LEGO Friends’ Friendly Sexism

Philosophical arguments for feminism originate with Plato (circa 428348 вс), who claimed in his Republic that women can and should be trained to rule.8 However, Plato remained an exception. Almost 2000 years passed before philosophers took up the cause again.9 The first book-length work in feminist philosophy was written by Mary Woll- stonecraft (1759-1797), who argued that the upbringing of women, based on a self-image dictated by the typically male perspective, created their limited expectations. Contrary to popular thought at the time, Wollstonecraft claimed that women were as capable of rational thinking as men and therefore should receive proper education in the use of their reason.

Wollstonecraft observed that not all discrimination takes the form of explicit oppression. There is also a kind of “friendly sexism” practiced by men who adore women, but view them as beautiful “playthings” or princesses, whom they revere but do not take seriously. Since LEGO does not seem to intend malevolent discrimination with Friends, the sexism we find in this theme is of this friendly kind. The Friends are, of course, literally play-things. The range of activities that the sets are designed for is something that Wollstonecraft would probably take issue with: what the Friends can do is rather limited, confined to being pretty and playful in a house-bound world without challenge and adventure.10

Friendly sexism was not the main concern of historic feminist arguments, for the obvious reason that women did not even have the same rights as men for a long time. The case for equal gender rights came from philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1973). Supported by his intellectual companion (later his wife) Harriet Taylor (1807-1958), Mill wrote The Subjection of Women. He observed something that is true but highly disappointing, namely that mere argument is not enough to convince people in cases when “there is a mass of feeling to be contended against.” If an argument rests “solely on feeling, the worse it fares in the argumentative context, the more persuaded its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach.”11 Social psychologists today make similar observations, as we shall see.

Thus, the feminist activism at the end of the nineteenth century was necessary to establish basic rights for women such as the rights to vote, study, and work. The conundrum is, however, that women have not closed the gap. They are still underrepresented in many fields: for example, in academia, politics, and STEM jobs. If the coercive barriers are gone, what is keeping women from succeeding in these fields? Maybe girls and boys are just naturally different?

At the bottom of these questions lies the “nature or nurture” debate: determining whether gender differences are inherent (fixed by genes or brain structure) or largely produced and nurtured by the social environment. If you believe in natural differences, you are not alone. Even many modern parents who take themselves to be open-minded and free of sexism think along these lines. They cannot help but observe that girls are drawn to playing with dolls, decorating, and shopping. Boys, on the other hand seem to be more aggressive, outspoken, and adventurous. If this gendering does not come from parenting, it must come from nature, they conclude. However, the “nurturers” object, the fact that something is persistent does not entail that it is rooted in nature. We may need to look in our unconscious—into what Mill called the “deeper ground.”

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