Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer Catalogs 2011: What's Wrong With This Picture?

I don’t know what my mail carrier thought when he delivered a Victoria’s Secret and a Fisher-Price summer toy catalog to me last week, but I can tell you my reaction: this is outrageous. And, that’s what I said flipping through the one from Fisher-Price.

Actually, the one from Victoria didn’t make it into my house. Something about it seemed ridiculously out of touch with what I was looking for in a swimming suit this year. But after looking through what I thought was the innocuous toy catalog, I had a similar thought: this is not for me. And, more to the point: I don’t want my girls to see this.

What would they think looking at the photos in the Shop-at-Home Summer 2011 catalog? The first nine pages are devoted to images of boys playing with Cars (mostly Disney PIXAR Cars 2) and the accessories designed for them. After the cars, we get to an entirely male cast of Rescue Heroes, and eventually a golf tee, basketball hoop, soccer net, and batting tee, shown in the photographs to be used exclusively by boys.

In case you think I’ve just got too much time on my hands and have a chip (the homemade chocolate cookie kind) on my shoulder that is filtering my view, head to pages 26 and 27. We find mirror images of the separate worlds of role-playing featuring the “Grow-With-Me Workshop” used by two boys opposite the “Grow-with-Me Kitchen” photographed with, you guessed it, two children who are not boys.

The back half of the catalog put girls in the spotlight, along with the Grand Dollhouse, Beach Vacation Mobile Home, and pink and teal Little Mommy set for the pint-sized caretaker of multiples, complete with double stroller, duo highchair, and diaper bag.

I know a lot of boys who love cars. I know a lot of girls (my own included) who like to put dolls in bassinets and toss a toy banana and eggplant into a bowl on a mini kitchen stove and call it soup.

But these kids show interest and potential to do a lot more, too.

So, the question is not, “Why did Fisher-Price make this catalog (and some of its toys) the way it did?” But, “Why did it not choose the alternative?”

Why not have a girl somewhere in the nine pages devoted to Cars 2?

Why not have a woman Rescue Hero?

Why not show a girl using the golf tee, the basketball hoop, the soccer net, or the batting tee and why not show a boy making something in the toy kitchen or playing with a dollhouse?

In his blog post, A Teachable Moment? Cars in the Crosshairs Could Lead to a Life Lesson on the Huffington Post, Adam Benson wrote about seeing a trailer for Cars 2 on iTunes with his young son, a huge fan of Lightning McQueen. He was, he said, surprised by the amount of violence shown in the preview of the sequel but understood Disney/Pixar’s desire to keep up with the expectations of the now older audience of children who first saw the movie in 2006.

It would be great if the makers of the movie used their influence to present an “explanation or disclaimer for kids,” saying responsible gun use is a serious matter. But Benson does not put the burden of the responsibility on the movie makers alone. Explaining violence in movies or in the newspapers is his job as a parent: both he and the movie makers have an opportunity for a teachable moment.

I admired Benson’s broadminded approach to the dilemma.

So, perhaps I could enlist it as I ponder the messages within the Fisher-Price catalog which were, once I looked closely, not radically different from the ones in the Sensational Beginnings mailing that arrived around the same time. Its cover shows a boy relaxing in an Adirondak holding a toy pita wrap. Interestingly, the only people shown shopping for groceries (Metal Shopping Cart, $59.95) standing near a Red Vintage Kitchen while talking on the phone ($165.95) cleaning up (Silly Sam Broom and Dustpan, $19.95) or who have any connection to assembling that toy pita, are young girls.

Pottery Barn Kids, of course, sells gender-divided decor, the intensity of which once prompted my six year old to ask if girls were “allowed” to like Spider Man, too, but their catalog is less disturbing for one significant reason: it shows school aged girls and boys actually playing together.

In the entire Fisher-Price catalog that happens once, over a fake camp fire and some plastic marshmallows and franks.

Learning from Benson’s perspective, I could use that catalog to tell my daughters that its images are of a divided world of play based on sex-role stereotypes, ones I hope they feel free from limiting themselves to. That we actually live in a much more exciting world in which women can become mothers if they want and also race car drivers or rescue workers and men can become fathers as well as lactation specialists and cookbook authors.

Last September, Fisher-Price recalled more than ten million products because of safety concerns. Even in my most cynical moments, I never thought the problems were deliberate.

I don’t feel the same way about the messages in the summer toy catalog. And they seem at odds with the company’s own creed to provide, “Ingenuity. Inspiration. Innovation.”

Thirty-one years ago, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. Magazine and a co-creator of Free to Be...You and Me wrote in her book Growing Up Free about an experiment done in the 1970’s with preschoolers. They were shown a picture of a “...female telephone line worker on a pole with a bird upside down on the telephone wire nearby. When asked to specify what part of the picture was “not O.K” almost twice as many children mentioned only the woman line worker as mentioned only the upside-down bird.”

These kids, she concluded, were raised to believe a “...woman in a nonmothering role is not O.K..It’s worse than an upside down world.”

Which makes me think the Summer 2011 catalog is selling a mythology about children’s potential and many parents’ hopes that is, when you consider it, a giant step back.

And that is what I see as “not O.K..”


Tim Morrissey said...

Things haven't changed much since our kids were born in the 80's: girls can't be doctors and boys can't be nurses. It's depressing to know these gender stereotypes still exist.

Not even an image of Danica Patrick in the "boys-only" Cars 2 section of the catalog? Or of Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen in the "girls-only" section?

Ann Imig said...

It's really infuriating. Great post though.

jcp said...

how frustrating! this stuff is so deeply ingrained. my one thought is to voice displeasure by cancelling the offending catalog.

Houston! said...

This is something that has bothered me since I was a nanny back in the early nineties. It astounds me that marketing hasn't moved past the 1950s. A friend of mine used to go through stores and put post-it notes on images (the Land o'Lakes butter Indian woman comes to mind) that said "this image is offensive and outdated." I might revive that idea this's so pervasive.