[cross-posted at C4SS and BHL]
The Lego corporation, popular producer of interlocking miniature toy bricks, has recently been making increased efforts to market its toys to girls. Some of these efforts have met with criticism from feminists, who worry about toys that are stereotypically “girly” in a way that reinforces traditional gender roles.
Little pink houses for you and me
In a recent piece titled “Un-PC Lego Making Toys Girls Like,” libertarian writer Ryan McMaken comes to Lego’s defense.
The title of Dr. McMaken’s article is somewhat misleading, since the Lego line that attracted the most feminist criticism, the “Lego Friends” range, dates from several years ago, whereas the newer line – which features female astronomers, chemists, and paleontologists – has been received more positively by feminists. Perhaps Lego is not being so “un-PC” these days after all?
With regard to the older Friends line, however, McMaken quotes feminist Dana Edell, who charged that Lego was “sending a message that girls get to play with hair dryers while boys get to build airplanes and skyscrapers.” As McMaken sees it, Edell’s complaints are misguided:
Ms. Edell … should probably aim her disappointment and disdain at seven-year-old girls rather than at Lego. After all, Lego’s success, or lack thereof, in marketing these products depends on the decisions of little girls. … The real problem the anti-Lego feminists have, then, is not with Lego but with the fact that girls like to play with the sort of toys found in the Friends line. The blame for this lies with the girls themselves. After all, Lego did not raise these girls or tell them what to like.
And McMaken draws what he takes to be a broader free-market moral about consumer sovereignty:
The activists think that Lego is responsible for deciding what girls should want because – like many people who don’t understand how markets work – they think that producers dictate to consumers what to buy. … But it doesn’t work that way. Companies make money by selling what people want.
But surely the defense of the free market doesn’t – and had better not – depend on treating consumer preferences as radically exogenous in this way. In particular, what kinds of toys young girls like to play with is not the product of innate drives free from the influence of the surrounding culture. (Though attempts have actually been made to offer sociobiological explanations for, e.g., girls’ preference for pink and boys’ for blue – in apparent ignorance of the fact that the gender associations of pink and blue are less than a century old, as well as fairly specific to our own culture.)
The inculcation of gender norms is enormously pervasive, and begins early. Many studies have shown that parents and other caregivers treat male and female infants (or those they believe to be such) differently, even when they are unconscious of doing so. For example, mothers are “more likely to repeat or imitate vocalizations from a girl baby than from a boy baby,” and also “more likely to try to distract a male infant by dangling some object in front of him.” (Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender, p. 36.) Likewise, if “observers … believed [an infant] to be a boy,” they “handed it a toy football more frequently than they did a doll.” (Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, p. 137.) Likewise, parents “mete out more physical punishment to boys” and “stimulate gross motor behavior in male infants more often than in females.” (Fine, p. 151.)
Deborah Rhode recounts a telling anecdote: “One mother who insisted on supplying her daughter with tools rather than dolls finally gave up when she discovered the child undressing a hammer and singing it to sleep. ‘It must be hormonal,’ was the mother’s explanation. At least until someone asked who had been putting her daughter to bed.” (Rhode, Speaking of Sex, p. 19.)
To come to a full recognition of the thoroughgoingness with which gender roles are inculcated, consider the following thought-experiment developed by neuropsychologist Cordelia Fine. Imagine a world in which “parents of left-handed babies dress them in pink clothes, wrap them in pink blankets, and decorate their rooms with pink hues,” let the “hair of left-handers grow long,” and provide them with “bottle, bibs, and pacifiers – and later, cups, plates, and utensils” that are “pink or purple” with “motifs such as butterflies, flowers, and fairies.” By contrast, “right-handed babies … are never dressed in pink,” their hair is “usually kept short,” and their clothing and accessories tend to feature “vehicles, sporting equipment, and space rockets.”
Let’s further suppose that the difference is also marked in other aspects of life. Parents say “Come on, left-handers!” or “I’ve got three children altogether: one left-hander and two right-handers.” At school, children are greeted with “Good morning, left-handers and right-handers!” Most of their teachers are left-handers, while most truck drivers (e.g.) that they see are right-handers; and countless venues from “restrooms” to “sports teams” are “segregated by handedness.” In such a society, children will inevitably “come to think that there must be something fundamentally important about whether one is a right-hander or a left-hander.”
Analogously, then, in a world where “gender is continually emphasized through conventions of dress, appearance, language, color, segregation, and symbols,” it’s not surprising that children have an overwhelming tendency to internalize gender roles. (Fine, pp. 209-212.) To this we might add the tendency to treat the male version of anything as the generic, standard version of it, from phrases like “the caveman diet” (why not the cavewoman diet?) to the use of the male pronoun to cover both sexes – with the effect of privileging the male status.
Libertarian readers are familiar with dystopian novels like Ayn Rand’s Anthem or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which every aspect of society, including the very structure of the language, is engineered to promote a totalitarian ideology. The all-pervasive promotion of traditional gender roles in our own society should be recognized as similarly totalitarian and akin to brainwashing, even if it is not imposed directly by state action as the examples in the aforementioned novels were. (Both Rand and Orwell certainly had an interest in systematic but non-state or not-purely-state misuses of language to promote harmful ideologies.)
Corporations like Lego do not, of course, bear sole responsibility for brainwashing children into identifying with traditional gender norms; they are merely one part of a systematic, polycentric cultural program. But to treat such corporations as if they bore no responsibility for gender-norming – as if their production choices were entirely on the side of effect and not at all on the side of cause, or as if children formed their preferences in complete isolation from marketing – is to oversimplify a very complex process.
Admittedly, figuring out one’s moral responsibilities when one is simply one factor in a much larger constellation of causes is tricky. (For some of the issues involved, see my working paper “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.”) Still, if Dr. McMaken thinks Lego should be concerned solely about what will make the most money, and not at all about its possible contributions to sustaining sexist ideologies and practices, why doesn’t he follow that counsel in his own work? In other words, why doesn’t he write statist books and articles instead of libertarian ones?
After all, there’s clearly a bigger market for statist writing than for libertarian writing; that’s why books by Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Ann Coulter dominate the best-seller lists and ours don’t. So why doesn’t Dr. McMaken bow to consumer sovereignty and start writing books and articles attacking the free market? Presumably because he (rightly) thinks it important to try to change the culture, to challenge the dominance of statist ideology, and to attempt to shape consumer preferences in a more libertarian direction.
Does McMaken’s attempt to alter consumer preferences mean that he “doesn’t understand how markets work”? Not at all. As a fellow student of the Austrian School, Dr. McMaken presumably shares the Austrian view of entrepreneurs as proactive catalysts of change rather than passive price-takers. But if it’s appropriate for McMaken to try to move consumer preferences in a less statist direction, why is it so awful – or a sign of misunderstanding the market – for feminists to pressure Lego (so long as the pressure is peaceful) to try to move consumer preferences in a less sexist direction? What’s sauce for the libertarian gander should be sauce for the feminist goose, shouldn’t it?