‘Gender neutral’ not exactly what I’m going for…

Friday, on the local San Francisco public radio station, KQED, I heard a show about children and gender neutral toys. It was a great program, featuring the brilliant Peggy Orenstein, among others, and I was psyched to hear the topic of kids and toys debated as we go into the Christmas season. But, I’ve got to say, I’m not entirely on board with the term “gender neutral” that the host kept using to define a goal. And that is a term that the media seems to cling to when the topic of sexism in kidworld is discussed. When I was on Fox News, the host kept trying to put the same words in my mouth, and I didn’t like it.

Let me be clear here. I absolutely believe toys in stores should be divided by type– building, outdoor, figures/ dolls etc– not by gender. I don’t believe objects should be color coded to imply they should be played with by boys or girls. I am hard pressed to think of something more absurd and simultaneously socially accepted than this. I desperately want to see girls and boys pictured playing together on boxes. When the term “gender neutral” is used, I think this is the goal referred to, a goal I share with all of my heart.

I guess the issue from me is that powerful female characters are already drastically missing from the fantasy world created by grown-ups for children. When we talk about “gender neutral,” I fear that girls will continue to go missing from this debate– about children, toys, play, and sexism– even more. “Gender neutral” needs to be a goal of sorts, but we also have to keep in mind that all kids need to see more girls and women doing more things. Do we call that “gender neutral”?

Another problem for me with the term is that “gender neutral” doesn’t inspire me. “Gender neutral” makes me think of a bunch of grown-ups or academics or psychiatrists sitting around wearing super thick glasses and holding notebooks.

Here is what I want to see in kidworld: More females having adventures. More females doing cool shit. Got it? Do you call that gender neutral or do you call that being alive?

I want options. Variety. Diversity. Multiple narratives. I want all kids to see many more images of powerful and complex females, to see girls taking risks, saving the world, being brave, smart, and going on adventures in the fantasy world and in the real one. You could argue that we need to see more images of boys being kind and geeky and paternal, but from my vantage point, as a reader, movie goer, and watcher of TV shows, that’s pretty covered. I honestly believe the best way to help boys get out of gender stereotypes right now is to show them females being strong, being the star of the movie, or the central figure in a game that everyone wants to play.

But, as it stands, this is not the case at all. Strong female characters have gone missing. Part of this lack is because there are so few female characters in kids’ movies. Those narratives get licensed into LEGO and diapers and clothing. But even when female characters show up, they get “make-overs” or companies like Stride Rite will remove Wonder Woman, Black Widow, and Leia from their Justice League, Avengers, and Star Wars products and marketing. It’s really shocking how strong female characters keep disappearing from toys, clothing, and all kinds of children’s products.

Here’s my four year old daughter (holding a lunchbox from the Seventies.)


My daughter isn’t a “tomboy” or a “girlie-girl.” She likes pants; she likes dresses; she like yellow, she likes pink, she likes black. She likes to race and play soccer and read and make art. She loves superheroes and her mermaid Barbie. But the older she gets, the more I see her choices getting influenced and limited by stores and marketing and media and peers. My goal is to have her world grow, not shrink. I’m not sure that “gender neutral” is what she needs.


If a stormtrooper had no epic, would he exist?

This morning, my three daughters had Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast. Today, I’m not going to blog about the male Honey Nut bee or how there are no female mascots at all on children’s cereal boxes– that’s right ZERO– because I’ve done that before. I won’t get into how my husband said, as the girls fought over who got to place the brave adventures of Honey Bee in front of her bowl, that cereal boxes are a kid’s first newspaper. Today, I’m blogging about the coveted prize inside the box. What did my kids get? A stormtrooper pen.


So here’s my question for you: If there were no “Star Wars” double trilogy (is there a better word for the length of this epic?) would a kid covet a stormtrooper? If toy makers filled the shelves of Target with these white, faceless figures, would kids want them without Hollywood blockbusters providing a context?

The answer is no. To sell a toy, having a story helps a lot. It’s all about the narrative. Next question: Where are the narratives where girls get to be heroes? Where are the narratives, the epic trilogies, the Hollywood blockbusters, where girls get to star? If you think of a female character who is shown, front and center, again and again, who is she? What image comes to mind? Is she, perhaps, a princess?

The gendered toys marketed to children are a symptom. The disease is that girls have gone missing from narratives, sidelined and marginalized, in literature, religion, art, and politics, for thousands of years. In 2013, the consistent narrative where girls get to exist is, still, as the princess.

Yesterday, when I wrote about Goldie Blox selling stereotypes, people told me, if I don’t want pink and princess I should just go to the “boy” aisle. But the problem with the “boy” aisle is that there no female protagonists to be found there. Whether it’s LEGO or a coloring book, whether the product is from the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or the Justice League, female characters are in the minority if they exist at all.

My seven year old daughter wanted a LEGO set. We went to three stores, and found no LEGO where girl figures or girls’ stories were the basis of the game except for LEGO Friends, which we found in the “girl” aisle. What epic, magical adventure were these girl figures engaged in? They were at a cafe. My daughter also completed a set where they were at a bakery. I just bought her a third set where the girls are at a high school.


My older daughter, after getting frustrated with the LEGO choices, opted for The Hobbit set which includes a male Hobbit, a male wizard, and 5 male dwarfs. No females at all.


Toymakers claim when they put “alternative” toys on the shelf, they just don’t sell. This is why I ask: If a stormtrooper had no “Star Wars,” would he exist? Where are the narratives where girls are seen having epic adventures? Until we fix that problem, we’re going to keep seeing gendered aisles at Target.

Little LEGO men are harassing me? WTF?

As if LEGO, with its idiotic, dumbed down LEGO for girls, its pet-shops and hot tubs, isn’t offensive enough, now this? A worker calling out, “Hey babe!” Are you kidding me?


Please Tweet: Hey @LEGO_Group, these stickers teach kids that #streetharassment is OK. I’m #NotBuyingIt

(via Miss Representation)

LEGO meets with advocates for girls

After gathering 55,000 signatures of people disgusted by LEGO’s sexist Friends sets for girls, SPARK representatives finally met with LEGO execs last Friday.

SPARK brought three main requests to LEGO:

First, we want to see more girls and women characters across all LEGO lines. My report to LEGO showed that 86.6% of characters are men, which is a major gender gap, and one reason that girls may no longer feel welcomed by LEGO products. A failure to include better representation of girls and people of color in prominent and non-stereotyped roles makes it harder for kids to see themselves in the product, and less likely to want to play with it. By increasing the number of visible women throughout the product lines, LEGO can more easily welcome girls to the building experience beyond the Friends.

Second, we want to see girls featured in more LEGO ads, and we want to see boys featured in ads for the LEGO Friends. If LEGO’s intention with the creation of the Friends line is to bring girls into the LEGO experience fully, they need to show girls engaged with toys aside from the Friends – and if they want boys to be comfortable playing with the Friends line, they need to show that, too. LEGO’s marketing has been very gendered over the last couple of decades, and research has shown that 76% of kids who see boys and girls in commercials are likely to think that toy is for everyone, compared to 40% of kids shown an ad featuring only boys or only girls. Simply making an effort to balance gender representation in ads is an easy way to make kids feel welcome.

And finally, as LEGO expands the Friends line, we want to see the inclusion of sets designed around non-stereotyped activities for girls: spaceships, politics, firefighting, architecture, teaching and business. Making the Friends line a truly representative line of options for girls and boys will diminish the stereotype threat we see in it now, as well as help keep girls engaged in the cognitive development offered by LEGO products. While the initial offerings in the LEGO Friends line are stereotyped and problematic, they do have the potential to get girls back into the LEGO brand – but LEGO also needs to make sure they have offerings for girls whose interests aren’t as focused on beauty. We also want to see more focus on and celebration of Olivia’s inventor’s set and treehouse – while these are great products in the current Friends line, they receive no commercial attention.

Let’s keep an eye out at as new LEGO sets come out on how many females are featured in the sets and how many girls and moms are pictured on boxes and in TV ads. Hopefully LEGO will be making some changes.

Great job, SPARK. Thank you for being such a great advocate for girls. Read SPARK’s full report of the meeting with LEGO here.

Wonder Woman without pants leads to LEGO without pants

Hey, kids, meet Wonder Woman, one of the few female superheroes.
Which one of these LEGO minifigs is not like the other? Why do you think the most powerful and famous female superhero is shown in her underwear?
Read more about about sexism marketed to kids through LEGO sets here.
“If I don’t get pants, nobody gets pants” Wonder Woman by Theamat (Cynthia Sousa)

Lego agrees to meeting after 50,000 denounce selling out girls

Another social media victory! Thank you to all who spoke out and signed the petition. Here’s to hoping LEGO becomes a leader in inspiring both genders to dream big.

From Change.org:

After a month and more than 50,000 petition signatures, an open letter, numerous radio shows, TV segments, blog posts, articles, and even YouTube videos about the company, LEGO has decided to listen to girls! On Sunday, February 5, Michael McNally, Brand Relations Director, sent an email to SPARK Movement. SPARK, a girl-fueled movement to end the sexualization of girls, is a coalition of more than 70 organizations and reaches tens of thousands of girls and those who support their healthy development. LEGO has accepted SPARK’s request for a meeting to discuss how they can go back to offering all LEGO toys to both boys and girls and to respect girls’ hunger and desire to play with toys that challenge them creatively and intellectually.

Read the rest here.

Lego responds to parents and misses the point

Last week, Lego released this statement to parents who are upset about the gender stereotyping marketed to kids:

We want to correct any misinterpretation that LEGO Friends is our only offering for girls. This is by no means the case. We know that many girls love to build and play with the wide variety of LEGO products already available. LEGO Friends joins this global collection of products as yet another theme option from which parents may choose the best building experience for their child’s skill and interest.

We listen very carefully to the opinions and input that people share. We will continue to do so as we develop the LEGO brand to deliver the best experiences with the strongest appeal, and we will review our communications to ensure that we represent LEGO play for all children. We are proud to have developed a collection that is receiving positive feedback and reviews from parents and children who are now trying it at home, and we hope that we will engage even more girls in the skill-developing experience of LEGO play.

Here’s my response back to Lego:

LEGO Systems, Inc.
555 Taylor Road
P.O. Box 1138
Enfield, CT 06083-1138
Dear Lego,
You’re missing the point. It’s true that Lego Friends is particularly shocking in how it perpetuates gender stereotypes. Still, the problem is not that Friends is the only offering “for girls,” but rather: Why does Lego market so separately to girls at all?
Why does Lego picture mostly boys on its boxes, boys in its TV commercials, and boys flying an airplane on its Facebook Welcome page? When you go to Lego’s website, why are categories organized: Trains, Robotics, Buildings, Vehicles etcetera and then Girls? Why does Lego act as if “Girls” are in a separate category than so many other options? That boys are important and central and that girls are secondary and an afterthought? It’s this belief that permits missteps like the creation of the Friends sets. In your statement, you write: ”We know that many girls love to build and play with the wide variety of LEGO products already available.” But then why doesn’t Lego aggressively market all of its sets to all children? In 1981, you did. What happened?
Margot Magowan
Please write your own letter to Lego as well. The petition on Change.org asking Lego to stop selling girls out has over 47,000 signatures. You can sign it here.

Reel Girl is 2 years old today! Progress made against ‘genderfication’ of childhood?

I started Reel Girl on December 27, 2009 in a post Christmas pink haze. It was my first holiday season with three daughters, my youngest child was nine months old. I was amazed by how gendered all their Christmas presents were. Truly amazed. Even the little one had a stack of all pink toys and clothing. But it was Polly Pocket who drove me to blog. Those teeny-weeny clothes. I can’t even deal with organizing all the clothing for my own kids, not to mention Polly’s ugly, shiny outfits. It wasn’t just Polly, of course. So many toys given to my kids had to do with getting dressed: magnetic dress dolls, paper doll cut out coloring books, Barbie dolls, on and on and on. Talk about training your daughters to be obsessed with clothing and appearance.

In the two years that I’ve been blogging and paying a lot of attention to this issue, have we made progress limiting the ‘genderfication’ of childhood? (I’m using ‘genderfication’ instead of ‘gendering’ to highlight the mass-market, artificial drive to segregate kids)

Movies and TV seem worse than ever. Girls are half our kid population but show up only as a tiny minority on the big and small screens. In 2010, Disney switched the title of “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” and announced it would make no more princess movies. Who cares, right? Princesses suck. But the complex problem is, tragically, if a girl character gets top billing in a film at all, chances are she’s a princess. It’s kind of like if you want to win a Miss America college scholarship, first you’ve got to parade around in your bathing suit. By saying no more princesses, what Disney was really saying was: coming soon, even fewer girl stars! At that time, in response to Disney’s blatant sexism of switching a title to hide a girl and publicly announcing that decision, hardly a parent made a peep.

And toys? Also, only worse. To me, the new Legos for girls that just went on the market hit an all time low in the genderfication of childhood.

But on the positive side, parents are getting pissed off. Hundreds (can I say thousands yet?) are going to Lego’s Facebook page and complaining.

There’s other evidence parents have had enough. Early this year, Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter came out and became a best-seller. Melissa Wardy’s Pigtail Pals, a company aimed at creating empowering clothing for girls, grew enormously, in part when posts Wardy wrote about JCPenney’s sexist T shirt  “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother did it for me” went viral. JCPenney pulled the shirt.

The Geena Davis Institute released an in depth study about the sexism in kids’ media. Other organizations doing great work as far as activism around these issues include Powered by Girl, SPARK, About Face, SheHeroes, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Princess Free Zone, 7Wonderlicious, Achilles Effect, Pink Stinks, New Moon Girls, and more. In the past two years, I’ve discovered some great blogs that monitor the sexism marketed to our kids including Balancing Jane, Mama Feminista, The Twin Coach, Blue Milk, Hoyden About Town, and many more.

In two years, Reel Girl has grown as well. Reel Girl posts have been featured, written about, or linked to major sites around the web including The Week (best opinion a couple times), Jezebel, Blogher (Spotlight Blogger), Forbes.com, Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Ms., Common Sense Media, and many more. Reel Girl is also cross posted on SFGate.

Reel Girl guest poster Melissa Spiers wrote about a sexist ad from ChapStick. Her post received over 25,000 page views and the company ended up taking down and discontinuing the photo of a woman’s ass.

This summer Pixar is coming out with Brave, the animation studio’s first film ever to star a female protagonist. It’s kind of unbelievable that we’ve  had to wait this long for one girl, but I’m excited to see her. I hope people go in droves and take their sons as well. This whole issue is really about the parents, and I’m happy they’re taking more action.

But there is a kid who is really pissed off and telling the world about it herself. Her name is Riley and the youtube video showing her smart observations on the gendered aisles, toys, and colors forced on kids is going viral as I post this. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here. It’s awesome.

And finally some exciting news around here: my husband and I are writing a Middle Grade book inspired by a story he started telling our daughters. It’s a fantasy adventure. Here’s one sentence about it: “Legend of Emery: The Battle for the Sather Stone is the story of how Nessa, a Frake, and Posey, a Fairy, overcome a history of mutual prejudice to become great friends, working together to stop a war by recovering the stolen Sather stone, the source of all magic, and returning it to its rightful owner, the Fairy Queen Arabel.”

Here’s to hoping we take many more giant steps forward in 2012.

Check out this Lego fig coming out in 2012: Bilbo or Frodo?

The Journal Inquirer reports  that brand new Legos are coming out in 2012: “The Lego Group has inked a deal with Warner Bros. Consumer Products to create building sets based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movie trilogy and two new films based on ‘The Hobbit,’ scheduled for release in 2012.”

Lord of the Rings. Hmmm. How many females were in that high grossing, Academy Award winning series? How many males?

Check out the link from the Journal Inquirer that pictures Lego’s new toy. It won’t let me copy the photo, but the Legos pictured are so much cooler than the Friends for girls and guess what– all male.

Other best-selling Lego sets are based on the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies.

Do you see the sexism chain reaction here? When girl characters are excluded from movies, they’re left out of toys and branding on all kinds of kids clothing and products as well. Please take a look at Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing from Kids’ Movies in 2011. These movies predominantly star males, feature multiple males in the cast, and have names of males in the movie titles. Whereas in 2010, Disney switched a movie title from “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” just to downplay the female. This kind of blatant sexism repeatedly teaches kids that boys are more important than girls, and that’s a horrible lesson for both genders to learn.

Of course The Hobbit was a book long before it was a movie. J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic came out in 1937. But it’s Hollywood’s appropriation of the story that makes it massively popular with a new generation, grounding it in pop culture and inciting the creation of a slew of toys timed to hit stores around the same  time the movie hits theaters.

On Dec 16 PRNewsWire reported on the new Legos and the upcoming movie’s cast:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be released beginning December 14, 2012.  The second film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is slated for release the following year, beginning December 13, 2013.

Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Grey, the character he played in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Martin Freeman in the central role of Bilbo Baggins.  Also reprising their roles from “The Lord of the Rings” movies are: Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; Ian Holm as the elder Bilbo; Christopher Lee as Saruman; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; Elijah Wood as Frodo; Orlando Bloom as Legolas; and Andy Serkis as Gollum.  The ensemble cast also includes (in alphabetical order) Richard Armitage, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Barry Humphries, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Evangeline Lilly, Sylvester McCoy, Bret McKenzie, Graham McTavish, Mike Mizrahi, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Lee Pace, Mikael Persbrandt, Conan Stevens, Ken Stott, Jeffrey Thomas, and Aidan Turner.

Do you think the 2 females listed above will make it into the Lego set?

As long as Hollywood keeps girl characters out of its films, it’s going to be challenging to convince toy companies to represent heroic females in their toys. It’s asking them to use a lot more imagination. Of course, toy companies should be imaginative. Isn’t that the point of a toy? Especially a toy company like Lego that claims to be a learning toy “fostering creative play?” But instead, Lego prefers to spend its time and money “researching” the best way to copy Disney.

On its Facebook page, Lego keeps responding to hundreds of people upset about the “for girls” sets, that there are many other Legos out there to choose from. But Lego isn’t aggressively marketing those sets to girls. On its own FB welcome page, Lego has two boys pictured flying a Lego airplane. Will Lego be marketing the new “Lord of the Rings” set to girls? How?

If you go into any mega chain like Target or Walmart or Pottery Barn, all of them have “boy aisles” and “girl aisles.” The “Lord of the Rings” sets and the other  building sets mostly show boys pictured on the boxes and contain multiple male figs inside of those boxes. Where do you think the “Lord of the Rings” set will be? Where will the Kim Kardashian wannabe Friends Lego set be found? How’s a girl going to feel being dragged by her mother into the “boy aisle” where all the photos are telling her she’s in the wrong place? If a highly paid researcher was studying this girl’s behavior, what do you think he would record?

Maybe Target should stop with the boy and girl aisles. (The London toy store Hamley’s has done just that, giving up gender segregation for sections on arts and crafts, outdoor toys, building toys, soft toys etc.) Maybe Hollywood should make more movies with multiple girl roles and put females front and center. Maybe parents should demand more of those movies and get upset when girls remain invisible.

Hollywood shows our kids animals who talk, rats who cook, toys who come to life, and singing lions who befriend warthogs. Is it too much to ask to see imaginary worlds where girls and boys are treated equally? How long do we have to wait?

Anyone see “Arthur Christmas” this year?