Lego and the Building Blocks of Patriarchy

[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

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?

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18 Responses to Lego and the Building Blocks of Patriarchy

  1. Irfan Khawaja January 24, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

    That was the funniest picture caption I’ve ever read.

  2. Dmitry A. Chernikov January 25, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    The difference between Ryan McMaken and the feminists is that Ryan is not trying to ruin children’s fun and games while the feminists do.

    Ryan takes girls as he finds them and prefers to make them happy. The feminists hate girls as they are and seek to change them in part by denying them the pleasures to which they are presently partial.

    Maybe the feminists are engaging in uh… “fraternal correction” of girls and are doing good deeds, while Lego is pushing vices on them. But surely you see the difference between satisfying a desire D and changing a person in such a way (with the help of rigorous discipline perhaps) that he no longer has D but instead has D’.

    A desire extinguished is not the same as desire satisfied.

    I think you, Roderick, will not rest until the preferences boys and girls would have in the absence of “brainwashing” would lack any identifiable pattern, such that it could not be said that “boys seem to like toy guns, and girls, dolls.” Boys and girls would in regard to toys be a homogenous group. We could not then reliably reason from the premise that “this child likes a gun” that “this child is probably a boy.”

    You may want to advocate government suppression of demographic and other kind of research for marketing purposes, so that Lego would be forbidden by law to study who tends to like what and for what reasons.

    • Irfan Khawaja January 26, 2016 at 11:22 pm #

      As a college professor, if I took my students the way I found them and did whatever made them happy–in the sense of satisfying their existing preferences–class would never meet. I would end up producing students who were lazy, unmotivated, illiterate, innumerate, unable to think, unwilling to think, and totally wedded to all of the reactionary prejudices they had before they matriculated. No one would call this pedagogical success, even if I managed to trick people into paying me a sky-high salary for it. It would be a professional failure and morally speaking, a kind of fraud.

      The basic principle involved doesn’t change when you move from teaching to manufacturing. Taken literally, the idea of “consumer sovereignty” just defines the moral integrity of producers out of existence by fiat. So far, no one has really touched Roderick’s critique of “consumer sovereignty” in the last two paragraphs of his original post: short, sweet, and to my mind, almost self-evident.

      If we don’t and shouldn’t genuflect before existing consumer preferences in intellectual work, why do it in the case of manufacturing? Some consumers want to buy bulldozers to destroy whole towns and neighborhoods (cf the Israeli occupation of the West Bank). Should Caterpillar defer to that preference? Some consumers want to buy weapons to murder people. Should Smith & Wesson defer to that preference? Some consumers want to buy alcohol to drink themselves to death. Should the liquor stores of, say, White Clay,Nebraska sell them the liquor that kills them, in the full knowledge that that’s what they’re doing? (Google “White Clay, Nebraska” if the example is unfamiliar.) Activists in all three of these domains pressure companies into practices that are at odds with what consumers want right now. Hell–the Presbyterian Church does it (they’ve divested from companies promoting the Israeli occupation, even at the cost of alienating pro-Israeli members of the Church). So I don’t see why feminist pressure on Lego is so out of the ordinary here.

      The obvious problem is, the preceding preferences are unjust, irrational, and/or suicidal. If the defense of the free market really demanded that they be satisfied out of deference to “consumer sovereignty,” the free market would be a crazy idea, worth dismissing out of hand. But it demands nothing of the sort in those cases, and it demands nothing of the sort in the Lego case, either. I don’t quite understand why people are resisting Roderick’s argument with such intensity. Most of these criticisms just fail to deal with the crux of what he’s saying.

      • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 27, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

        Irfan, yes, Caterpillar, Smith & Wesson, and liquor stores have no moral duty not to defer to their customers’ preferences, however perverse. Moreover, supposing they do refuse to do business with the “unjust, irrational, and/or suicidal” people, this won’t make any difference:

        “We may admire those who abstain from making gains they could reap in producing deadly weapons or hard liquor. However, their laudable conduct is a mere gesture without any practical effects. Even if all entrepreneurs and capitalists were to follow their example, wars and dipsomania would not disappear. As was the case in the precapitalistic ages, governments would produce the weapons in their own arsenals and drinkers would distill their own liquor.” (Mises, Human Action, 300)

        The market is a tool, used to make the people acting within the market happier than under autarky, actuated by higher productivity of division of labor and division of productive activities of business firms, entrepreneurial discovery, and local and global improvement in the standard of living. It’s not its purpose to change people’s morals for the better but to satisfy existing preferences. Producers do not have “moral integrity,” because that’s not why we have the market in the first place.

        Lego is simply not in business of individual moral uplift. Ryan chose the work he is doing: improving society. So did Lego, making children happier given the sort of people those children are. Where are you getting the idea that Lego MUST change its business model to start promote cultural Marxism?

        And if it does start promoting leftist ideologies, then to this extent it will cease to be a part of the market, becoming a non-profit or some such thing.

        Remember that Ryan’s point is that the feminists ought to pressure not Lego but the consumers: girls and their parents; just as in order to have peace, it is useless for libertarians to attack the “merchants of death”; they must instead attack the ideology that generates war.

        • Irfan Khawaja January 28, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

          “Producers do not have “moral integrity,” because that’s not why we have the market in the first place.”

          On your view, we have the market to sacrifice our integrity to preference-satisfaction, even when the preferences are insane or murderous. The most obvious response is that no one who prizes integrity or justice over insanity or predation would buy that. And I don’t.

          Incidentally, a famous cultural Marxist dealt with this issue a long time ago: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” In case you’re wondering, the answer is: “nothing.”

          As for Ludwig Von Mises, his claims are rebutted in Roderick’s paper. He also had a lot to learn from Katy Perry about capitalist exchange:

          Between them, I think Jesus, Katy, and Roderick have said all that really needs to be said on the topic.

        • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 28, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

          No one forces anyone in the free market to sacrifice his integrity to preference-satisfaction.

          I admit, however, that if one _has_ chosen a particular guilty pleasure, then the market will satisfy it with great efficiency.

        • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 28, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

          A gun can be used for both good and wicked purposes; when there is an unjust murder, do you blame the gun?

          A hammer is an efficient construction tool. If you hit you finger with it while trying to drive in a nail, is the hammer responsible?

          Then if the free market as a system of social cooperation satisfies a perverse desire just as readily as a virtuous desire, why do you blame the market? Doesn’t the fault lie in the pervert?

        • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 29, 2016 at 9:05 am #

          Mises understood this, by the way:

          “If the efficiency of capitalism is directed by governments toward the output of instruments of destruction, the ingenuity of private business turn out weapons which are powerful enough to destroy everything. What makes war and capitalism incompatible with one another is precisely the unparalleled efficiency of the capitalist mode of production.” (Human Action, 828)

          See also his Nation, State and Economy, 252-3:

          Yet he properly did not consider this aspect of the human condition to be an argument against laissez-faire capitalism.

      • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 27, 2016 at 4:11 pm #

        You can get an idea of how little moral integrity businesses do and always will have by noticing how quickly they cave and surrender to the feminists and other miscreants.

        They just want to be popular and give no offense to anyone at all, especially to pressure groups as rapacious and ruthless as feminists, gays, etc.

      • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 28, 2016 at 11:02 am #

        You might continue to object, “Why can’t feminists preach their gospel to the owners of Lego?” They can, of course, but in so doing they will be brainwashing them to lose money in their business which will be sacrificed on the altar of PC. And to the extent the feminists are successful at this brainwashing, they convert a business into a non-profit, a think tank of some sort, perhaps.

        We do not step outside the bounds of logical reasoning when we proclaim that a business must seek monetary profits, and an ideologist must seek societal change. A business that seeks societal change is not a business, just as an ideologist in the pay of special interests is not an ideologist.

        It is true that each individual can be a mixture of these ideal types. He can in principle be both a businessman and an ideologist. But these lines of work interfere with each other. One needs to, as experience suggests, specialize. At the very least one must strive after profits as a producer and after moral integrity as a consumer in his private life, say, by financing libertarian scholars. Or feminists, depending on his kinks.

  3. Sergio Méndez January 26, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    Is funny how people like Dmitry says people like Roderick or the feminists are in the business of turning boys and girls into a group with homogenous preferences, and yet he defends a system of production that actually treats them (boys and girls separately) as such. Silly us, thinking maybe it will be interesting to start treating girls (and boys) more as individuals with no restricted area of interest of preferences, just because of their genitalia.

    • Dmitry A. Chernikov January 27, 2016 at 4:05 pm #

      Sergio, it is “interesting” to “start treating girls (and boys) more as individuals with no restricted area of interest of preferences” if and only if it is _profitable_ to do so.

  4. Irfan Khawaja January 26, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

    I just read the paper on not making small contributions to evil. It’s brilliant. I’d have to read it again to be sure, but I think you’ve basically nailed it.

  5. Irfan Khawaja January 26, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    I’ve linked to the “contributions to evil” paper on my blog. You have to scroll down well into the comments to see it, however.

  6. A. Parham January 26, 2016 at 10:21 pm #


    As a cis, hetero, male, I am a bit confused about what I’m hearing from sexual “progressives.” You seem like you’d be a good person to clear this up for me (because I usually find your explanations of things to be thourough and approachable).

    Isn’t it contradictory to hold that gender is a social construct (i.e. dictated by societal expectations and pressures, not biology or the demands of morality) and also hold that transgender people are innately wired to identify with a gender other than their sex? It would seem to me that either gender is innate or it isn’t.

    Or perhaps people who believe gender is a construct aren’t the same people who believe transgendered people are “born that way,” but I’m conflating them because they’re both labeled under “progressive” in our society?

    Could you please enlighten me?

    • A. Parham January 26, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

      (I mention that I’m cis and hetero only to explain that I don’t know much about this realm of thought from “experience” or “from the inside, out.”)

  7. Jeff March 15, 2016 at 7:55 pm #

    It may interest you to know that toys were less segregated in the 50s than they are today. That fact kind of puts some doubt on the idea that these girl and boy toys is making children conform to certain gender norms.


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