Because that’s what women do: the dangers of stereotypes in kids’ toys

I’ve found some troubling gender stereotypes in the Playmobil range of toys. I love Playmobil: I had lots of their toys as a kid, and still enjoy them with my niece and nephews. The toys are fun, robust, varied, and interchangeable.

5491_product_detailBut like many toys, their boxes portray worrying stereotypes. As I show in more detail below, Playmobil boxes are much more likely to show women than men looking after kids, and often depict women cooking, cleaning, shopping, or in caring/nurturing roles. And among the child Playmobil figures on the toy-boxes, it’s often the boy who is portrayed as independent and the girl who is being looked after.

Does this matter? Such stereotypes, in combination with similar stereotypes in adverts, TV programmes, computer games, and other toys, can influence some kids. True, real life often conforms to these stereotypes, but that is itself part of why we should challenge these stereotypes: if from an early age kids see women doing most childcare, for example, many people will have that same expectation later on. It’s how we end up with female political candidates being told that they aren’t fit for public office because they haven’t done their job of having children.

This is precisely why the hashtag #EverydaySexism is so important: the images we see and the words we use affect what we think and, sometimes, what we do.

Women buying handbags. Because that's what women do.

Women buying handbags. Because that’s what women do.

Here are the details of my test. After spotting the stereotypes a couple of days ago, yesterday I ran a search for ‘Playmobil City Life’ on, and looked at the first three pages only. I found 64 toys, of which 32 had gender stereotypes on the boxes and 32 did not. (There were a handful of Playmobil toys in other ranges, some with and some without gender stereotypes on the boxes; I haven’t listed these below.) These numbers are approximate: the judgement-calls were not always easy, so I’ve tried to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt where I can, although other people might code things a bit more or a bit less favourably to Playmobil. But the sheer number of boxes showing gender stereotypes is a concern.

Almost 100 adults were featured in total. 24 women were shown looking after children, cooking or cleaning, compared to only 11 men looking after children or cooking (and the one man cooking is cooking on a barbecue, of course). Women are shown shopping or going to the beauty salon 9 times, while 0 men do the same (but 1 man brings flowers to a woman – groan). Only 3 woman have an ‘action’ role, compared to 9 men, and in each case the woman’s role is less action-based than the men on the same toy-box: the female co-pilot is outside the airplane (the male pilot is in the pilot’s seat), the female Coast Guard worker is a lookout (the male Coast Guard workers are either in charge or doing the rescuing), and the female rescue-boat worker has a nurturing role (doctor) whereas the male rescue-boat workers do the rescuing. Many kids won’t pick up these subtleties, but some surely will.


A woman looks after two boys and a girl. The boys do active things by themselves, the girl needs help.

Even the portrayals of children on the toy-boxes are sometimes biased: I counted 5 toy-boxes where boys were portrayed as independent while girls were shown being helped by an adult.

Thankfully, there are equal numbers of women and men being portrayed caring for animals or working as vets: 5 women, 5 men. I counted 8 cases of women and 9 cases of men in fairly neutral jobs (e.g. waiter). And I counted 7 women and 5 men in leisure situations (e.g. sunbathing, dog-walking). So, I’m only claiming that the stereotypes are common, not universal.

(There might be a bias in the above numbers, by the way, if Amazon has put the most popular toys to the top of the list and toys with stereotyped boxes are bought more often. So, at some point I may have to test the complete sets on the Playmobil website.)

In summary, then, a lot of the toy-boxes are fine, but a lot are not – more than half, on my count. The simplest solution would be for Playmobil to vary their depictions of women and men for new toys. They could perhaps repackage some of the existing toys. They needn’t change everything: it’d be crazy not to depict some women looking after kids. But we need more boxes depicting more varied gender roles, among adults and to some extent the kids too. And I haven’t even touched on ethnicity (nearly everyone in the City Life series is white) or age (there were almost no old people portrayed). I discuss the problems with those and other stereotypes here.

Here are the specific toys I found in the test described above, listed in the (more…)

A bit of Bentham comedy

I did my second standup comedy routine in July, on Jeremy Bentham – here is a short clip.

I particularly enjoyed this performance because Bentham’s body is kept at UCL, where the set was filmed; there’s a cheery rivalry between UCL and my university, KCL.

Adrian Blau Bentham standupHere is a link to my first set, about Benjamin Franklin, from May 2015.

The next of these ‘History Showoff’ standup comedy nights is on 7 October 2015 at the Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross; I shall be enjoying this as a member of the audience only! See here for more details and to book tickets, which cost £6.60; profits go to charity.

New DPE students: welcome to King’s College London!

Critical ThinkingIf you’re joining the Department of Political Economy (DPE) as a new undergraduate student in September 2015: welcome!

I’m one of your lecturers, and here are two (optional) preparatory readings you might find helpful, for two different modules which I convene.

4SSPP101 Studying Politics

Studying Politics is a core module taken by all students on the Politics programme and the Political Economy programme. It’s designed to empower you to think rigorously and critically about the politics research you’ll read at university. Reading 1 is the first 20 pages of Jon Elster’s book Explaining Social Behavior (2007), which gives a great sense of how to think like a social scientist. One of the most important things you’ll learn at university is the importance of thinking like a researcher, not just like a student. We want to encourage you to criticise what you read, not just make notes on it. To be critical, you will need to understand the choices that researchers make and what they could have done differently – and we will give you the tools to do this.

Students on the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme don’t take this module – but you’ll still find Elster’s article interesting and useful if you want to read it, because the ideas in it apply to other modules you’ll take.

Academic Writing Skills

This is an optional module offered to all students taking the Politics programme, the Political Economy Programme, the PPE programme, and the Politics, Philosophy and Law (PPL) programme. My department is the first in the university to run a term-long course like this. It gives you guidance on how to write better university essays. Reading 2 gives a lot of practical advice about studying at university, including the important of not being too trusting about what your lecturers and seminar tutors say! (We expect you to be critical of us, not just of what you read, of each other, and of yourselves.) Especially if you’re a bit worried or unsure about what to expect at uni, this chapter will give you a flavour of studying politics at university.

Looking forward to meeting you in September!

Start the sentence at the start

A common writing mistake is to keep a key part of the sentence to the end. This makes it hard to see what is going on; often one must read the sentence twice to understand it. Here’s an example from today’s Guardian, discussing Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

Internationally he has made the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, on Vietnam with America, for example) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations a distant memory.

Writing Mistake2The sentence is hard to grasp first time because “made” and “a distant memory” are so far apart. Only by the end of the sentence is its meaning clear. A simple change improves clarity:

Internationally he has made a distant memory of the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, with America on Vietnam) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations.

As I have discussed before, the principle is: make the verb work. Celia Elliott’s guide has many tips and examples.

But even the revised sentence is a bit awkward. I’d probably rephrase it further:

He has made us forget the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and of the United Nations, and the Canada that stood up to Britain on Suez, and America on Vietnam.

Getting rid of comments in brackets usually improves sentences too!

Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy

I’m part of a symposium of reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the journal Perspectives on Political Science (vol. 44 no. 3, 2015). This is a two-part symposium, with Melzer responding to the reviews in the second part, in the forthcoming issue. The first part of the symposium has contributions from a variety of authors:


  • Francis Fukuyama drives a further wedge between Strauss and silly criticisms of his alleged effect on US foreign policy;
  • Michael Frazer asks if some philosophers writing about esotericism actually did so esoterically;
  • Adrian Blau challenges some of Melzer’s evidence as well as what appear to be false dichotomies between esoteric/non-esoteric and literal/non-literal readings of texts – click here for a summary of my views and a copy of my article;
  • Douglas Burnham questions the idea of ‘historicism’ and asks how well Nietzsche fits this category;
  • Rob Howse questions Melzer’s evidence about the relationship between persecution and esotericism;
  • Miguel Vatter makes further distinctions between types and aims of esotericism;
  • in separate pieces, Norma Thompson, Catherine/Michael Zuckert, Larry Arnhart, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers and Peter Augustine Lawler each develop different aspects of the account of ancient versus modern esotericism/society.