Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Imagine [Insert Gender Stereotype Here]

There's a great post on Bonnie Ruberg's Heroine Sheik this week about the new Imagine line of girl games by Ubisoft for the Nintendo DS. I've been seeing (and cringing at) ads for these games during Saturday morning cartoon blocks lately, and have been interested in finding out more about them, so this is great timing. You can also check out this post on Ypulse. Rather than chime in on the issues these games raise in terms of gender representation and how "girl games" are consistently defined by the games industry in the same stereotypical terms, I want to post an excerpt from a paper I'm working on that links this trend to a much deeper historical tradition of utilitarianism in the social shaping of "girls play". Adults have long sought to contain children's play, but girls' play in particular, for more "useful" and productive ends. For girls, this most often meant channeling play towards activities that were thought to prepare them to be good wives and mothers. Not that girls didn't love their dolls and Easy-Bake ovens (I know I did!), but there's a lot going on here relating to the social construction of girls play that it is impossible to really separate out from the experience itself. The following excerpt is part of a larger exploration of how western thinking about play tends to approach it in very "rational" and instrumental terms (for example, the construction of work/play as analytic categories), and how this approach influences what games and activities are deemed "appropriate" or idealized at a particular point in history.
Another important entry point for understanding how the rationalization of play occurs beyond the boundaries of the work/play binary is through a deeper exploration of the role of the domestic sphere in the construction and regulation of modern play practices. In reviewing the foundational literature on play, the male-centricity of the work/play dichotomy and the omission of female players from these debates are immediately apparent. The omission of the female experience of leisure within modernity challenges the notion that industrialization ever truly led to a separation of the spheres as reflected in the work/play binary, and calls into question the ways in which play and work have thus far been defined within the play literature. Throughout history, as Calvert (1998: 76) writes, “[L]ife was often very different for boys and girls at any given time. Boys and girls in America were dressed differently, treated differently, given different amounts of time for play, work, and study, and taught to handle all three activities differently.” Women and girls have historically enjoyed fewer leisure opportunities (Vallone 1995) and been steered toward much more limited and restrictive play practices than their male counterparts (Hendershot 1996). Indeed, productive or functional play has been a prominent feature of girls’ leisure time throughout the industrial era. In the nineteenth-century, as Formanek-Brunell (1998: 364) describes, “Girls were urged toward usefulness in their play as natural training in the republican values they would need as future wives and mothers of citizens.” Historical studies of girls’ and women’s leisure thus suggest that the modern rationalization of play does not necessarily represent the incorporation of “work” into play, as much as a continued extension of domesticization—-the rationalizing system of the “private” sphere of the home.

Not that girls just accepted the roles and limitations that were placed on them. In parallel with the tradition of containing girls' play is a tradition of little girls using play to subvert gender norms and expectations:
Although dolls are often seen as obvious "vehicle[s] of feminine socialization," recent ethnographic research, as well as historical analysis of memoirs, diaries and oral histories, reveal a long-standing tradition of gender role subversion and rejection of adult authority within girls’ doll play (Formanek-Brunell, 1998; Gussin Paley, 2004). This emerging research reveals the familiar, but academically neglected, practices of brutal doll torture, doll-body modification, doll bashing and doll funerals. As Formanek-Brunell (1998: 374), describes, although many girls (and boys) played with dolls in prescribed ways, “[E]vidence reveals that doll players pushed at the margins of acceptable feminine and genteel behaviour." For some girls, dolls became a valuable tool for thwarting social norms and undermining restrictions. For example, during the nineteenth-century “doll parties” were often promoted as a beneficial and appropriate activity for girls. Designed as a primarily aesthetic activity (girls were meant to show off their dolls and look at each others’ doll clothes), “doll parties” were regulated by a complex set of rules and etiquette which were circulated in advice books and women’s magazines. In practice, however, the events often transformed into active play dates that involved sliding down the stairs on tea trays and “smashing their unsuspecting dolls to bits” (Formanek-Brunell 1998: 375).

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