Dr. Rebecca Hains

An End to Toy Awards’ Gender Divide?

The Toy Industry Association is considering abolishing its gender-stereotyped Toy of the Year. But will it?

The Toy Industry Association (TIA) needs to bring its prestigious Toy of the Year (TOTY) awards up to date. Honors in two categories—the “Boy Toy of the Year” and the “Girl Toy of the Year”—rely upon and reinforce the outdated gender stereotyping of toys.

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The ultra-stereotypical winner of the Boy Toy and Girl Toy TOTY Awards. Image courtesy of John Marcotte / Heroic Girls.

As I explained last week in the Washington Post:

Contenders for the “Boy Toy” award include three Star Wars toys, a remote-controlled Hulk toy, a Hot Wheels garage, a Nerf blaster and a video streaming drone. In contrast, the “Girl Toy” contenders include a Disney’s Frozen Sing-A-Long Elsa doll, a Nerf Rebelle bow and arrow, a Girl Scout cookie oven, a Shopkins ice cream truck, a blacklight-illuminated nature journal and the interactive Zoomer Kitty toy pet.

Such segregation is unnecessary. Many girls like “Star Wars” and Hot Wheels and drones. Many boys like Frozen and cookies and kittens. All of these toys are suitable for children of either sex, as long one doesn’t mind boys playing with the occasional pink-tinged item.

When asked by entrepreneurial toy reviewer Dan Nessel to consider retiring these categories, however, Toy Industry Association executives declined to reply to him. Instead, VP Ken Seiter accidentally copied Nessel on an internal conversation about his request, which read:

“Needless to say we don’t touch this. Obviously this guy needs a job.”

Perhaps owing to the Washington Post piece, however, the TIA appears to be reconsidering the matter. In fact, the TIA’s CEO addressed the subject from stage that evening, according to Debra Sterling, Founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, who tweeted live from the TOTY Awards:

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Stating this publicly, before the assembled award-goers, is a great sign. A question remains, though: How serious is the TIA about addressing the matter? Nessel worries they may be merely paying lip service to their critics: When he saw Seiter at the Toy Fair, Seiter indicated that he really didn’t understand Nessel’s perspective.

“He told me there are so many bigger issues, like toxins in toys—why would I spend my time on this?” Nessel said. “Thus his ‘get a job’ comment: He thought I was wasting my time on a minor issue.”

The conversation continues nevertheless. Yesterday, Toy News followed up with a report stating that the TIA may be open to dropping these gender-based award categories, based on their interview with TIA president Steve Pasierb. Toy News wrote:

TIA president Steve Pasierb has revealed that the organisation is open to shaking up its Toy of the Year Awards categories, including dropping those based around gender.

At this year’s Toy of the Year Awards, the Girls Toy of the Year category was won by Shopkins Scoops Ice Cream Truck while LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens Millenium Falcon won the Boys Toy of the Year.

As the association firms up its strategic plans up to 2020, Pasierb is looking at how the Awards categories can steer clear of “false dichotomies”.

“We try to rethink everything we do at the TIA,” said Pasierb.

“We know that with our Toy of the Year Awards, there are categories we need to add and there are categories we need to change. The question keeps coming up: if you have a boys’ toy of the year and a girls’ toy of the year, why don’t you have a boys’ outdoor toy of the year or a girls’ outdoor toy of the year?’ Is dividing by boys and girls the best way to do it? Some shows do it by age group. We’ve encouraged our TOTY committee to go back and look at this.”

I hope the committee looks at the issue with an open mind. The segregated awards—and their incredibly stereotypical results-–shortchange children. Because of this, to those who care about the industry and understand the problems with gender stereotyping, the current awards are an embarrassment.

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Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Boys play with dolls, and girls play with spaceships. Someone tell the toymakers.

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The toy world’s biggest convention starts this weekend in New York, where more than 900 members of the Toy Industry Association — brands, manufacturers, licensors and retailers who account for about 90 percent of the annual $22 billion U.S. domestic toy market — will gather to talk about the future of the business.

Unfortunately, they’ll start off with something that seems more like it should be a throwback to the past. At the prestigious Toy of the Year Awards Friday evening, honors in two categories — the “Boy Toy of the Year” and the “Girl Toy of the Year” — will rely upon and reinforce the outdated gender stereotyping of toys.

Contenders for the “Boy Toy” award include three Star Wars toys, a remote-controlled Hulk toy, a Hot Wheels garage, a Nerf blaster and a video streaming drone. In contrast, the “Girl Toy” contenders include a Disney’s Frozen Sing-A-Long Elsa doll, a Nerf Rebelle bow and arrow, a Girl Scout cookie oven, a Shopkins ice cream truck, a blacklight-illuminated nature journal and the interactive Zoomer Kitty toy pet.

Such segregation is unnecessary. Many girls like “Star Wars” and Hot Wheels and drones. Many boys like Frozen and cookies and kittens. All of these toys are suitable for children of either sex, as long one doesn’t mind boys playing with the occasional pink-tinged item.

And in fact, the industry was never as heavily gendered as it is today: Children’s toys are now more divided by gender than they were 50 years ago, during an era we like to think of as less enlightened about sexism. If adults’ jobs are no longer segregated by restrictive gender roles, why should our children be taught that some toys are for boys and others for girls — a retrograde idea that limits their creativity and their development of well-rounded skills and interests?

That’s the question entrepreneur Dan Nessel of Northampton, Mass., has been trying to ask the industry. Nessel is a father of two and the founder and editor of DadDoes.com, whose video reviews of toys and gadgets on YouTubeboast more 56 million views and 91,000 subscribers. He is attuned to ongoing conversations about stereotypes in children’s toy marketing and found the list of nominees “embarrassing.” As a regular attendee of the annual Toy Fair, Nessel decided early last month to launch a Change.org petition to end the boy and girl awards. He also sent the TIA’s vice president of marketing, Ken Seiter, and its director of strategic communications, Adrienne Appell, a few emails asking them to consider a change.

Neither Seiter nor Appell replied. Instead, last week, upon receiving Nessel’s fourth email request, Seiter shot Appell a quick message, which read: “Needless to say we don’t touch this. Obviously this guy needs a job.”

Nessel, whom Seiter accidentally copied on the message, was disappointed.

“I was fully prepared to have a civilized debate on the merits of having Boy and Girl Toy of The Year Awards,” says Nessel, whose work for DadDoes.com is so successful that it is his day job. “I was not prepared to learn they just don’t want to touch the issue and believe I should ‘get a job’ for caring about gender stereotypes in toys.”

Seiter’s off-the-cuff response is revealing, however, of how hard it is for concerned parents to engage industry leaders. Individuals’ queries usually result in either calculated public relations responses or silence. Social media campaigns, however, have been a bit more effective, because of how much easier it is to engage in collective action online. Consider the new curvy Barbie dolls, the increase in Star Wars products featuring Rey and the release ofLEGO’s first wheelchair: Campaigns like #NormalBarbie (praising Barbie’s indie rival Lammily), #WheresRey and #ToyLikeMe have aggregated and amplified individuals’ voices, making it hard for industry executives to ignore them. Organizations that respond quickly and adeptly to such campaigns can reap many rewards — but the larger the organization, the harder it is to do move deftly.

Read more at The Washington Post.

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Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

A Barbie with curves is still all about looks.

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Last week, Time reported a significant change for the Barbie brand: Beginning in March, shoppers will be able to choose from three new Barbie body shapes. In addition to the original model, the “Fashionistas” line of Barbies will offer the doll in tall, petite and curvy forms. But why?

For decades, Barbie has endured more criticism than perhaps any other toy. Her critics’ chief complaint (although not their only one): Barbie’s exaggeratedly thin body shape, which various studies have found can harm girls’ body images and cause them to restrict their eating.

Against such complaints, the company behind Barbie, Mattel, had a long history of standing its ground. As recently as February 2014, Mattel executives rebuffed critics by asserting that girls’ body image problems come from their mothers and peers — not their dolls.

But today’s parents are increasingly well informed. Owing to this factor and increased competition from other fashion doll brands, Barbie’s worldwide sales have dropped annually since 2012, with sales down 14 percent in the most recent quarter alone. Simultaneously, “Frozen” dolls, which have empowering backstories that don’t center on physical appearance, quickly rose to the top.

That’s bad news for a toy that was the world’s top doll for more than 40 years, and that a decade ago was still the number one girls’ brand worldwide.

At the same time, indie brands have taken risks and proved there is demand for fashion dolls that defy the body molds of the Barbies and Disney princesses. For example, the Lammily fashion doll, with the body proportions of an average 19-year-old woman (which “curvy” Barbie brings to mind), was a crowdfunding success story in 2014. Likewise, Lottie has a body shape based on the average dimensions of a 9-year-old child (evoking the proportions of “petite” Barbie). Since her introduction in 2012, Lottie has received more than 20 international toy awards and is now available in 30 countries.

Mattel’s announcement about the new Barbie body types may have been inevitable, then. To compete in today’s market, Mattel had to bring Barbie up to date. By offering three new body molds less than a year after introducing aracially diverse range of skin tones, facial shapes, hairstyles and eye colors, Mattel appears to be making a good-faith effort to respond to critics not by rebuffing them but by accepting their concerns as valid.

Given Mattel’s history, the news came as a surprise and garnered significant publicity for Barbie, much of it positive. “Curvy Barbie is way overdue,” gushed a Mashable headline. “I needed her long ago.” People quoted Queen Latifah remarking, “This is groundbreaking.” A humor piece written in the voice of Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, for Time concludes with a sales pitch: Barbie “loves all of you so much she is willing to change herself, right along with your changing nation. Can you celebrate her resilience, by purchasing her, in several versions?”

But Mattel’s progress with its Fashionistas collection — the only one of Barbie’s two-dozen themes to have the progressive elements the company is now being lauded for — does not mean Barbie is free of all problematic issues.

For example, Barbie as a brand still overemphasizes beauty. Although some Barbies have careers, the doll’s basic story and appeal is about fashion, beauty and physical appearance, at the expense of other potential interests or passions. (This, by the way, is something the Lottie dolls in particular have handled nicely. Each Lottie doll has an interest-based identity, such as “Stargazer Lottie,” “Kawaii Karate Lottie,” “Fossil Hunter Lottie,” “Pirate Queen Lottie” and so on.) By adding Barbie’s three new body types and racially diverse characteristics into the fashion-centric “Fashionistas” line, Barbie reinforces the message that regardless of a girl’s shape or color, her appearance should still be at the forefront of her identity — a regressive idea that is not communicated in equal measure to boys, and that many parents are desperate to help their daughters escape, as efforts by grass-roots organizations such as Let Toys Be Toys illustrate.

Barbie’s over-emphasis on appearance is made worse by Mattel’s history of gaffes that have portrayed the character as unintelligent. From the 1992 Teen Talk Barbie that used to say, “Math class is tough!” to the more recent “I Can Be A Computer Engineer!” Barbie picture book, in which Barbie needed her male classmates to help her code her computer science project, Barbie’s other personas have been undercut repeatedly. Would Astronaut Barbie really have such struggles in STEM classes? […]

Read the rest of this article at The Washington Post.

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Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

This is rape culture. 

Here’s a thread from my latest blog post that exemplifies what rape culture looks like.

It begins when a commenter asserts that girls who are “physically adult” can consent to sex. This seems reasonable enough when applied to the girls ages 17 and 18 he uses as examples; indeed, in most U.S. states, 17-year-olds have legally reached the age of consent. 

But this language is incredibly problematic. What makes a girl “physically adult”? As the first response notes, we were discussing the statutory rape of young teenage girls. 13-year-old girls are children.  
Another commenter supports this, explaining that 13-year-old girls “cannot legally consent” to sex.  

But an anonymous commenter responds that girls are women who can consent to sex, if they’ve had their first period. 

“18 is the age of majority,” s/he writes, “not the age when a girl becomes a woman. That happens when menarch happens.”

Menarche? Really? No. 
 A fifth commenter notes that the age of menarche and the age of majority are unrelated, and should be. After all, the onset of puberty is happening earlier and earlier: Girls as young as eight have their period now. 

Are third-graders women now? Or fifth- or sixth-graders? No, they are not. It’s a reprehensible, backwards argument. 

  
In response to this, another commenter reaches back 2,000 years to Biblical times and replies: “Hmmm…Mary gave birth to Jesus at 13.”
 
This is appalling. If you’re using a 2,000-year-old story from another time and place to support the idea that 13-year-old girls can consent to sex with adult men, you are part of the problem. 

Elsewhere in the comments, another commenter offers a similar justification to support the idea that underage girls should be considered able to consent to sex: The fictional Elizabethan tale of Romeo and Juliet. 

He writes: “Juliet was 14 and we celebrate Romeo (17) in high schools across the country.”

Gee, I wonder which other Shakesperean plays he thinks should be touchstones of modern law?

 But he doesn’t stop there. He continues: “Not saying there shouldn’t be age laws but let’s stop equating real rape with the statutory version. That’s what makes people take real rape less seriously.”

 

Take a look at those last two sentences again, which remind me of Todd Akin’s roundly condemned comments about “legitimate rape”: 

“Let’s stop equating real rape with the statutory version. That’s what makes people take real rape less seriously.”

No. Actually, let’s stop insisting it’s fine for young girls to have sex with adult men.

This, my friends, is rape culture. 

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Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. You may also follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Reconciling David Bowie’s genius with rape 

David_bowieToday, on the day of David Bowie’s death, people have been discussing an upsetting issue: Early in his career, David Bowie statutorily raped young teen girls—the underage “baby groupies” who were an open secret in the rock scene of the 1970s. This was despite the age of consent being 18 in California. (Their scene was the Sunset Strip.)

It’s difficult to receive this information while mourning Bowie’s death. It’s particularly complex to negotiate for those fans who are aware of the complexities of rape culture and who have made a conscious decision to believe women.

The idea that Bowie is a rapist (albeit a statutory one) places him within a broader behind-the-scenes pattern that is not uncommon enough among male stars. Bill Cosby. Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mike Tyson. R. Kelly. Michael Jackson. John Lennon. The list of famous men who have raped or battered women or children seems endless. Though these cases vary in significant ways, they all reflect the same underlying problems: criminally predatory behavior and entitlement in men’s celebrity culture.

But every time we learn another beloved figure committed horrible acts, it’s distressing. It’s unexpected. It’s a predictable pattern, but it’s not predictable regarding any one celebrity, so it always comes as a shock.

How can we, as fans, process such distressing information, particularly when it arises in social media conversations simultaneous to our mourning a widely loved figure?

I think it helps to remember the following:

1) Talented people do terrible things, too. Sometimes, their fame encourages such behavior, and it often enables it.

2) Being talented doesn’t excuse a person for committing terrible acts. Just because someone is an incredible artist doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye to how they have wronged people.

3) Calling out artists’ abuse of others doesn’t necessarily negate the cultural value of their bodies of work. (Depending on the nature of their oeuvres, though, it can render them hypocrites and make us suspicious of their intentions.)

4) It is a sad commentary on our culture that modern masculinity can be so entitled, so toxic, that we are repeatedly put in the position of both loving the art and hating the man behind said art for what he did to women and/or children. It’s a horrible position for fans to be in–to try to reconcile our admiration of their work with our loathing for their actions.

P.S.: I am a David Bowie fan. This piece evolved throughout the day in my responses to posts about the statutory rape, which filled my Facebook feed (alongside posts mourning his death and celebrating his life, several of which I posted, too).

The conversations I read tended to convey two opposing perspectives: That this information is a deal-breaker that ruins Bowie’s work, or that this information is no big deal, because the girl says she was consenting. I weighed in because I think neither assertion is quite right. Bowie’s work is still wonderful. At the same time, the girl’s consent doesn’t negate the fact that this was statutory rape. As a young teen (depending on which report you read, she was 13, 14 or 15 at the time), legally she could not consent—and as an adult, Bowie knew better. He should not have pursued and seduced a minor.

Ultimately, I agree with Amanda Marcotte, who a couple of hours after I published this piece wrote: “Even if the girl in question says she is consenting, the relationship is inherently exploitative, at best. It is good that attitudes about this have changed and that we take statutory rape more seriously now. […] This all shows that the takeaway from hearing this story […] is that changing the culture *works.* And that is a far more interesting and important conversation to have than  whether or not you personally are a righteous person because you listen to David Bowie records.”

It’s a difficult discussion. My hope is that by engaging one another on these points, we continue to move the culture forward.

Bowie and teenFor further reading:

Primary source material: “I lost my virginity to David Bowie”

On the history of the age of consent in California: “The crazy quilt of our age of consent laws”

Secondary sources / analyses:

Other discussions:

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Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. You may also follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Princess Leia is a general now. But why isn’t she in more toy stores?

Children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia.

 By Rebecca Hains for the Washington Post

Princess Leia is a cultural icon. When “Star Wars” debuted in 1977, Leia’s leadership, bravery and heroism were traits rarely found in women on the silver screen. By defying stereotypes, she became an instant role model for girls.

But Leia is a princess no longer. Last week, director J.J. Abrams revealedthat the newest film in the saga, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” drops her “princess” honorific. She’s General Leia now, crystallizing what fans have long known: She’s a strong leader, not the damsel in distress princesses often represent in pop culture.

To many 21st-century viewers, Leia’s evolution from “princess” to “general” marks progress. As I explain in my book “The Princess Problem,” modern princess culture implies that physical beauty is a girl’s greatest asset — not intelligence, strength or courage. This wasn’t always what the title signified, however, including when Leia first appeared.

“In the 1970s, ‘princess’ was just one among many fantasy feminine roles,” explains University of California at Davis sociologist and lecturer Elizabeth Sweet, “and it was far more loosely defined than it is today. Leia’s role as princess didn’t preclude her from being a strong, capable leader. The ‘princess’ role that dominates today is far more narrow.”

Given this context, Leia’s reemergence after nearly 40 years with an earned military title is garnering praise from princess-culture critics.

“Leia’s status as a general shows girls that there is life beyond princess,” says Michele Yulo, president of Princess Free Zone. Women are nowgraduating from Army Ranger School, after all. “Boys need to continue to see girls and women as much more than princesses.”

Margot Magowan, a movie critic and the founder of the Reel Girl blog, agrees. “Princesses don’t threaten the sexist power structure. Not yet a queen, a princess is usually a young person who hasn’t claimed her power,” Magowan says. “I’m much more excited about Leia’s role in the narrative because of the potential the label ‘general’ implies. ‘General’ denotes agency, power and command, and it’s a label we traditionally associate with male characters.”

Many parents share Magowan’s excitement. “Any erasing of princess is a win in my eyes,” says Elisabeth Nash Wrenn, the mother of a 4-year-old girl in Salem, Mass. “Girls don’t need strong princesses. They need non-princesses, in my opinion.”

Even with the title change, though, “Star Wars” licensees aren’t featuring Leia very prominently in their new merchandise. Unfortunately, children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia, especially when such characters stem from brands whose merchandise typically targets boys. In franchises such as “Star Wars” and the films and comic books by Marvel and DC Comics, toy licensees typically exclude important female characters from the toys and T-shirts that play pivotal roles in children’s play and identities. […]

Read more at The Washington Post.

Why boys should play with dolls

No one is surprised about seeing dads with strollers anymore, yet biases with toys persist.

As Black Friday deals approach, I’ve been spending time thinking about my 7-year-old’s Christmas wish list. Thankfully, it’s short and sweet: a Beanie Boo, a Hess truck, Star Wars LEGOs, a LeapPad, a baby doll.

The fact that this is a boy’s list might spark some surprise, since it includes a classic “girl” toy, a baby doll to nurture. But today we’re on the cusp of a new children’s culture in which delineations between so-called girls’ and boys’ toys — between dolls and diesel trucks — won’t exist.

My son spends equal time playing with boys and girls and delights in playing house and video games alike. “Toys are for everybody,” he insists with admirable stubbornness.

But not everyone sees it that way. This summer, I appeared on the radio show NightSide With Dan Rea to discuss Target’s decision to stop labeling toy aisles for boys or girls. People from across the country phoned in, incensed. Many callers claimed that those of us who supported Target’s decision wanted to make “boys and girls the same,” arguing that we were promoting some kind of unisex, androgynous dystopia. […]

Read more at The Boston Globe.

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Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.