Feminist Aspie

“And now, for a limited time only, we’re going to treat you like full human beings!”

on August 31, 2014

If you’ve vaguely been able to access the internet in the past couple of months, you’ll probably have heard that, following pressure from consumers including an online petition, Lego decided to acknowledge that female scientists exist and that more generally women can do things other than shopping. Shocking, I know. [sarcasm] Now, I’d like to note at this point that representation isn’t solely a Lego problem; be it on TV, in film, in books and comics, in video games, in toys like Lego, everywhere, the only people that seem to be given constant and thorough representation are white, abled, cis, heterosexual men. Of course, the rest of us do feature to various extents, but only within narrow, same-y stereotypes and often sidelined into supporting roles. And if there is any decent, diverse, multi-dimensional representation of anyone else, it’s a special exception that’s supposed to magically fix everything. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the question “why are there no characters in [insert groups here]” answered with “BUT WHAT ABOUT [insert one or two characters in that group here]”. And if you’re in more than one marginalised group, the problem becomes much, much worse. Sometimes, for instance, people will say something like “seriously, what do you want, a disabled lesbian of colour?” and it’s very telling that the very idea of this is seen as ridiculous. It shouldn’t be, it should be normal, because (for example) disabled lesbians of colour are real and exist, and should therefore be portrayed as such.

Why is it that one fairly narrow group of people can be represented literally everywhere as a “normal” default, whilst everyone else is “other” and has to make do with one or two exceptional characters because any more than that is “overkill” or “political correctness gone too far”?

Anyway, back to Lego’s line of female scientists. Amidst the fantastic response, and resulting publicity and sales, to acknowledging that female scientists exist and that women can do things other than shopping, Lego neglected to mention that, as brilliantly reported here by Margot Magowan, the set was only ever intended to be a limited edition. I tweeted that article the other day, and I don’t know what’s happened to cause this but yesterday it seemed to take off – thanks for all the replies, and I’m really sorry I neglected my Twitter account for too long to properly go through them all! However, I noticed quite a few tweets pointing out that Lego sets and the like are created and discontinued all the time, with the implication that, as this doesn’t seem to be deliberate, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

Well, it is a big deal. Because women are not limited edition; women are not special exceptions.

Ideally, all genders would be represented in diverse roles on a level playing field, and when a female-centred set is discontinued, it wouldn’t be an issue because there would be loads of others on the market, and it’s almost certain to be replaced eventually. Instead, the default is male, which is why the line of female scientists was received so well in the first place, and this is why discontinuing the set is a big deal; it’s discontinuing one of the very few positive examples of female representation. Yes, this Lego set was part of a fan competition and was therefore always intended to be limited edition, but that doesn’t make it okay either. Firstly, funnily enough the “limited edition” part was swept under the carpet when everyone was singing Lego’s praises for actually acknowledging women exist. Secondly, women shouldn’t have to rely on fan-competition input to be positive represented in just one non-stereotyped set. As I said above, this set being limited edition wouldn’t be a problem if women were given decent representation equal to that of men in the first place.

Having positive representation of women and other marginalised groups only as limited edition, only on special occasions, furthers the idea of anyone but white abled cis heterosexual men as an exception from the (white, abled, cis, heterosexual, male) “norm”. Taking the credit for such great representation whilst planning to quietly remove it furthers the idea that such sporadic, limited, occasional positive representation is enough. It isn’t. It really isn’t.

Men should not be default. Women should not be an occasional limited edition rarity.

A petition to reinstate the aforementioned Lego set can be found here.

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5 responses to ““And now, for a limited time only, we’re going to treat you like full human beings!”

  1. Heidi Street says:

    I’ve nominated you for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award!
    http://hjstreet.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/sisterhood-of-the-world-bloggers-award/
    Have a read and follow the instructions!

  2. Alex says:

    “Why is it that one fairly narrow group of people can be represented literally everywhere as a “normal” default, whilst everyone else is “other” and has to make do with one or two exceptional characters because any more than that is “overkill” or “political correctness gone too far”?”

    Because of the people who make these shows in the first place. They aren’t used to meeting and getting to know people who are in a minority, and don’t know what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed group even if they do. The roles are always supporting characters because they’re supporting characters in their own lives. If you’re white, the black people you meet will always be your black friend, not your black mother or your black uncle (unless you have an unusual, multi-ethnic family). When the people who make these shows are criticised for not including any “x” people on their show, they feel they’re doing it more or less to prove they aren’t -ist. And if they aren’t familiar with certain minorities or people living in different places to them, or women who choose unusual jobs, or they decide to make a show on a profession that they don’t know about, they end up resorting to stereotypes and clichés because they don’t really know what’s going on.

    People don’t question the “black disabled lesbian” issue because they feel these are “oppressed communities” or “minority groups” that they can just put into boxes rather than be complicated like actual people, and also because, to them, they feel that every effort they take to represent people won’t be good enough for audiences – “why did you miss out _ group [which the producer/screenwriter has never even considered]?”

    No-one seems to question the elephant in the room, which is how these people got to become the mainstream filmmakers, tv-show runners etc. in the first place. If your own life is too colloquial for audiences to identify with, then in theory someone else should be there to address the balance. Instead, certain people are given the privilege of representing the entire scope of what could come up.

    Another possible reason is that there is a somewhat “normal” default. These kinds of programs are geared towards mainstream audiences – not everybody, but mostly-body. This means if you are physically disabled, autistic, trans, intersex, or have a chronic illness, you won’t fit into that category unless someone can use it as a plot point. It means that if you live in Europe, the majority of characters will be white. But this doesn’t explain why women are still explained away as stereotypes – that’s more due to the industries themselves. Gay people are a bit of a hard-to-define category: there are a lot of gay people out there, but society still seems to view heterosexuality as the norm.

  3. Alex says:

    As for the female scientist range – well, I don’t know. It’s ridiculous to just have shopping for the female Lego, but I get the impression that science is quite a masculine field in real life. But perhaps if Lego continues to show female scientists, it will have an impact on how STEM fields are perceived in real life and more women will be interested in getting jobs in science and will be better received in them. If not, they could still extend their range to cover businesswomen or the civil service or other jobs which are currently common for women to be involved in.

  4. Alex says:

    “The roles are always supporting characters because they’re supporting characters in their own lives”

    Just to clarify: I don’t believe black people are magical negroes in white people’s lives. They have as much to contribute as a white friend. But even a close white friend is often a supporting character in someone’s life – not a family member and certainly not the main character.

    I hope I’m not digging myself into a hole here, or that anyone who reads this thinks I’m racist. Especially if they know me. Or they’re black, and they know me.

  5. Alex says:

    *Or a close black friend* Damn, I am digging myself into a hole. I’m bad at this. I think I find it difficult to get across what I wish to say, or maybe I’m not entirely sure myself.

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