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.
But 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.
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 Amazon.co.uk, 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.
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 order I found them on Amazon. Click on any of the pictures below to see them expanded. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with any individual box with stereotypes: women often do look after kids. It’s the collective effect of stereotyped boxes that is the problem.
Shopping Centre – a man selling ice creams, a woman with a child, and four other women shopping. Because that’s what women do. Also features a bridal gown store. Because the aim of women is to get married and have kids.
Large Furnished Hotel – a woman helps a baby, a woman cleans up a hotel room, a man has food brought to him by a male waiter, a boy plays by himself, a woman at hotel reception is served by another woman.
Vets Horse with X-Ray Technician – probably no problem here: a male vet and X-ray technician. I’ll give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt here, but there’s a part of me that worries that Playmobil wouldn’t make a female X-ray technician.
Swimmers With Dinghy – a woman is rowing the dinghy, but it’s the girl wearing water-wings and staying in the boat, while the same-aged boy goes swimming. Again, the boy is shown as being more independent than the girl.
Children’s Club with Disco – probably no problem here: two kids dance in a disco, with a woman running the show. (I’ve interpreted this as her being in charge rather than looking after the kids, to give Playmobil the benefit of the doubt.)
Rescue Boat with Water Hose – two men and a woman on a rescue boat. Guess which one is the doctor? Hmmm, do you think it might be the woman? Yes. Because men do the rescuing while women do the caring/nurturing, obviously.
Life Raft – a man, a woman, a boy, a girl. Guess the gender of the kid who is swimming alone and the gender of the kid whose hand is being held? And guess the gender of the parent holding the kid’s hand? Sigh.
Cargo and Passenger Jet – no real problem here: male pilot and female co-pilot (not perfect, but I’m trying to be even-handed – and let’s face it, 99% of actual airline pilots are male, so a female Playmobil co-pilot is actually more progressive than reality), female passenger/businessperson, male control-tower operator, male airport worker.
My Big City Zoo – no major problem here: a man helps a toddler in a pram, a woman helps a kid, a girl plays, a man and a woman both feed the animals. But it’s the man who feeds the lions, the woman who feeds the penguins.
Playground – oh dear oh dear oh dear. A woman pushes a stroller/buggy, a woman helps a kid on a slide, and three kids of different genders play by themselves – but guess the gender of the kid on a skateboard and the kid standing on a bench by his bike? Both boys.
Ferris Wheel with Lights (see here for the close-up – the Amazon picture is obscured) – probably no problem here: the mother is in the Ferris Wheel with the daughter, while the father is giving a ticket to the son. I’m a touch worried that it’s the girl who needs shepherding in the Ferris Wheel.
Finally, here are six screenshots of my search, so you can see that I’m not cheating with the toys I included or excluded:
P.S. Since we’re on the subject of stereotypes, yes of course I know that I’m making stereotyped assumptions about what men and women look like, and I’m conforming to a male/female binary. So I’m not pretending to be above such stereotypes myself.