Friday, February 24, 2012

picking the shorts

With the Oscars ceremony just two days away, it's time once again to offer up some thoughts on the Academy Award-nominated films! This year I'm going to focus on the three categories of short films: live action, animated, and documentary. I've been increasingly drawn to the shorts in recent years, and I wish they could be given more exposure. That said, it's great to know there's been significant effort on the part of Shorts International, which coordinates licensing rights, to get the films onto as many movie screens as possible in the weeks before Oscar night. (They're also mostly available on iTunes and through various video-on-demand systems.) If you have a chance to check them out, do! If not, at least my picks should help you out in your Oscar pool...


Should win: Tuba Atlantic
When a curmudgeonly old Norwegian living on the rocky North Atlantic coast finds out he has only six days to live, he receives a visit from a "death angel," a young woman charged with seeing him through his final days. In the days that follow, she manages to coax from him the secret behind the mysterious giant tuba he's built next to his house. I loved this film for being at once quirky, funny, and tender. I hope it wins!

Will win: Time Freak The live action short subjects are always extremely varied: you have foreign films mixed with more home-grown material, and the topics range from super-dramatic to highly comedic or otherwise in-your-face. In recent years the Academy voters seem to have gone with more upbeat American pickings in this category. That would describe 2011's Time Freak, a cute film about a Brooklyn man who decides to use his time machine to relive events from his very recent past. I won't be completely surprised if the voters decide to go for something more dramatic this year, but I'm calling Time Freak as the favorite.


Should win: Saving Face
In many ways, this short documentary is not easy to watch. It tells of the horrific trend in South Asia in which abusive men—often with the help of their families—maim women and girls with corrosive acid. It's impossible not to be affected by the damaged faces of some of the women shown in the film, but the point here is that this isn't some made up tale; these attacks have become an accepted part of the male-dominated cultures in which they occur. Stepping in to help is a Pakistani-born plastic surgeon who, like the rest of us, cannot fathom how such horror could be perpetuated in his home country. The film follows several of the victims he treats and documents new legal challenges to the penal codes for men accused in such attacks. As unlikely as it seems, there's a bright ending to Saving Face, which is eye-opening in more ways than one.

Will win: Saving Face This is a tough category this year. Much ado has been made about the Iraq War short Incident in New Baghdad, which details the now infamous 2007 helicopter shootings of unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists through the eyes of one of the American soldiers on the ground, Ethan McCord. McCord has apparently received death threats for appearing in the film, in which he recounts his experience and expresses deep reservations about the Iraq mission and the American military in general. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is another powerful film about the complete destruction of one Japanese city in the wake of last year's tsunami disaster, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that one come away with the statuette. But the Academy seems to have a soft spot for "hopeful intervention" short docs, and this year's offering on that front is a great one, so I'm going with Saving Face.


Should win: Wild Life
I loved this rare bird of a film, which tells the story of a Briton who transplants himself to the Canadian frontier. The unusual duck-out-of-water story is supported by gorgeous animation, which comes off like a moving painting. Add to this the fact the protagonist's plight is compared throughout the film to that of a comet, and you've got a winner in my eyes.

Will win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore It's difficult to summarize this tale, which takes cues from both The Wizard of Oz and Fantasia. At its core, The Fantastic Flying Books... is a heartwarming story of a man in search of himself. The film reminds us all of the power of literature and of the tendency of fictional characters to enter our lives and become our friends. It's an imaginative piece that tugs at the heartstrings and is, in my view, the only real contender to take home the Oscar.

Monday, February 20, 2012

my dear lego, you are part of the problem

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past two months, you probably know that the Lego Group has been under attack for introducing a new brand of modular toys aimed exclusively at girls. The LEGO Friends line has set off a firestorm of criticism from parents and feminists everywhere for its tired gender stereotypes, and for the fact that it fails to address LEGO’s real gender problem: the blatant boy-centered marketing strategy it’s relied upon for the past several decades.

If LEGO’s executives are to be believed, they really, truly care about girls and are simply dumbfounded as to why they haven’t been more successful in reaching them. In this post I list five concrete ways in which LEGO could shift their focus to be more inclusive of girls—and less bound by stereotypes—without losing boys in the process. But first, I highly recommend you watch the following videos from Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian. These clips provide a helpful primer on what’s so frustrating about LEGO Friends, plus a brief history of how LEGO’s marketing has evolved into what it is today.

And now, I offer...

5 Ways To Make LEGO a More Girl-Friendly, Less Sexist Brand

1. Get some women on your management team.

I thought the recent announcement of Facebook’s all-male board of directors was bad...but at least I could take comfort in the fact that the company is managed by a highly visible female COO. So of course I was completely flabbergasted to find out that LEGO’s management team is all testosterone, all the time. Of the company’s 21 senior executive management positions, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM is currently held by a man. [LEGO's board of directors is composed of six men, one woman.] And you wonder why LEGO hasn’t figured girls out?? Let’s fix this overwhelming leadership imbalance, guys. Pronto.

2. Produce sets that give girls and women leading roles.

So many of LEGO’s sets today are made in conjunction with a movie or other Hollywood media brand. It’s a win-win for Hollywood producers and LEGO alike. But how many of those brands star girls or women in the lead role? Star Wars? Toy Story? Pirates of the Caribbean? The Lord of the Rings (available in LEGO this summer)? Hermione Grainger is a major character from the Harry Potter series, and there were a fair number of female minifigs incorporated with those sets, so I’ll give them that one. But still, in almost every franchise that LEGO has partnered with, females are secondary or sidekick characters at best. To be sure, this heavy male slant in children’s programming is a problem with Hollywood as a whole, not just with the famed brick-makers. (For an in-depth look at how girls and women are marginalized, sexualized, and stereotyped in family films, check out these studies by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.) And yet, LEGO could go a long way toward increasing its girl-friendly cred by creating sets and minifigs that mirror movies and shows featuring prominent leading ladies—like Avatar, Dora the Explorer, Spy Kids, and The Hunger Games.

3. More female figs, please.

Let’s forget LEGO Friends for a moment. The core identifying character of the LEGO world is and will always remain the minifigure. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a good amount of time sorting through minifig parts for various LEGO projects I’ve worked on. And it’s certainly nice to know that LEGO has way more female figs than it used to. But there’s been no doubt in my mind that the numbers aren’t close to being even. So I decided to do some counting...

In 2011’s The Cult of LEGO, authors John Baichtal and Joe Meno state that of 4,000 unique minifig designs produced since 1978, male-identified figs have outnumbered female-identified figs 18:1. Even I was a little surprised at this ratio, so I got in touch with Baichtal to inquire about his source. Long story short, while the sheer number of male figs produced probably vastly outweighs the number of females (since in some sets multiple copies are included of the same fig), I think the 18:1 ratio might be a little misleading.

One way to examine the gender balance of minifigs is to explore the stock of, an independent LEGO marketplace. BrickLink hosts thousands of sellers worldwide and offers not only full minifigs but millions of individual parts representing models produced throughout LEGO’s history. Baichtal and Meno counted minifig models available on BrickLink, but I'd argue that this may not accurately measure the true minifig gender balance. For one thing, many figs could conceivably be any gender. One reason for this is that, if they don’t have hair, many minifigs come with some sort of hat or helmet that obscures the face. Even if not, plenty of figs have gender-neutral faces, hair, and torsos.

I myself decided to looked at the archive of minifig heads to measure how many male faces there are compared with female or neutral faces. While more than one fig model could have been made with the same face, I found it easier to separate faces into distinct genders. So, here’s a little chart with my findigs. The ratio isn’t as shocking as 18:1, but it's still skewed quite significantly toward male-specific parts: I counted four male heads for every two neutrals and every one female.

Full-sized version available here.

So how do kids acquire minifigs? These days, you can buy some of them individually...though individual figs are packaged so that, for all but the most dedicated LEGO fans, a buyer doesn’t know which one she’s getting until she opens the bag. This is fine if you want a surprise and frustrating if you want to buy the minifig you most identify with—or to not get duplicate figs if you buy more than one. More maddening is the fact that while the ratio is getting slightly better, the series in which individual minifigs are released continue to include significantly more male-specific figs than female-specific figs.

Really, though, sets have become the norm, so unless you shop through a specialty Web store like BrickLink, you’ll get whichever figs come in a set—and the reality is that those remain predominantly male-focused. To be sure, not everything LEGO’s done in this area is bad. For example, the City Community Minifigure Set features images of a female construction worker, a female EMT, and a female police officer, all careers that play against stereotype. I saw at least one space set in stores recently with a female astronaut. But here’s another big problem: Whenever there’s only one minifig included in a set, it’s invariably a male. Would it be so hard to include one extra part, a female head, and show the female version clearly on the box of every set? Or, if one extra part would break the bank, why not include a dual head, with a female face on one side and a male face on the other?

Finally, I’ll offer a quick word on LEGO Friends figures. My biggest beef with them is just their being completely separate and different from regular minifigs. I have a hard time believing that if LEGO made more/better female minifig options, and if they coupled them with awesome new sets, that they couldn’t capture the interest of girls and their parents. More on this in points 4 and 5.

4. Quit it with the stereotyping.

As mentioned above, there are plenty of gender-neutral torsos that can work for any minifig. Unfortunately, though, female-specific figs have tended to be decked out in stereotypical, overly feminine features.

My suggestion here? Less cleavage, less pink, fewer hearts, and less excess skin. Mind you, a little of any of these things is perfectly fine. But when such a large percentage of female-specific torsos includes one or more of these factors, it becomes a problem.

Which brings me to a related point. I cringed—and probably swore a little too loudly for a toy aisle—when I saw this scene in a big box store this past fall:

Et tu, LEGO?

When I was a kid, LEGOs were among my favorite toys. Of course, I had plenty of dolls, too, but I didn’t need my LEGOs to be pink or purple in order to enjoy using them. Nor did I need to be presented with stereotypically girly situations such as those in the LEGO Friends sets to be happy with my supply of bricks and minifigs. And while I’m generally fine with the fact that minifig designs have become more detailed—and thus more gendered—over the years, I feel that the way it’s been done has only helped reinforce, rather than break down, stereotypes. And that’s sad.

So I urge LEGO to take the lead on bucking this mode of thinking in which manufacturers feel like they have to offer separate boy/blue and girl/ pink versions for all of their products. It’s true, boys and girls may play slightly differently, but plenty of evidence shows that their tastes are shaped at an extremely young age by what’s around them...including the toys they see in ads, online, and in stores. Do we really want to teach our kids that girls and boys can’t play and build together? Or that they’re so different that they can’t possibly enjoy the same things?

5. Inspire.

Last but not least, if you want to focus on new, girl-empowering products, you’ve gotta provide plenty of inspiration. Why not focus more on sets that show girls doing inspirational, socially valued—dare I suggest cerebral—things? The characters could be scientists, engineers, CEOs, politicians, teachers, journalists, technology specialists, architects—the list goes on.

Model scientists (clockwise from top left): Astronaut Sandra Magnus; Physicist Lisa Randall; Primatologist Jane Goodall; Astronomer Jill Tartar; Oceanographer Sylvia Earle; Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco. Individual versions on my photostream.

Now, I have to give LEGO some credit here: The Friends line does include sets for an invention workshop and a vet’s office. But why do these all have to be bathed in pink, purple and other stereotypically girly pastel colors? And why do the more cerebral types of situations have to be the exception rather than the norm?

At the end of the day, it’s certainly possible LEGO will make money off of their new initiative. And I do wish them well, as they will always hold a special place in my heart. But my call would be to drop LEGO Friends as a distinct “girl only” product and to add some meat to the offered sets. More specifically, I would encourage LEGO to reinterpret Friends in a way that incorporates gender-neutral colors and normal female—and male—minifigs. And then make more sets that include girls in inspiring careers or situations. The fact is, in just a few short years, the company has morphed from childhood favorite to ubiquitous mega-player in today’s toy sector. I believe that with LEGO’s success comes a special responsibility to set an example on gender issues such as these.

Pink bricks photo courtesy of Sandra Høj.