Archive for January, 2012

Speaking of gender roles

Oh, Dora, I remember when you were young and spent all of your time exploring and avoiding Swiper with Map, Backpack, and Boots. Of course, everybody has to grow up sooner or later, but I had hoped that when you got older your adventures would continue. It seems, however, that your most recent adventure is focused on the kitchen. There isn’t anything wrong with being able to cook, but I am concerned that you are expected to provide all of the food at the picnics, birthdays, and barbeques that you have with your friends and family. Why isn’t Diego helping? You can be so much more! Just look how happy construction made this girl!

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Becoming an uncle was great until I went to the store to buy a 3-month old child some clothes for Christmas. While I’ve talked in class about gender differences in children’s toys and clothing these issues became even more infuriating as I attempted to find gender-neutral clothing in a children’s store. The “boys'” side of the store consisted almost entirely of dark colored clothing while the “girls'” side was nearly all pink, violet, or white (The Society Pages has an overview of research analyzing how these colors became a part of the zeitgeist). As if this weren’t enough, many of the clothes featured writing indicating that the child was “Grandpa’s little princess” or “Mommy’s little man” or similarly inane statements, which made it more difficult to buy clothes in colors beyond what was intended for each gender.

Discussing this experience with my mom, she noted that when I was born there were two major things that set children’s clothing apart from what exists today: most parents did not know the sex of their child beforehand and many parents actively avoided gender stereotypes in toys and clothing. Thinking about this, it makes sense that some parents who had grown up with the feminist movement in the ’60s were opposed to placing their children in gender-specific boxes in the ’70s and ’80s. Many children of the ’70s and ’80s, on the other hand, appear to have no problem reintroducing the stereotypes that their own parents avoided. It will be interesting to see how the “princess” generation views gender in twenty years. This little girl (that it seems everybody in the world has seen) suggests that they might not be okay with these boxes after all.

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A recent post by D.B. Grady at The Atlantic criticizes the ad campaign for Modern Warfare 3, the latest in Activision’s hugely successful Call of Duty video game series. In part, it reads:

The advertisement trivializes combat and sanitizes war. If this were September 10, 2001, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad. Those who are too young to remember Vietnam might indulge in combat fantasies of resting heart rates while rocket-propelled grenades whiz by, and of flinty glares while emptying a magazine into the enemy. But after ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities, did nobody involved in this commercial raise a hand and say, “You know, this is probably a little crass. Maybe we could just show footage from the game.”

Responding to this, Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica notes that the problem isn’t with the advertising but with the game itself:

For gamers, there is nothing new or striking about how the ad shows war, because that’s the way the game shows war: we wear the skin of a soldier and take part in armed conflict as if it were a thrill ride. We design our in-game avatars, and we virtually kill people in locations based on the real world, with dramatic music and a presentation that seems to tell us the game is a very serious thing. All the while, we’re cheering on our kill-streaks and laughing as bodies fly hither and yon. From the outside looking in, or if you’re not familiar with war games, it is a very disturbing way to spend your free time.

The imagery used in the ad may be shocking to non-gamers, but the ad itself isn’t the problem. The popularity of this sanitized, no-consequences form of virtual war is what should have critics talking. Activision didn’t have to create a commercial to sell millions of copies of Modern Warfare 3, the game would have been a monstrous hit without this commercial; gamers have been drowning themselves in pixelated bloodshed and gleeful violent for decades.

When we discuss ways that the media leads to desensitization it is important to remember which medium is leading the charge. Increasingly, this medium is video games. This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy violent games any more than we shouldn’t enjoy The Bourne Identity, but I think it does mean that the dialog surrounding these games needs to mature so that we can think critically about their effects.


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