Childhood is a time of innocence, and it's easy to dismiss children's media as harmless because of the simplicity with which most of its audience will approach it. The truth is all media is created with a message, and the messages we send to our children may be the most important of all. The same innocence with which they approach the world leaves them less equipped to analyze the underlying intentions. As an offshoot to my main blog, See Jane Juggling serves as a place for some analysis on the messages children's media send. My perspective is admittedly biased toward gender and race concerns, but I would love to hear from you about your other viewpoints as well. Rate the media (explanation of ratings to the right) and leave a comment, and together we can shed some light on these complicated decisions.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lego Friends

The Lego Group

Rating: N (G)

Lego is about to release a new product line: Lego Friends. Though their website currently shows only a "come back December 26" message with purple butterflies and a girl's face peeking from behind the screen, plenty of other people are talking about the new toys.

According to Businessweek, Lego did extensive market research to find out that girls don't like their toys because they aren't aesthetically pleasing and don't fit with the way they tend to play. In response, they are releasing Lego Friends, a series that follows five girls in their daily lives. It features many pink and purple blocks, and it also features a redesign of the blocky Lego man in favor of curvier physiques for the girls.

The Good

As neuroscientist Lise Eliot points out in the Businessweek article, playing with blocks is good for children's brains, so if marketing them to girls increases the chances that girls will play with them, then that might be worth it.

Andrea, the only person of color in the line, appears to have natural hair, and it is positively portrayed as beautiful.

The Bad

While it may be true that changing the marketing will promote girls playing with the Legos, the new designs (which you can see described in more detail here and here) fall squarely into gender stereotypes. The characters will come with backstories and pre-set identities, promoting less creativity in the play. The girls are characterized by one-dimensional qualities (e.g. Mia the animal lover and Emma the beautician).

The aesthetic change to the boxy Lego man also added breasts and hips to the doll's bodies, making them one more place where girls are exposed to subtle messages about the need to be sexy and the importance of their bodies.

The only doll of the primary five characters that is a person of color is Andrea the singer. I find it troublesome that the black girl's primary identification is one of performer. Black bodies have traditionally been used as spectacle and entertainment, and it's unfortunate that the only person of color in the set gets stereotyped in that way.

Bottom Line
Lego's motivation for jumping on the gender binary bandwagon is profit-driven, and I can't say that I blame them. Their market research or even just a casual visit to a toy store throws it in everyone's faces that little girls love pink. What they need to realize is (as Reel Girl points out in her letter to Lego) that all the market research really reveals is the pervasiveness of gender-based marketing practices. It's up to companies to have better practices, and it's up to us as consumers to make those practices worthwhile. I won't be buying Lego Friends for my daughter because I prefer to spend my money on toys that don't promote gender biases. Lego, once upon a time, understood this, too, as this 1981 ad demonstrates.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bratz Kidz Fairy Tales

MGA Entertainment
Rating: N(G, R)

Bratz Kidz Fairy Tales centers around four friends who are having trouble getting excited about putting on a play as fairy tale characters (Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella) because they feel no connection to them. As they complain about the fairy tales, a talking frog appears and explains that he's been sent by The Keeper to whisk them away to Fairy Tale Land where they will each embody their character in her actual story. If they are able to outsmart the villains and ensure happy endings all around, then everyone will get to come back safe and sound, and he can become a prince again.

The girls help each other overcome each of the fairy tales, throwing in modern interpretations of their surroundings and recognizing that the heroines of the tales didn't have it quite as easy as they originally thought. They ultimately succeed, defeating two wicked witches, a hungry wolf, and an ugly stepmother.

When they return to their own time and place, they have a renewed appreciation for the fairy tales they dismissed earlier.

The Good
The premise of this film centers around a dismissal of the princesses from the fairy tales as too weak for modern standards. In this way, the girls demonstrate high expectations for women and do not accept ascribed gender roles as an excuse for substandard performance.

There are also some moments within the recreated fairy tales where the girls get to share their modern worldview--with mixed success. The girl playing Rapunzel initially thinks that waiting for someone to save her is ridiculous and immediately tries multiple ways to escape the tower on her own. Though she is ultimately caught, she does escape from the wicked witch without any help from a prince (unless you count the frog, who does throw in a little assistance).

Likewise, the girl playing Snow White lets the Seven Dwarves know that where she comes from, there's "a lot more going on than cooking and cleaning." She is bullied into cleaning anyway, but eventually wises up and walks out, even as the men taunt her by telling her how scary the woods will be. She stands strong on her principles that being demeaned is above her and that she is capable of more than cleaning and cooking.

The girl playing Cinderella tries to take an equally dismissive stance toward romance and the need for a prince to save her, but she discovers that without a prince she will remain poor and homeless. The frog informs her that there were no other options for women in the "15th century . . . not even school." Upon finding out that Cinderella threw a glass slipper at the wolf to escape him, the prince happily declares that he's "so over wimpy gals."

Through these messages, there are some efforts to demonstrate a modern portrayal of women as powerful and able to step outside of traditional gender norms.

The Bad
First of all, no matter how much the show might intend to subvert traditional gender roles, it's created as a platform to promote Bratz dolls, which are horribly sexist stereotypes. Even though the girls in the movie are fully clothed, they still represent traditional (and fairly adult) standards of beauty. They wear tight-fitting clothing and heavy make-up. They are all thin with big eyes, nearly invisible noses, and pouty lips.

In addition, many of the plot lines promote sexist ideas. I know that the creators of this film didn't create the story lines, and that they were sexist in the original fairy tales, but I can't give them a pass on this because the message at the end is that the stories are "great" and so much "more fun" than the girls originally thought. Even though this is--on the surface--an endorsement of the strength of the heroines, it is also an endorsement for the stories themselves (and all the sexism they contain).

Beauty is equated with good--at least for women. The witch in the Snow White narrative is trying to get rid of (by feeding some to the wolf and locking one in a tower) all of the girls so she can be the "fairest in the land." The witch from the Rapunzel story line is old, wrinkled, and misshapen--and she discusses her frustration with her looks on screen. While the women villains are ugly (or at least perceive themselves as uglier than the girls), the wolf exhibits the stereotypes of the traditionally strong male. He has a broad chest, narrow waist, and big arms. These portrayals promote female morality as associated with beauty while male morality is not.

Also, the wolf story line made me uncomfortable. He's trying to eat the girls, but he demonstrates how sad he is that the girl playing Red Riding Hood didn't play along with his grandma act to tease out the chase a little longer. The chase then becomes literal, as he scares all of the girls up a tree and then follows them, teasing them about "which order will I eat you in." He teams up with the witch from Snow White until his ravenous bloodthirsty-ness overcomes him and he pounces on her and devours her. The body language and ways of talking about the chase were too reminiscent of predatory sexual behavior for me.

According to this document on ways to analyze children's books for racism, a sign of tokenism is when a minority character "look[s] just like whites except for being tinted or colored in." That is definitely the case for both the black girl and the black dwarf. 

In addition, the black dwarf speaks with a stereotypically black accent and says things like "what are you doing up in our crib?" He's the only character who speaks like this, and these decisions promote stereotypes in a negative, reductive way. 

Also, it really bothered me that both of the black characters (which are the only real representation of racial diversity) have green eyes. While I know that black people can have eyes in a variety of shades, other critics have talked about how making a dark-skinned character have light eyes can be read as a way to keep people of color from identifying with the character. Shannon Price dubs it the "Esmerelda Eyes Syndrome" (as a reference to Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another person of color with unusually green eyes). Price says that the decision was meant to show "that in order to be beautiful or worthy . . . you had to have at least one European feature, and animators were determined to provide Esmerelda with one even though it clashed alarmingly with her other features." The same can be said for the black characters in this movie. 

Bottom Line
Even though the film purports to be subverting the rigid gender roles in traditional fairy tales, it ends up claiming that these same story lines are actually "great" and "fun." It gets to this message through a series of mixed messages about gender norms and some very stereotypical portrayals of race. It's also important to remember that this film acts as a marketing platform for the entire Bratz line, which is rife with stereotyping and sexist portrayals.

My first-ever Bratz doll.
From partymonstrrrr

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

B. Toys

Battat, Inc.
Rating: Y

Finding toys that aren't firmly situated in a gender binary can be difficult, especially if you're buying those toys as gifts.

Thats why I was happy to find B. toys, a line of toys designed to "inspire individuality." These brightly colored toys represent a diverse range of interests and age groups.

This line includes everything from remote-controlled cars to interactive abstract sculptures to electronic guitars shaped like a dog.

The Good
Unlike most toys, the B. toys are not divided into a gender binary of "girl" and "boy" toys. On the website,  the toys are instead divided by thematic category (ex. "B.Curious" or "B.Smart").

The toys themselves are all bright without falling into stereotypically gendered color schemes. Take these toy cars, for instance, which manage to use a combination of green, pink, orange, red, and blue to create a toy that is inviting for any child. I also appreciate that, though they're anthropomorphized, there are not any gendered features in the car's faces.
Must of the toys avoid falling into gender stereotypes by simply avoiding any gendered representations. There are a few toys, however, that have human figurines associated with them. These figurines demonstrate both men and women as active agents.

Again, there aren't that many human characters presented in the toys, but there is some racial diversity present in the few human beings that do appear.

This Fire Flyer, for instance, features both a black male and white female firefighter.

The Bad
The only races that I see represented are black and white, which presents a limited view of racial diversity. A few characters that represent other racial identities would be nice.

Bottom Line
I would have no problem giving these toys to my child (in fact, I've already purchased some as Christmas gifts for my own daughter, nieces, and nephews). These toys do an excellent job of avoiding a gender binary in their marketing, color scheme, or thematic categories. Even when the toys themselves fall into a category that is traditionally gendered (like the toy cars), the design is carefully crafted in a way that avoids giving into those stereotypes.

B. toys can be purchased at Target.