Kids’ games play­ing to gen­der stereo­types

Weekend Herald - - Science & Tech - Lec­turer in lin­guis­tics, Not­ting­ham Trent Univer­sity Laura Cof­fey-Glover

Many par­ents will be fa­mil­iar with the idea of toy man­u­fac­tur­ers work­ing with other busi­nesses, such as su­per­mar­ket chains and fast-food restaurants, to cre­ate pro­mo­tional tie-ins. Buy this or eat that, the pro­mo­tions go, and get a free branded toy.

We fo­cused on one such pro­mo­tion to in­ves­ti­gate the ways it rep­re­sented gen­der and gen­der roles.

Our fo­cus was a 2017 pro­mo­tion run by the much-loved Lego brand. In this case, cus­tomers who spent more than $20 in Sain­bury’s su­per­mar­kets were given a pack of four Lego Cre­ate the World cards. There were 140 col­lectable cards in to­tal and each fea­tured a dif­fer­ent Lego minifig­ure.

Col­leagues from the uni­ver­si­ties of Not­ting­ham, Birm­ing­ham City and Read­ing and I con­ducted re­search on this set of Cre­ate the World cards. We an­a­lysed how the male and fe­male minifig­ures were rep­re­sented via lin­guis­tic and visual mark­ers, and we found that these rep­re­sen­ta­tions, with only very few ex­cep­tions, were over­whelm­ingly stereo­typ­i­cal.

We found the use of colour on the cards, for ex­am­ple, con­formed to tra­di­tional stereo­types, with the vast ma­jor­ity of fe­male minifig­ure cards fea­tur­ing shades of pink.

There were also im­por­tant visual mark­ers of gen­der dif­fer­ence on the minifig­ure bodies: only male minifig­ures were shown with fa­cial hair, and the women with elon­gated eye­lashes, makeup and nar­rowed waists — even those that are fan­tas­ti­cal non-hu­man fig­ures, such as Lady Cy­clops and Alien Vil­lai­ness.

In­ter­est­ingly, only men were shown with visual in­di­ca­tors of age, such as wrin­kles and grey hair, ar­guably im­ply­ing that women must re­main youth­ful and at­trac­tive.

Fe­male char­ac­ters were also marked as dif­fer­ent from men via their names, which fea­tured mod­i­fy­ing terms, such as lady (as in Lady Robot), or the word end­ings “-ess” (as in Alien Vil­lai­ness) and “-let” (as in Hol­ly­wood Star­let). These forms mean that women are lin­guis­ti­cally dif­fer­en­ti­ated from the male fig­ures — there is no Man Robot, for ex­am­ple, po­ten­tially sug­gest­ing that ro­bots are or­di­nar­ily male.

The fe­male minifig­ures were also more likely to be de­scribed in terms of their ap­pear­ance than, say, in­tel­li­gence. Even The Queen (a fig­ure of power and au­thor­ity) is de­scribed ac­cord­ing to the clothes she wears: “It’s all well and good be­ing The Queen, but she would gladly trade her royal robes for jeans and a T-shirt!”

When it comes to the kinds of roles as­signed to the minifig­ures, the male char­ac­ters were more of­ten as­so­ci­ated with dan­ger or man­ual labour, such as the Heroic Knight, Gang­ster, Plum­ber and Dec­o­ra­tor.

The male minifig­ures were also more likely to carry ob­jects that can at­tack, cut or fix, such as the Heroic Knight’s sword, the Butcher’s knife or the Me­chanic’s span­ner. They were also de­scribed on the cards us­ing lan­guage that im­plies (heroic) ac­tion: “The Jan­i­tor is here to save the day and mop up the mess in no time”, while the Plum­ber “will take care of it — he knows all the twists and turns of the pipes!”

Fe­male minifig­ures, how­ever, were given fewer roles that could be de­scribed as oc­cu­pa­tions; their roles in this ear­lier set of cards are mainly con­cerned with en­ter­tain­ment, such as the Disco Diva, Fla­menco Dancer and Hula Dancer.

Al­ter­na­tively, they were given roles as­so­ci­ated with the tra­di­tional no­tion of women as care­givers, such as the Nurse. There was also a Bride (but no Groom), who “is all dressed up for her big day! All she needs now is some­one to marry.”

The fact that the Bride is de­scribed in terms of ap­pear­ance, rather than ac­tion, gives the im­pres­sion that she is the pas­sive re­cip­i­ent of a male suitor. All of this gives the over­all im­pres­sion that it is mainly men, not women, who can do use­ful things in the world.

The ques­tion, of course, is whether all of this mat­ters. Af­ter all, these are “only” chil­dren’s toys, and crit­ics may ar­gue that we are tak­ing this all too se­ri­ously. Re­search across the so­cial sci­ences, how­ever, has shown time and time again that play­ing with toys is one of the pri­mary ways that chil­dren learn to in­ter­act with oth­ers and gain a sense of their place in the world.

We ar­gue, there­fore, that toy prod­ucts are an im­por­tant sub­ject for crit­i­cal anal­y­sis. If the toys we give to young girls and boys place lim­its on what they are “al­lowed” to be in so­ci­ety, how can we hope to en­cour­age more women to en­ter sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics pro­fes­sions, for ex­am­ple, or to pro­mote the idea that it’s okay for men to have car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties?

At the time of writ­ing, a sim­i­lar Lego Cre­ate the World pro­mo­tion was again run­ning in Sains­bury’s. While we have yet to re­search the char­ac­ters por­trayed on these new cards, we should re­mem­ber toy man­u­fac­tur­ers have the op­por­tu­nity to shape the lives of young chil­dren in pos­i­tive ways.

Since toys are an im­por­tant fa­cil­i­ta­tor of ed­u­ca­tion, it is im­per­a­tive that they be­gin to take greater re­spon­si­bil­ity for do­ing so.

Blue is for boys and pink is for girls on Lego Cre­ate the World cards.

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