Toy Companies That Profit From Damaging Stereotypes Shouldn’t Be Given Awards For Ethics

Toy manufacturers and games developers are profiting from the creation of discriminatory imagined worlds where the segregation, objectification, and erasure of women is being mass produced for fun.

In 2014, Hasbro, one of the world’s largest and most influential toy makers, was named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies®, recognized for going “beyond making statements about doing business ‘ethically’ and translating those words into action.” Honorees “not only promote ethical business standards and practices internally, they exceed legal compliance minimums and shape future industry standards by introducing best practices today.” No company that trades so corruptly in limiting the imaginations of children and exploits their human potential for profit in the way large mainstream toy manufacturers do should be winning awards on the basis of ethics. 

Toy manufacturers and games developers are profiting from the creation of discriminatory imagined worlds where the segregation, objectification, and erasure of women is being mass produced for fun.

While many people are happy to stop at the “child’s play” argument, there is nothing remotely trivial about this. Playing is practice for adulthood, where the same stereotypes seamlessly move into a world where violence in games, movies, and other media is background noise to real violence and women’s political and cultural marginalization.

Here are just a handful of recent examples on the gender battleground of toyland:

This week, people have been calling out Lego, the world’s largest toy manufacturer for “sharing beauty tips for girls” in the marketing of the already much-criticized Lego Friends line of toys. Last year, a letter by 7-year-old Charlotte Benjamin about the lack of well-rounded Lego toys for girls went viral after she pointed out that girls “sat at home or went shopping,” but boys had heroic jobs and adventures.

Lego is now the world’s largest toy maker, having beaten out Mattel, which achieved that rank in large part on the backs of little girls whose imaginations and aspirations were winnowed away every time they picked up this doll. Just playing with a Barbie doll, like watching most mainstream children’s TV programming, negatively affects girls’ ambition and induces them to think they have fewer legitimate career options. Don’t even get me started on Mattel’s recurring STEM-related stupidity. The expression Barbie Science is perhaps one of the English language’s greatest oxymorons.

Last week, in response to news that Hasbro had produced a new set of 24 Star Wars figurines without Princess Leia, consumers started a #WeWantLeia hashtag. They also don’t have Han and Luke, but, when you eliminate Leia, there are no other female figures.

“This is the latest example of a female character being omitted from merchandising, because it’s perceived as a ‘boys’ brand,” explains Simon Ragoonanan, a stay-at-home dad and blogger who protested the product release. “Little girls can relate to male characters for sure, but they need to also see themselves in these worlds in order to feel that it’s for them too. My daughter loves stories and characters, but sooner or later she’s going to realize that retailers think they’re not for girls.”

This particular pushback is round two for the Star Wars franchise. Last Spring, British film executive Natalie Wreyford realized that Disney had begun promoting new Star Wars merchandise without Princess Leia toys, action figures, or costumes, even while the company prominently featured Han and Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and Darth Vader. Disney eventually added Leia back.

Mike Hoye hacked into the Gamecube game, “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker,” to create a game that his daughter could play without internalizing messages that female erasure send. He started, like some of us do, switching the pronouns in the text of the story as he read it to her. Then he changed the script. His simple explanation summed the issue up well: “I’m not having my daughter grow up thinking girls don’t get to be the hero and rescue their brothers,” and, besides, “Dad’s favorite pastime shouldn’t treat girls like second-class citizens.”

In 2012, a 6-year-old Irish girl sent Hasbro a letter to ask, “Why are there so many more boys than girls in the game Guess Who? Also if girls want to be a girl in Guess Who, they’ll always lose against a boy, and it will be harder for them to win.”

Hasbro dug itself a deeper hole when it responded, “If you take a look at the characters in the game, you will notice that there are five of any given characteristics. The idea of the game is, that by process of elimination, you narrow down who it isn’t, thus determining who it is.” As the girl’s mother, journalist Jennifer O’Connell said in a comment that distills the question at hand into one simple question, “Why is female gender regarded as a ‘characteristic,’ while male gender is not?”

Hasbro has not changed the gender distribution of this game.

Several months later, consumers raised objections to Disney’s makeover of Merida, the protagonists of Brave. Then, concerned scholars, counselors, writers, and activists formed the Brave Girls Alliance, which lobbies for parity representation and gender-free play. As was evidenced in the Merida product development fiasco, not only do toy companies and game developers casually eliminate girls and women, but they consistently fail to understand why making beauty, appearance, and passivity central features of girls’ play is bad. The particular irony of that, of course, is that traditionalists more likely to buy toys based on stereotypes and inclined to worry excessively about teenage girls’ sexualization, spend a lot of money creating and buying toys that objectify girls and end up enabling a play environment where girls as young as 6 already see themselves as sexual objects.

Worse yet, in games and popular apps girls actually have to pay to play as female characters. Consider this from the perspective that today, most children encounter stories, toys, and characters in digital form way before they play with an actual traditional toy.

Last week, an amazing 6th grader, Madeleine Messer, wrote about analyzing games on her iPhone, many of which default to boy characters with no option at all to be female. She looked at the gender breakdown of the characters in the top 50 apps available and found that “Of the apps that did have gender-identifiable characters, 98 percent offered boy characters.” What surprised her though was that only 46 percent offered girl characters.” As she put it, “Even worse, of these 50 apps, 90 percent offered boy characters for free, while only 15 percent offered girl characters for free. Considering that the players of Temple Run, which has been downloaded more than one billion times, are 60 percent female.” Ditto Messer, “This system seems ridiculous.”

Gaming is a huge deal. In EA Sports FIFA Soccer, one of the most popular and successful gaming franchises ever created, there are no women in the stands, no women players, no women fans, no women’s teams. Not one. Soccer is the fastest growing sport for girls in the United States. Globally, there are 29 million soccer-playing girls and FIFA itself just upped its commitment to girls’ leagues (marginally). Units sold of this game increased from 6.4 million in 2010 to 12.45 million in 2013.

One of our daughters was addicted to this game. Like millions of other girls, she was a terrific soccer player and a rabid fan. Players can create or chose any team, players, or managers in the world to play as, once they are male. This game was highly rated by Common Sense Media (full disclosure, I am on an advisory board), for both positive messages and positive role models.

Toys today are more gendered than they were 30 years ago. The effects of stereotypes on children are well understood and extend way beyond childhood. Gender role and behavior ideas cultivated by toys significantly contribute to continued and economically consequential sex segregation of topical subject matter in schools, people’s choices of majors, the sex-based division of labor in the workplace, wage and wealth imbalances and more.

Toy companies know all of this and, unsurprisingly, don’t care. These are for-profit companies serving transnational markets. Hasbro, Lego, Mattel, and most other large toy manufacturers with international markets make huge profits using gender stereotypes. Sex segregation is the most basic and unsophisticated form of market segmentation and it maximizes profits because it requires minimal cross-cultural translation or adaptation. Ultimately, selling hyper-gendered toys that cultivate ideas about violent masculinity and passive femininity make them a lot of money and don’t upset people with power. Those people, in corporate America and in government, are much more likely to be ambivalently sexist traditionalists.

Hasbro’s “boy toy” sales have been driving the company’s profits of late. Stereotypes include representations of men and masculinity that are as harsh and limiting for boys as representations of women and femininity are for girls. They feed a system already massively predisposed to explicitly discourage boys from empathizing with girls and penalizes them when they do. As a result, cross-gender empathy is a one-way street in our culture and we end up with laws, media, and culture being disproportionately defined by men who know little or nothing of women’s lives and the violence that defines them.

As many people note, manufacturers are meeting consumer demand. But it is impossible to make that argument. First, the chicken and egg problem of companies meeting and creating demand. Second, the overwhelming power these companies have to flood the market with cheap sex-segregated toys and crush more innovative, progressive, and more expensive competitors. Third, the fact that children are not demanding anything that adults are not making and purchasing. Even if they were, there are many things that kids want, but companies are not allowed to sell, for example, we don’t allow them to buy and smoke cigarettes.

Just about now I can hear the chorus of “Feminists should focus on More Important Things,” which only indicates that the speaker is not well-versed in the issues we are talking about and should do some research on their own before suggesting that this is the case. Besides the very obvious fact that feminists are diverse, focusing on everything in parallel, and can actually hold more than one idea in our heads at the same time.

There are organizations and people, such as Let Toys be Toys, started in the UK, fighting to degender play. They and other organizations such as In This Together Media and the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, are pressing for the desegregation of books. This is important because characters from books migrate to other media. There are also toy manufacturers, like Goldiblocks, trying to disrupt the traditional approaches.

But until people stop thinking of this as a harmless problem, I’m afraid very little will change.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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