Saturday Night Live’s fake commercial, “Chess for Girls” [transcript], was hilarious in 1997–but today, it strikes awfully close to home. An ultra-pink chess set that’s “not too hard, just pretty and fun”–with prancing ponies and a long-haired queen in a gown? Wow. Who knew SNL could see the future of children’s popular culture?
Right now, everyone is talking about gender divisions in the toy aisles. Boys toys swim in a sea of blue and black, while girls’ toys look like victims of a catastrophic Pepto-Bismol spill.
This is a big enough problem that about a month ago, Hamleys toy store in London made news by desegregating children’s toys, grouping them by interest instead of gender.
It wouldn’t have been newsworthy if the typical toy store layout wasn’t such a problem.
As you’ve likely heard, LEGO one-upped the stakes recently by creating a reductive and offensive girls’ line of LEGOS. If you think about it, the concept of LEGOS for girls practically plagiarizes SNL’s Chess for Girls. Like chess, LEGOS are enjoyable to both boys and girls. But making a new LEGO line that is pink, beauty-centric, and not too hard? Perfect!
No wonder parents and critics are upset.
In fact, it seems a movement is building, buttressed by a national dialogue about unnecessarily heightened gender divisions in children’s popular culture. SPARK mailed LEGO more than 48,000 signatures protesting the new line yesterday. The numbers speak volumes.
But how did we get here? How did gender divisions become quite so divisive?
There are lots of ways to explain this history. But in my opinion, Disney–one of the major producers and arbiters of children’s culture–plays a central role in it. In 1999, a Disney exec realized that by grouping Disney’s Princesses together, they might be worth more than the sum of their parts. This marketing insight that has brought Disney billions in revenue. Other companies like Mattel moved quickly to cash in on the trend, fueling the princess craze.
If there’s a princess version of nearly everything, and “princess” is a category that excludes boys, then gender divisions in children’s popular culture can only be heightened. Superheroes are for everyone–even if they’re “for” boys, girls enjoy them, too–but princesses are aspirational. Only girls can become princesses, so princess culture is only for the girls. And this means that the Disney Store now gives about 2/3 of its floor space exclusively to girls, if the Boston-area Disney Store I visited with my family last weekend is the norm: Cars and Toy Story products largely filled the left-hand side of the store, while the center and right featured princess and nothing but princess.
When I was a kid, Disney was about Mickey and Donald and Goofy and Pluto. Oh, and Minnie and Daisy, too. These were characters all kids could enjoy. The recent devolution in children’s culture–from boys and girls having at least SOME shared interests, to such a divisive schism–is troubling. In fact, when I assign my 19-year-old media studies students to analyze what’s happening in their local toy aisle, even they are surprised: They haven’t shopped in toy aisles in nearly a decade, and though they remember some gender divisions (boys’ aisles and girls’ aisles have been around for ages), they often don’t remember those divisions being quite so complete.
The only way our current situation will change is if we fight back. And that’s why I created a petition about Hasbro’s talking Princess Celestia toy. A television show has finally presented a princess character that appeals to boys and girls alike–because she’s a leader, not a beauty object. If you agree that children need more characters like these, and that toys shouldn’t reduce such characters to princess stereotypes, won’t you please sign it?
Readers: What are your thoughts on the gendering of children’s popular culture? How have you seen it shift over time? Do you agree that the Disney Princess phenomenon has a lot to do with the current situation?
My family and I were shopping for a child’s birthday present this weekend when we came upon the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic section at a local Target store. As I’ve discussed previously, MLP:FIM is an unusually good children’s cartoon. My three-year-old son loves it, and he was excited to see these toys.
My son searched for his favorite character, Rainbow Dash, but there were none to be found. Then, the largest MLP toy in the aisle caught his attention: the talking My Little Pony Princess Celestia.
My son pressed the bright yellow button on Princess Celestia’s cutie mark, and her wings lit up. He was entranced. But as the toy began speaking, my husband and I exchanged annoyed glances. This toy repositioned Princess Celestia as a conceited, girly-girl princess stereotype—not the wise, powerful leader and mentor portrayed on screen.
So, I grabbed my phone and took this video:
What’s going on here?
We captured 12 different sayings, which I think is all of them. I later transcribed them* and categorized each saying according to topic, in a miniature content analysis. Here are my findings:
I love when you comb my hair!
Oh, my hair looks beautiful.
My wings are so pretty!
My barrettes look so pretty!
I love to make new friends!
You’re my best friend!
I am Princess Celestia.
I’m a princess! Are you a princess too?
Let’s fly to the castle.
I will light the way.
In short, 5 out of 12 of this toy’s sayings are appearance-centric—possibly more, depending on your interpretation of the phrases “Spectacular!” and “I’m a princess! Are you a princess, too?” So if a child plays with this Princess Celestia toy, about half of the time, he or she will be subjected to pretty princess rhetoric—the kind of vanity discourse that the show, happily, is free of. For parents who appreciate the show’s generally informed approach to girly-girl stuff, this toy would present an unpleasant surprise.
In relation to this, it’s important to consider this toy’s appearance. Although Princess Celestia is portrayed on screen as a white pony, this toy is pink as can be. (In the video, listen to my son’s surprise: “She’s Princess Celestia?” and “She supposed to be white!” Yup. Sorry, sweetie.)
So, why is this pink Princess Celestia toy obsessed with stereotypical pretty princess interests?
Princess Celestia’s pre-production history offers some insight on the issue. Lauren Faust, MLP:FIM‘s creator, originally planned for Celestia to be a Queen. At Hasbro’s insistence, however, she was made a princess. Faust has explained:
I was told [by Hasbro] that because of Disney movies, girls assume that Queens are evil (although I only remember 1 evil queen) and Princesses are good. I was also told that the perceived youth of a Princess is preferable to consumers.
She does not have parents that outrank her. I brought the weirdness of that situation to my bosses, but it did not seem to be a continuity concern to them, so I’m letting it alone. I always wanted her to be the highest authority, and so she remains so. And I certainly don’t want marriage to be what would escalate her. (Bad messages to girls and what not.)
[…] I put up a bit of a fight when her title changed, but you win some, you loose some.
In short, Hasbro wasn’t interested in fighting stereotypes in this instance. Their execs just wanted to cash in on stereotypes about pretty princesses. They apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a princess instead of a queen.
Toy manufacturers are content to market stereotypes to consumers who, unfortunately, they see as little more than stereotypes: “Girls love princesses! Princesses are girly and pretty and pink! Let’s give girls what they want.”
As critics such as Peggy Orenstein have argued, this is a huge problem in our culture–for girls, for their imaginations, and their visions for their own futures. And it’s the antithesis of girl power.
Consider Lego’s recent and controversial decision to create a separate girly-girl line of Legos for girls, instead defying the stereotype that girls will ONLY play with pink toys and inviting them to build with regular legos. It’s the same kind of logic.
Toy manufacturers need to stop pretending that what’s good for their bottom line is what’s good for girls.
So, Hasbro: I have some ideas for future iterations of the Princess Celestia toy. She could say:
I’m a princess! I rule my country with wisdom.
I love teaching my students. Do you love school?
You’re so smart!
You remind me of Twilight Sparkle, my best student.
Can you tell me what you learned today?
Together, we can do anything!
There. Now, that wasn’t so difficult, was it?
Parents: Have you had similar issues with toys in the past? Do any of your children own this Princess Celestia toy, and if so, what are your thoughts on it? (Bronies, what do you think?)
Also, if anyone has other ideas about what the talking Princess Celestia toy should be saying, I’m all ears. Post your ideas below, and I’ll consider adding them to the petition.
* A full transcript of the video, including what my son and I are saying, is available on the YouTube page.
Note [added 1/20/12]: In my list of suggestions, I originally offered, “You’re beautiful, outside *and* in,” meant as a corrective to the emphasis on external beauty in princess toys. But some moms have persuaded me that, really, we don’t need any additional beauty rhetoric! (Smart moms, you rock.) So I’ve replaced it with, “Can you tell me what you learned today?” which is very much in line with the character on the show.
Gender representations in popular kids’ storybooks make me sigh. Books based on TV programs and movies seem among the worst offenders; yet they’re inescapably popular.
To manage them, I do two things:
First, I keep movie- and tv-based books to a minimum in our household. There are so many better books out there!
Second, I employ a slightly subversive strategy whenever my son and I read together: If I have a problem with how something is presented, I alter the story ever-so-slightly to improve it.
For example: My three-year-old son loves Disney’s Cars. It’s the story of an anthropomorphic superstar race car, Lightning McQueen, who overcomes his self-absorbtion to develop real relationships with other cars.
Unfortunately, the film’s only major female character, Sally, exists primarily as a love interest for Lightning McQueen; he even hits on Sally when they first meet. (Ugh.) But Sally is a lawyer, clearly much smarter than McQueen, and at that first meeting, she puts him in his place swiftly. (Thank goodness.)
My son owns a copy of the nicely illustrated Disney-Pixar Little Golden Book Favorites, in which the movie is retold. In the book, the plot is simplified. In the interest of brevity, Sally’s role is reduced so much that only five sentences refer to her. Three of these describe the occasion when she and Lightning first met:
“Then Sally, a blue sports car, arrived. Sally was a lawyer. Lightning thought Sally was pretty.”
For my part, I don’t appreciate the emphasis on Lightning’s perception of Sally’s appearance–and with no mention of Sally’s evident disgust at his smug approach, either! So when I’m reading this book, here’s what my son hears instead:
“Then Sally, a blue sports car, arrived. Sally was a lawyer. Lightning realized Sally was smart.”
This has been fun during playtime with my son’s toy Cars. He often plays Lightning McQueen while I, per his instructions, play Sally. If he drives Lightning up to Sally and says, “I’m a race car! Zoom zoom!” I respond, “I’m a lawyer! I’m really smart!”
His response? “No, I’m a lawyer. I’m a lawyer, too! Zoom zooooom!”
That’s right, honey. Lightning McQueen can be anything you want him to. 🙂
“Let’s go to law school together, Lightning! Zoom, zoom.”
Mom: 1; Disney: 0.
Parents: Have you used similar tactics with your pre-schoolers? What works for your family?
A children’s television cartoon that appeals to boys and girls, men and women, is a rarity.
The Powerpuff Girls exemplified this. In 1998, it stunned the television industry by crossing demographic barriers. The combination of extreme cuteness and extreme strength in well-written characters proved a point: Boys (and men) will indeed watch a show about girls, IF the characters have … well … character.
(Writers, take note: To be successful, girl characters need to be defined by more than their sex. “Girl” is not a character.)
Because of The Powerpuff Girls‘ success, the networks greenlighted a bunch of other girl hero cartoons. After years of being depicted in passive secondary roles or insipid leading roles, girls were everywhere.
Near the end of the decade, cool cartoon girls were no longer on-trend. But while working on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Powerpuff animator and writer Lauren Faust was developing a new concept: Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls. Despite her best efforts (chronicled on her blog), these great characters never got a television show (though they did enter production as some really nice plush dolls).
Enter the Ponies
When Faust pitched the Milky Way show to Hasbro execs, her approach resonated with them. They didn’t have a place for Milky Way, but they wondered: would she re-imagine the My Little Pony brand with them?
At first, Faust felt “skeptical”; as she explained in Ms. Magazine, “Shows based on girls’ toys always left a bad taste in my mouth, even when I was a child. They did not reflect the way I played with my toys.” But she realized that if she took the lead on the new My Little Pony, she could rebut “the perception that ‘girly’ equals ‘lame’ or ‘for girls’ equals ‘crappy'”. So, she developed the characters and the show, and she led the production of season one of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.*
MLP: Friendship is Magic vs. The Powerpuff Girls
I love putting current media texts in the context of their predecessors. So, let’s consider: how does MLP stack up against those pioneers, the PPGs?
Finally, while the PPGs offered three character “types” — Blossom, a smart girl; Bubbles, a cute girl; and Buttercup, a tough girl — MLP’s six leads have more range, individually and collectively. Perhaps my favorite quote from Faust’s piece in Ms. is this, on what she really wants viewers to take away from the show:
There are lots of different ways to be a girl. You can be sweet and shy, or bold and physical. You can be silly and friendly, or reserved and studious. You can be strong and hard working, or artistic and beautiful. This show is wonderfully free of “token girl” syndrome, so there is no pressure to shove all the ideals of what we want our daughters to be into one package. There is a diversity of personalities, ambitions, talents, strengths and even flaws in our characters–it’s not an army of cookie-cutter nice-girls or cookie-cutter beauty queens like you see in most shows for girls.
::nodding:: Yes. That’s really important.
Parents: Have you seen My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic yet? What do you and your children like best about it? Are there any elements that give you pause?
Interested in reading more about girl heroes and girls’ television cartoons? Check out my new book, Growing Up With Girl Power.
* I was sorry to learn that Faust left her position as MLP’s producer after its first season was complete. I wonder what the second season has in store, with Faust in only a consulting role. But I’m definitely looking forward seeing whatever she moves on to!
Bratz dolls came back on the market this fall. They’d been out of production for a few years while their maker, MGA, fought a legal battle with Mattel. MGA emerged victorious—and critics everywhere shook their heads. What good can come of girls playing with sexy toys—toys that the American Psychological Association has singled out in a report [pdf] as contributing to the sexualization of girls?
I am no fan of Bratz. A few years ago, at the height of their popularity, I witnessed little girls’ delight in Bratz “fashionable” clothing—their revealing, age-inappropriate styles. One girl asked her eight-year-old friend, “Do you wish you could dress like the Bratz dolls?”
Her friend replied longingly: “Oh, I do!”
Children are full of surprises—and while I was conducting research for my book, Growing Up With Girl Power, I spent a lot of time with girls. Enough to experience the unexpected.
One afternoon, a group of girls shared their Bratz dolls with me. And much to my surprise, as their play got underway, they decided to ignore the dolls’ clothing completely. The reason?
They were using the dolls to “play slaves.”
As their collaborative play unfolded, these girls–who were African-American–acted out a chapter of U.S. history, focusing not on the dolls’ sexy clothing, but on their skin tones.
I was blown away.
Their white dolls were slave owners and underground railroad conductors; the black dolls were runaway slaves, empowered by Harriet Tubman. And as they played, the girls imagined that they had “raggedy clothes.”
This kind of play was possible for one important reason: Bratz dolls featured more racial diversity than the other dolls the girls owned. Even though the dolls directed children to focus on fashion, the girls in my study had enough agency to use these dolls in a way that MGA never imagined. In this instance, at least, diversity trumped too-sexy fashion play.
To me, this experience presents an important reminder to parents, educators, and critics: In addition to critiquing children’s popular culture, we need to spend time with children, exploring how they play and watch media. It’s important to get as full a picture as possible. Children have agency–and witnessing this process in action won’t necessarily mitigate our concerns, but it might challenge some of our assumptions.
P.S. Don’t think for a minute that the Bratz dolls’ racial diversity vindicates the brand. I’m not happy that Bratz are back in the market, even if their marketing team has promised they’ll be more “wholesome” this time around. Sorry, but girls wearing bustiers in the new Bratz ads? Please. I’d rather see an affordable line of dolls that are racially diverse and non-sexualizing gain success.
Parents: Any suggestions on good, affordable, diverse alternatives to Bratz?
Looking for a special holiday gift for the children in your life? Here are some helpful tips for buying gifts for children–at the holidays and all year long.
1. Choose toys that encourage open-ended play.
Toys that encourage imaginative or creative play healthy choices that can provide children with the most fun in the long-term. Lower-tech, open-ended toys such as blocks, play food, and dress-up toys are great choices.
2. Avoid toys that tell children how to play.
Toys that direct children’s play should be given as gifts minimally. Avoid toys that have only one intended use and discourage creativity.
3. Choose toys that encourage interactions with others.
Toys that can be played with friends or by the whole family, such as sporting goods or board games, should be strongly considered.
4. Feel free to shop in the “wrong” toy aisle.
Although many stores arrange products by gender — with aisles of “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”–consider these categories as mere suggestions. For example, little boys often enjoy play kitchens as much as girls do, but play food is in the girls’ aisle; girls often enjoy toys that involve constructing things, but these are usually placed in the boys’ aisle. Be creative in your search.
5. Try to minimize kids’ screen time.
It’s healthiest for kids to spend time in active, creative ways–not in front of a screen. Think carefully before buying any gift that directs kids observe or interact with on-screen content, no matter how “educational” their manufacturers claim them to be.
6. Look for experiences in addition to products.
Consider giving tickets to theatrical productions, memberships to zoos or museums, or vouchers for other outings. Things experienced, rather than consumed, are wonderful ways to create happy memories together after the holiday season is past.
7. Avoid on-screen products for children under two.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than two watch no television. This applies to other screen-oriented products, as well (such as movies, computer games, and apps). Although it’s impractical for many families to follow the AAP guideline to the letter, it’s a good consideration while shopping: less is better, especially for the youngest of children.
8. Books, books, books!
For children of all ages, books make wonderful gifts. Every child should be given at least a few books at the holidays.
As published in the Globe North, Dec. 12, 2011