Singing the pink blues

Why do makers of toys and computer games still practice segregation?

Published December 13, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Two years ago, for a few moments on Christmas morning, I was delightfully deluded. As my 2-year-old unwrapped her Little Tikes Wee Waffle farm set, I imagined we were in an idyllic, prelapsarian toddler phase in which children's toys were unisex.

At least this year, I thought, there will be no battles over whether Barbie and her wardrobe will inhabit our house, no pop-psych deconstructions of the Little Mermaid trading her voice for a husband. We won't debate whether Power Rangers provide badly needed female action heroes or equal opportunity violence. It will be all Duplos, Play Doh and Beanie Babies.

But I was wrong.

As we assembled the farm set, we found that the father plugged into a round hole in the driver's seat of the tractor but the mother -- literally a square peg in a round hole -- didn't. And so it began.

Thirty years of feminism notwithstanding, the mass-market toy industry has either slept through the women's movement or woefully misunderstood it. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the annual American International Toy Fair, where gender apartheid flowers freely in a hothouse of go-go commerce: girls get dolls, kitchen sets and makeup packaged in Pepto-Bismol pink; boys get weapons, action figures and vehicles in everything but pink. The color-coding starts at birth, and the role assignments kick in when children are still toddlers, barely able to keep their balance, much less process the demands of their gender.

Like many parents before me, I decided that this was a simple issue of choice. My girl would get boys' toys along with baby dolls.

But my solution was wrong. I've since discovered that if I encourage my 4-year-old daughter to cross-play, I push her into a world without women; a galaxy of "Star Wars" action figures in which the rare female -- Princess Leia, for example -- is lauded as "the essence of youthful exuberance and blossoming beauty." (But she's an action figure -- what does she do?) I wasn't sure this was a world to which equal access was even desirable.

When I investigated the only commercial arena in which "boys" toys are being aggressively marketed to girls -- computer games -- I found another kind of segregation. Here, girls are hustled into a pink ghetto of "girl games" where they remain a special interest group, spoon-fed a familiar diet of fashion, ponies and crafts. I assumed any company hip enough to use the motto "for girls who aren't afraid of a mouse" would give good content. But I was wrong again.

So, with the exception of a few exemplary gender-neutral companies like Wild Planet and Broderbund, my daughter has had three options: traditional play in a world without men; boy play in an androcracy; or a girl ghetto of low-content computer games. Who'd have thought that gender divisions would be so rigid at the turn of the millennium -- after the WNBA and Xena?

Although progress is being made in upscale mail-order catalogs like PlayFair Toys and Constructive Playthings, where color coding is less rampant and girls model firefighter costumes, commercial retailers remain perversely retrograde.

Take, for example, the Nano Fighter, a boxing "virtual pet" offered last year by Playmates Toys, unveiled with a flourish of essentialist logic: "The product takes on the nurturing play pattern loved by girls and replaces it with the competitive play boys crave," allowing "an almost limitless number of Nano Fighters to be connected together to create a massive elimination tournament." And for girls? Baby dolls, fashion dolls and "Nanosalon."

According to a recent survey by the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, 90 percent of commercial toys and dolls for girls age 2 to 10 emphasize beauty, shopping and dating. Even if you're a parent who, like me, isn't squeamish about tea sets and dress-ups or even Barbie -- in moderation -- you have to ask, is that all there is? Is it such commercial suicide for companies to push gender lines? Couldn't cross-marketing even boost sales?

Mainstream toy companies rely on the chicken-and-the-egg rationale as they insist on sex-typing toys: Whatever the cause -- culture or chromosomes -- boys and girls tend to play with weapons and dolls respectively, they say, so manufacturers target them accordingly, perpetuating the pattern.

Even when commercial manufacturers make a pitch to consumers who are concerned about gender bias, they fall short, promoting a system of parallel, not integrated, play. In the mid-'90s, for example, LEGO, whose infinitely creative plastic building toys seem naturally unisex, ventured a girl-specific line called Belville. Dubbed "a great place for girls to go on vacation," Belville included a campsite, a secret island, a beach set and scant possibilities for building -- which would explain its commercial failure.

"Our research shows that by age 5, most girls move toward more traditional toys and they see LEGOs as their brothers' toys," LEGO spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews told me after Belville went belly up. "Girls and mothers told us what they wanted, which was role-playing opportunities and the pastel colors. Belville was popular, but it was discontinued because it couldn't compete with the other products in our line."

What about integrated systems in which male and female figures coexist on a pirate ship or on the moon, in the wild West or undersea? Why do those places -- marketed to boys -- have to be populated only by boys and men?

Even "Sesame Street" is a largely male address. Although many human females live there, only about a quarter of the Muppets are girls, and less than a quarter of the Muppets sold as dolls are female.

Every parent knows, of course, that no one is forced to shop according to type. On one level, girls have even greater play opportunities than boys: They are freer -- and more often encouraged -- to cross-play than boys.

"Girls' changing societal roles have enlarged what is acceptable for them to play with," says JoAnne Oppenheim, who with her mother, Stephanie, publishes the annual "Oppenheim Toy Portfolio: The Best Toys, Books, Videos and Software for Kids" (which now includes top-rated "gender-free products"). "In our culture -- and I do think it's cultural -- we can accept the idea that girls will be tomboys and outgrow it, but if we buy boys sissyish gifts, they might not outgrow it."

Psychologists who've studied cross-play frame this idea a bit differently: "Many cultures, including our own, assign greater status to the male sex role ... and boys face stronger pressures than girls to adhere to sex-appropriate codes of conduct," writes D.R. Shaffer in "Social and Personality Development." "The major task for young girls is to learn how not to be babies, whereas young boys must learn how not to be girls."

Nowhere is the androcracy of boys' toys more evident than in "Toy Story 2," where just two out of Andy's 16 toys (not including his 200 toy soldiers) are female.

In the first "Toy Story," the female toys don't even rate dialogue, except for the seductress Bo Peep, who propositions Woody after he finds her sheep. They speak in "Toy Story 2" ("It's so nice to have a big strong spud in the house," says Mrs. Potatohead), but not for long: The women -- Mrs. Potatohead and Bo Peep -- stay home while the men go out to rescue Woody.

Even Hamm, a piggy bank packing $6 in change, is better suited for adventure than a woman. And as spunky as cowgirl Jessie is, she still wimps out on the airplane ("What do we do now?" she wails), lets Woody save her in the end and becomes Buzz's object of desire back at the homestead. (But then, with its stay-at-home mom and all-white cast, "Toy Story 2" is more about boomer nostalgia than '90s kids -- another story altogether.)

If toy companies have largely ignored girls' desire to cross-play, however, software designers have cashed in on it.

Mattel's Fashion Designer Barbie CD-ROM is commonly touted as the electronic Prometheus that, in 1996, proved that girls weren't genetically indisposed to computers. The game, which allows players to design clothes on-screen and print them out, outsold popular boy-dominated titles (including Doom and Quake) in its first two months on the market.

But it wasn't the first game for girls. In 1994, Her Interactive released the much-reviled McKenzie & Co., a role-playing game with video clips in which the primary goal was to get a date for the prom.

The idea behind both games was to get girls wired by giving them "what they want" -- a phrase software companies, like toy manufacturers, use over and over to justify their products. Her Interactive had surveyed 2,000 girls before designing McKenzie & Co. Laura Groppe, founder of Girl Games Inc., crashed slumber parties and sat in on Girl Scout meetings before launching her 1996 title Let's Talk About Me, a melange of fashion, horoscopes, interviews with successful women and candid body talk.

Girlware flooded the market in 1997 -- dubbed the "Year for Girls" in computer games -- and the boom continues. In their new book, "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat," authors Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins track the trend, tracing it to "an unusual and highly unstable alliance between feminist activists (who want to change the 'gendering' of digital technology) and industry leaders (who want to create a girls' market for their games)." It is not clear, they say, "whether it's possible to fully reconcile the political goal with the economic one."

These warring impulses have spawned a schizoid genre: girl games that seek to seduce -- through subjects like fashion and friendship -- and educate -- via information about health and women's history. Consequently, the new software functions more like instructional teen magazines than games per se. These products aren't much fun, and action is rarely part of the mix.

Theresa Duncan is one of the few designers with a flagrant disregard for focus groups or educational content. Her titles, which neither force-feed users high fiber content nor pander to the lowest common denominator, are some of the smartest out there.

Duncan released her first CD-ROM, Chop Suey, in 1995 to critical acclaim. In it, sisters Lily and June Bugg bop around their small town after eating Chinese food, stumbling on tea parties and visiting with their eccentric aunt Rose. Next came Smarty (in which a 7-year-old tools around Detroit, finding genie lamps and playing pinball with a witch), followed by Zero Zero, a picaresque Parisian tale set in 1899.

Duncan alone appears to have harnessed the unique properties of CD-ROM technology: Instead of trying to map books and games onto it or transposing doll-play into it, she enriches her quirky, highly literary story lines by expanding them through a garden of digital forking paths.

Unfortunately, art doesn't sell. Although her titles are well-reviewed, Duncan has had trouble distributing them, and recently quit making children's software because, she says, she wasn't interested in the TV and product tie-ins that distributors demand.

The appeal of computer games like Duncan's Zero Zero or Broderbund's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, which draw girls in without targeting them specifically, raises the question: Is a CD-ROM of one's own necessary for smoothing a girl's way into electronic play?

Some girls find "pink" software patronizing, and enjoy video game shoot'em-ups even though there's not a girl title in the genre; indeed, fierce coalitions of such gamers have emerged on the Internet.

As one player posted in a discussion group, "Maybe it's a problem that girls don't like to play games that slaughter entire planets. Maybe it's why we are still underpaid, still struggling, still fighting for our rights. Maybe if we had the mettle to take on an entire planet, we could fight some of the smaller battles we face every day."

But a look at the numbers confirms that pink software satisfies an enormous need; according to PC Data, girl games' sales increased by 250 percent from 1996 to1997, while overall software game sales went up only 22 percent. With that many girls getting wired that quickly, girl games clearly have their commercial benefits, even if they reinforce the same tired gender divisions found in the toy world.

For the most part, girl games are toys in drag: The technology is "male," but the pastel content has been dragged wholesale out of Toys 'R' Us. Still, the difference between pink software designers and toy manufacturers is that some of the former, successfully or not, indulge a social vision of what girls can be -- not what they've always been.

"With time," write the editors of "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat," "we expect that, by pushing at both ends of the spectrum of what girl games look like, a gender-neutral space may open up in the middle, a space that allows multiple definitions of girlhood and boyhood, and multiple types of interaction with computer games of all sorts."

What if the same philosophy informed the slow-to-evolve toy industry? I can see it now: a world of Tickle-Me-Zoes, gadget patch dolls and Wee Waffle sets where mothers not only drive the tractors, but also program the software.

By Margot Mifflin

Margot Mifflin is an assistant professor in the English Dept. at Lehman College/City University of New York. She is writing a biography of Olive Oatman called "The Blue Tattoo: The True Story of a Victorian 'Savage'."

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