Sally Hall: Building on gender stereotypes does girls a dreadful disservice

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When seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin wrote to toy company Lego earlier this year to request more adventurous role models for girls, her letter caused a storm.

Written with painstaking care in her best hand-writing, it spelled out a clear plea:

‘I love Legos,’ she started, ‘But I don’t like that there are more Lego boy people and barely any Lego girls.

‘Today I went to a store and saw Legos in two sections — the girls pink and the boys blue. All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks.

I want you to make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun, ok!?!’

With 5,000 shares on Facebook, the letter clearly struck a chord. Parents from all over the world tweeted their support for Charlotte’s perspective.

In response to Charlotte’s letter, Lego responded by pointing out that they produce lots of strong ‘girl people’ – female warriors, surgeons, zoologists, rock stars, TV reporters, and scientists.

(Which sounds like a party I’d LOVE to get an invite to...)

But somehow, I feel the whole debate has missed the point. I don’t see why Lego has to make its toys so gendered in the first place.

The company’s iconic 1981 ad showed a flame-haired girl raising aloft her proud creation – a Lego construction so wacky that it may later have been drafted up for a slot on Grand Designs.

Pieced together with blocks of Lego out of every colour under the sun, the only hue that seems to be missing is pink.

As the advert asks: ‘Have you ever seen anything like it? Not just what she’s made, but how proud it’s made her. It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves.’

With the strapline: ‘What it is, is beautiful’, the ad recalls a time when kids could just be kids. The grinning girl looks incredibly comfortable in her own skin. Her jeans and blue trainers belie the myth that girls have to inhabit some pink and fluffy haven to be happy.

Friends with young children insist their kids play in gendered ways from the moment they express a preference – with grasping, pudgy fingers – for a dolly over a wooden train.

I haven’t got the benefit of their experience. But I do know that we create the world our babies and toddlers inhabit – and our children’s earliest choices can surely only reflect our own.

When we give girls no choice but to play with toys that inculcate gender stereotypes and compel them to limit their view of themselves and the world around them, we do them a dreadful disservice.

Even the ‘positive role models’ cited by Lego fall into this trap. The ‘TV reporter’ who has her own news crew and state-of-the-art media-wagon at her disposal? The ground-breaking story she’s expected to offer up to the world has nothing to do with simmering tension in Kiev or atrocities in Syria.

No.

It’s about cake.

The advert for the Heartlake City TV News Van toy gushes: ‘Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van! Find the cake and film it...then get Emma ready at the make-up table so she looks her best for camera.’

How sad that a toy which should raise aspirations only reinforces the lesson girls in Britain in 2014 have learnt only too well already – that they will be judged primarily on how they look, not what they achieve.

That this judgment has already started, and it will never stop for as long as they live. That that things they make and do, their achievements and goals, and the beauty of their spirit, will always be judged secondary to how they look.

What it is, is horrible.

The Leeds University Pen pal scheme at St Marks Gateway Church. PIC: Simon Hulme

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