The imaginative life of children was honored to a degree unknown on Mars — which was, perhaps, why matters of fact and matters of fiction were so confusingly jumbled up here, with Santa Claus and George Washington and Superman and Abraham Lincoln all stirred into the same pot.
He would be struck by the extraordinarily mythopoeic character of life in this strange country. People made myths and lived by them with an ease and fertility that would have been the envy of any tribe of Pacific islanders. Sometimes there were big myths that took possession of the whole society, sometimes little ones, casually manufactured, then trusted absolutely.
In my class, when we read about religion, Durkheim mostly, I have students write a paper about a secular ritual. One goal of the assignment is to get them to see that, from a functional perspective, a ritual is a way to generate and distribute the energy for binding the members of a society together. It doesn’t really matter whether the ritual is officially secular or religious. In fact, if you’re a complete stranger to the culture, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.
No student has ever chosen the Macy’s parade. I wonder why not. Raban, who is from England, not Mars, senses the religious aura of the parade with its many gods. Had there been a Macy’s in ancient Greece, the parade would no doubt have had balloon representations of Demeter (god of the harvest), Poseidon (god of the sea), Aphrodite (god of beauty), Hermes (god of silk scarves), and of course in the U.S., Hebe (goddess of youth). And all the rest. We’re not Athenians. Instead, we throng the streets for icons like Snoopy and Spiderman, Pikachu, Bullwinkle, and Spongebob, but the idea is the same. They are our totems, our gods.
I imagine Durkheim on Central Park West, watching the children and grown-ups that have come together here to look up to these huge embodiments of our cultural ideals. Durkheim feels a frisson, a shiver of recognition. What better way to symbolize the idea about the binding power of ritual social energy?
Photos from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade website.
This holiday season, a dollhouse may be a feminist gift for a little girl.
A tweet from Natalie Novik inspired me to look into the toy. She had discovered a gender-neutral dollhouse being sold at Etsy. Following up on her lead, I went over the Toys R Us website to see what gender messages dollhouses were sending. Some of the results surprised me.
Among the 22 best selling dollhouses at Toys R Us, four came without people, six came with a preponderance of females, ten came with a male, female, and children, and there were two I couldn’t categorize. (All humans were white — some dollhouses included non-human creatures — and just about everyone appears to be wealthy.)
The majority of dollhouses, then, came in two types. The first was an explicitly family-themed toy. The message of these was heteronormative, for sure, and also pro-coupling and pro-reproduction. The Fisher-Price Loving Family Home for the Holidays Dollhouse is an example:
The second type of house, however, had themes of friendship and, dare I say, female-independence. These houses had only women or, more often, a group of women and one man. They gave the impression of female home-ownership and female-dominated social interaction. The Exclusive Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse is an example:
Interestingly, most of the dollhouses that fell into this second type were Barbie affiliated. People disagree as to whether Barbie is a good role model for young women. She is roundly criticized for upholding a harmful standard of beauty, but she also tells women they can run for President and go to the moon. In this case, Barbie is sending girls the message that they can have fulfilling lives and own homes without a husband.
As if to capture the paradox completely, the dollhouse featured above comes complete with a Barbie in a bikini doing astronomy:
Children, of course, play with toys both creatively and in resistance to the messages they send. We’d be happy to hear your stories and observations in the comments.
In a fun five minutes, Mike Rugnetta manages to invoke John Stewart Mill and Judith Butler, plus discuss how “bronies” — male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic — challenge rigid rules of masculinity.
[Note: Trigger warning for sexist, demeaning language and violent imagery.]
If you’re a regular reader of Soc Images, chances are pretty good that you also know about Anita Sarkeesian’s project to look at sexism in video games. Sarkeesian, who runs the fantastic Feminist Frequency site, attracted a large amount of hateful online attacks and harassment after starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise a few thousand dollars for a project looking at sexism in video games. If you aren’t aware of the story, check out any of the many media stories about her experience.
Sarkeesian’s project looks at stereotypes or sexist imagery in the design of the games themselves. My coworker Darren D. let me know about a website that highlights another element of sexism in the gaming community: the demeaning or threatening sexist comments gamers often send to other players, especially those they believe are women. Fat, Ugly or Slutty collects examples of the sexual harassment and sexist attacks that are an unfortunately common part of female gamers’ lives.
Many of the comments sexualize and objectify the women by suggesting they should be sexually available to other players or open to comments on their appearance:
Some angrily lash out with hateful sexist attacks and put-downs about physical appearance and sexuality:
Others send threats or vivid scenarios of violence:
As one of my female students told me last semester, as a gamer, she has the extra mental and emotional burden of having to decide, every time she considers playing, whether the joy she gets from the game outweighs the likelihood that she’ll be called a whore or a bitch or have to ignore sexual comments as she tries to concentrate on the game.
UPDATE: Several commenters have pointed out that men also get comments like at least some of these. That is absolutely true. Insults of a wide and creative variety are thrown around. But these comments, whether targeted at men or women, illustrate a common cost of admission to online gaming: whether a man or a woman, you have to expect sexist, demeaning, violent insults if you want to play. Those are the informal rules of the game.
And yes, both men and women receive these types of objectifying or sexist comments. In a world in which women are more likely to face this type of behavior in their everyday lives outside of gaming, and in which women playing multi-player or FPS games generally find themselves in the minority, the fact that both male and female gamers experience these insults shouldn’t reassure us that the impacts of them are equal and, thus, harmless.
The term sexual dimorphism refers to differences between males and females of the same species. Some animals are highly sexually dimorphic. Male elephant seals outweigh females by more than 2,500 pounds; peacocks put on a color show that peahens couldn’t mimic in their wildest dreams; and a male anglerfish’s whole life involves finding a female, latching on, and dissolving until there’s nothing left but his testicles (yes, really).
On the spectrum of very high to very low dimorphism, humans are on the low end. We’re just not that kind of species. Remove the gendered clothing styles, make up, and hair differences and we’d look more alike than we think we do.
Because we’re invested in men and women being different, however, we tend to be pleased by exaggerated portrayals of human sexual dimorphism (for example, in Tangled). Game designer-in-training Andrea Rubenstein has shown us that we extend this ideal to non-human fantasy as well. She points to a striking dimorphism (mimicking Western ideals) in World of Warcraft creatures:
[Rubenstein] points out that these female bodies embody the “feminine ideal” of the supermodel, which seems a rather out-of-place aesthetic in a world of monsters. Supermodelly Taurens wouldn’t be so odd if gamers had the choice to make their girl creatures big and muscley, but they don’t. Even if you wanted to have a female troll with tusks, you couldn’t. Which seems especially bizarre given that this game is supposed to be all about fantasy, and turning yourself into whatever you want to be.
It appears that the supermodel-like females weren’t part of the original design of the game. Instead, the Alpha version included a lot less dimorphism, among the Taurens and the Trolls for example:
Newitz says that the female figures were changed in response to player feedback:
Apparently there were many complaints about the women of both races being “ugly” and so the developers changed them into their current incarnations.
The dimorphism in WoW is a great example of how gender difference is, in part, an ideology. It’s a desire that we impose onto the world, not reality in itself. We make even our fantasy selves conform to it. Interestingly, when people stray from affirming the ideology, they can face pressure to align themselves with its defenders. It appears that this is exactly what happened in WoW.
In Parts I through III, I’ve discussed the history of LEGO’s attempts to capture (or abandon) the imagination of girls and boys. In this final installment, I discuss their newest effort to market to girls, LEGO Friends.
Several weeks before the first wave of LEGO Friends sets were available in U.S. retail stores, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a coverstory that presented an in-depth look at TLG’s thought process in creating the sets. This was a very deliberate move on the part of TLG: it got their version of the story out there first (“four years of marketing research show this is what girls want”) and it made a bold statement about the LEGO brand (“like it or not, the minidoll is LEGO now”).
This move implies that they foresaw the backlash this line would inspire and hoped to mitigate it. The article portrays TLG sympathetically, as a company that wants to help girls build important skills and is trying to figure the most effective way to reach them. This idea is echoed in TLG’s official press release responding to the controversy. To a certain degree, this maneuver has been successful on TLG’s part. I have seen plenty of people point to the quote about “four years of marketing research” to dismiss the arguments that LEGO Friends perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes. But the attempt to integrate the minidoll into the LEGO brand is ultimately doomed.
In many ways, LEGO Friends is an improvement over the previous “girls only” themes. Even more so than Paradisa, for example, LEGO Friends has a building experience that is on par with other currently available LEGO sets (mostly City and Castle, as the action themes use more complex techniques.)
Despite the presence of a beauty salon and a fashion designer, the clothing options in Heartlake City are also very limited. There is only one pair of full length pants available and threes shirts with sleeves, everyone else has skirts or capri pants with tangtops and sleeveless blouses. Olivia will have to raid her dad’s wardrobe if she wants to make her laboratory OSHA compliant.
The minidolls may be the biggest barrier to efforts to use LEGO Friends as a gateway to the rest of the LEGO product. In addition to being sexified and out-of-proportion to the classic minifig, their articulation makes them simply less interesting than the classic LEGO person. The classic minifig has 7 points of articulation (8 if you count the hairpiece’s ability to move rotate independently of the head) whereas the minidoll only has 4 points (5 with the hair.) Minidolls can’t rotate their hands (which limits the ability to accurately pose accessories) or move their legs independently (which prevents them from being posed in active positions like running, they can only sit, stand or bend over).
The value of the LEGO system is the ability to connect all the different pieces to each other. The only compatibility between minidolls and minifigs is the hairpieces and accessories (think about the message that sends.) More, unlike the legs and torsos of minifigs, which easily connect to standard LEGO bricks so you can build any type of legs you want, the leg to torso connection on the minidoll is not compatible with any standard LEGO connection. Additionally, the minidolls do not have LEGO connections on the back of their legs like minifigs do, making it impossible to securely attach to vehicles in seated positions.
To be fair, the minidoll has a slight advantage over the minifig in regards to racial diversity. Though darker skin tones were introduced to minifig in 2003 with Lando Calrissian, there has yet to be an identifiably feminine, dark-skinned minifig. Andrea (and Sarah) are therefore trailblazers. Friends is also the first instance of a LEGOLAND scale theme that integrates realistic flesh colors and is not connected to an external franchise (movies, comics, sports, etc.). This is a topic I’d like to discuss at length another time, but I hope this is the start of a trend that leads to a more ethnically diverse range of minifigures.
In sum, LEGO Friends is far from perfect, but it is a decided improvement over previously girly-LEGO iterations. Still, many consumers object to the line vociferously, coining the clever slogan: ”LEGO for girls already exist – it’s called LEGO.”
TLG seems to fundamentally misunderstand this argument. In a press release, for example, they explained:
We want to correct any misinterpretation that LEGO Friends is our only offering for girls. This is by no means the case. We know that many girls love to build and play with the wide variety of LEGO products already available.
This isn’t satisfying to detractors because the critique of Friends (as I understand it) is not that it is being presented as the only LEGO product line for girls, but that TLG is so clearly marketing LEGO Friends only to girls. Rather than creating themes that appeal to both boys and girls and marketing them to both boys and girls, TLG is creating products for boys and products for girls. The fact that the focus groups for LEGO friends consisted of girls and women and the focus groups for lines like Power Miners and Atlantis consisted primarily of young boys proves that TLG fundamentally believes that boys and girls have entirely separate needs and desires. This is a harmful belief that we as a culture need to rid ourselves of.
David Pickett is a social media marketer by day and a LEGO animator by night. He is fanatical about LEGO and proud to be a nerd. Read more from David at Thinking Brickly.
As discussed in Part II, between 1989 and 2003, LEGO had introduced a stream of lines aimed specifically at girls. None were particularly successful and the company was in trouble. So, what next?
Those of us who follow every move TLG makes are well familiar with the company’s near collapse in 2004 and subsequent renaissance. This is a really important moment for our story, because this is the year when TLG stopped being a family run business and brought in a non-Kristiansen CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp. With Knudstorp’s arrival came a change in philosophy. Quoted from the DailyMail article linked above:
Instead of “nurturing the child” – as Knudstorp puts it – [employees'] primary goal now had to be, “I am here to make money for the company.”
I, like many LEGO fans, am very grateful for what Knudstorp did to save and revitalize the company. The post-2004 era has seen a flourishing of LEGOthemesandsetsaimed at advanced builders. The LEGO minifig has been injected with more personality and variety than ever before. However, part of TLG’s new strategy also involved abandoning efforts the girl market and focusing exclusively on boys.
Abandoning schlock like Belville and Clikits is not a bad thing, but the push toward conflict and hyper-masculinity in classicthemes (and a wholehostofnewones) made LEGOLAND inhospitable for femininity. Here are a couple more telling quotes from the Daily Mail article:
As always with Lego, this [action-oriented theme] was developed at every stage… with the help of focus groups, mostly comprising boys aged between six and 12.
In this new world focused on profit, the company sees no shame in admitting that, like it or not, what most excites little boys is conflict.
Notice the substantial hike in the m/f ratio in 2007. This ratio had been gradually approaching 1 throughout the 90s, but jumped back up to 1992 levels in 2007 (male/female ratio = 8).
Girls also disappeared from LEGO commercials and marketing collateral. Take this awesome seriesofcommercials encouraging fathers and sons to build together (the first is embedded below). The utter lack of anything similar for girls sends a clear message about who is expected to play with LEGO, it has entirely entered the masculine domain. With girls being actively excluded from TLG’s marketing efforts it’s no surprise that we see such a low percentage playing with them now.
In the final installment of this series, I’ll offer my perspective on the controversy over the new line aimed at girls, LEGO Friends.
David Pickett is a social media marketer by day and a LEGO animator by night. He is fanatical about LEGO and proud to be a nerd. Read more from David at Thinking Brickly.