Thursday, December 22, 2011

Individualism vs. Collectivism: The Toy Edition

My last few posts have centered on the controversy surrounding Lego's forthcoming Lego Friend line. Many, many people have taken to Lego's Facebook page to voice their concern over the messages this new line sends to little girls. 

I appreciate debate and nuance, so I'm glad to see some in the comments on the Lego page. Some people are out and out bashing Lego's decision. Some people are saying that they've always loved Lego, and they're disappointed with this move. Some people are happy that their girls will have options because they felt they didn't before. Then there are people who are defending Lego's decision on the grounds that managing toy purchases should be the parents' responsibility--not the toy manufacturer's. 

For example, here's a post from Lego's Facebook wall:
I can't believe the comments some people are leaving on this page. The last time I checked, LEGO never put a gun to anyone's head and MADE them purchase pink LEGOs. If you want to buy your little girl the regular LEGOs, than DO IT!! You can also buy your girl a football and I doubt anyone would give a rat's rear-end.
Other versions of this same sentiment came up on Margot Magowan's letter to Lego, which was posted on SFGate. For example:
Dear Margot,
Perhaps you should take responsibility for raising your own children instead of expecting plastic toys like Legos and Barbie to do it for your.

Margo - I know it's very hard thing for someone like you with a holier than thou attitude - but people are allowed to make choices in their lives.
Who are you to say that this isn't a toy that a girl might actually like and play with?
If you don't like this set - here's a very simple solution for you - there are THOUSANDS of differents lego sets out there - buy the ones that you want your daughter to play with!
Let people who might actually like this set buy it for their children. 
These comments are interesting to me, and I think that they get at a fundamental debate between individualism and collectivism, a debate that surfaces again and again everywhere: literature, politics, philosophy, medicine--really, everywhere. 

The people responding so vehemently against the protesters are responding from a place of individualism. They believe that it is up to the individual parent to make a decision for his/her individual child. No collective voice should have a say in which toys get created. Every person has the right to make his/her purchase. 

The people protesting the new Lego line (and I am among them) are doing so out of a collectivist mentality. We see that the collective impact of a toy goes beyond individual purchasing decisions and into the market as a whole. We see marketing as an influential factor in cultural decisions, which in turn are influential factors in how we view ourselves and others. 

I do understand the individualist perspective, and I even--to some extent--wish I could embrace it. It would be a lot easier for me to only have to worry about the toys that I hand my child (or the shows that I let her see, or the music that I let her listen to, etc.) 

But that's not the case. 

Media and culture exist in a never-ending loop. Culture is reflected in the media (a pop star wears a revealing top in her video because culture has dictated that it's sexy), but the media is also reflected back into culture (the teenager who watched that video then buys more revealing clothes the next time she's shopping because she wants to capture the allure of her favorite pop star). So, people create media, but media also creates people, who then go on to create media, which in turn creates people, who then . . . you get the idea. 

We don't exist in isolation. We exist as a collective society--or, more accurately, collective societies. We each belong to many, many groups and we manage (sometimes with ease, sometimes without) to maneuver multiple overlapping roles at any given time. 

What does this have to do with toys?

Every time I see someone say "Just buy your daughter the toys you want and leave the rest of us alone!" I get a little flustered. 

See, I am not the only influencing factor in my daughter's life--and I shouldn't be. She is going to be influenced by a whole bunch of things: friends, television, billboards, mannequins, radio, extended family, childcare providers, school, movies, books, magazines, toys, clothes, songs, podcasts, blogs, newspapers, etc. It doesn't matter if I only buy stereotype-free books and toys, never let her watch the television, and carefully screen every movie before I show it to her. The messages get through anyway because I am not--and should not be--the only influence in her life. 

So, I will do my best to limit negative messages that I give my daughter directly, but that obviously is going to get harder as she gets older and has more freedom to consume media on her own. And I hope that the tools I've given her in media literacy leave her well equipped to handle that. Those are things I do as an individual. 

At the same time, I have a responsibility to be an influential factor in the society I inhabit as well.

It's not as simple as just buying the less gendered Lego set for my daughter and calling it a day. She's going to see commercials for the Lego Friends or hear her friends at school talk about their Lego sets and she's going to know. She's going to see the Lego Friends website that says "Lego for Girls."

If Lego Friends are the "Lego for Girls," this sets up a binary. The rest of the Lego sets are now not for girls. Suddenly, my daughter is playing with the "wrong" Lego set. And what is the "right" Lego set? The one with curvy hips and breasts. The one that's pink and purple. The one that includes characters who have one-dimensional pre-set identities like "pet lover" and "the smart one." These are damaging messages, and whether I intentionally send them to my daughter or not, every single time a company decides to market their products through these lenses, they're creating a culture that sends my daughter (and my future sons, if I have any) that message--in ways subtle and overt--over and over again. 

Finally, I want to address a few comments I've seen that call the protesters attempts to persuade Lego into taking a different marketing route "censorship." We are not trying to "censor" Lego. We are acting as ethical consumers. I am telling Lego what I will buy and what I won't buy. And when a company does something really egregious, I won't buy anything they make. I work hard for my money, and I don't throw it at businesses that don't share my values. That is not censorship. In fact, that's an individual decision that just happens to have a collective aim, and when a lot of individuals make that same decision, we move toward a collective goal. That's consumer responsibility in action. 

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