Horror of horrors! Lego has introduced a new line of gender-specific toys aimed at girls. I might not even have become aware of the controversy had it not been a topic of discussion on the all-female PBS talk show "To the Contrary," on which I frequently appear. That we are still debating the pros and cons of allowing boys and girls to prefer different play choices says a great deal about the failure of the feminist movement.
Lego, which markets plastic building blocks for everything from "Star Wars" fighting vehicles to Egyptian pyramids, has now introduced a line aimed at young girls. The new toys include Butterfly Beauty Shop, Stephanie's Outdoor Bakery, and Olivia's House, all featuring recognizable girl figures with long hair and feminine outlines, unlike the squat, sexless figures that characterize many of the company's other building sets. More importantly, these toys depict girls engaging in traditionally female activities and roles: getting their hair done, baking, caring for children.
The company says that it has introduced the new line because of customer demand. Little girls (or their mothers) apparently aren't lining up to buy Lego's Fangpyre Wrecking Balls or Pirates of the Caribbean. But feminist critics say that the real motive is to reinforce gender stereotypes and limit little girls' aspirations.
In fact, it's the feminists who want to limit women's choices. Their message to girls and young women is: If you're not exactly like men, you don't believe in equal rights.
For much of the last 40 years, feminists have pushed to masculinize women. They have insisted that girls should want to become engineers, firefighters or athletes; that they should be as eager to engage in combat as men; that their careers should define them.
At the same time, feminists have taken on the task of feminizing males. Boys should not be afraid of playing with dolls; they should learn to play nice; they should cooperate rather than compete with others. Men should share child-rearing, cooking, cleaning. They should be sensitive, learn to share their feelings, and value their emotional side as much as their rational one.
The feminist influence on Hollywood has replaced as an icon of female beauty the voluptuous and feminine Marilyn Monroe with the gaunt, well-muscled Hilary Swank, while jettisoning the ruggedly male Clint Eastwood for the softly feminine Jake Gyllenhaal. Feminists have ensured that textbooks depict women as astronauts and fighter pilots and rewrite history to glorify the role of even minor female figures at the expense of eliminating major accomplishments by males.
But despite the feminist movement's almost complete success in refashioning the terms of the cultural debate, feminists have not been able to convince most little girls to want to play with starfighters and missile launchers.
Having been a mother to three boys, a grandmother to six more, and a grandmother to three girls, I know that sex differences in personality, likes and dislikes are usually present from birth. While boys' and girls' preferences range along a broad spectrum, rare is the little boy who doesn't like to build things and then smash them up, and rare is the little girl who is as interested in doing so -- especially the smashing-up part.
So why shouldn't a company that hopes to increase its market share take advantage of those differences? What's wrong with creating toys that'll have an appeal to customers who want to bake cupcakes and have their hair and nails done?
As long as we don't tell girls they should never choose the action figure over the princess or tell boys that they must play with guns and not dolls, we're not cutting off options for either gender. Real choice entails letting individuals -- even young ones -- gravitate toward what they want, not what ideologues wish them to prefer.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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