Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lego blondes

Almost two months ago, I wrote a blogpost about LEGO, and how the Friends series is problematic for a woman who is conscious about the gendering of toys. Since then the topic has made quite a splash in Denmark, and the Danish minister of - hmm - likestilling, what's the good English word for that? Minister of Equality? Anyway, Manu Sareen had to withdraw his criticism of LEGO Friends, because it became too problematic for the party. The argument used against his criticism was a classic rhetoric strategy to make criticism go away, as described by Benoit in his theory of image restoration. The public, very likely fueled by political opponents and the fact that LEGO is pretty much a holy cow in Denmark, told Manu Sareen that he had much more important questions to worry about.

I, however, am not elected to much, and I can disagree without losing any votes. That's why I went out and bought two little LEGO figures. I bought one regular one, that I put together from different bits, with very good help from the nice people working in the LEGO store in Copenhagen, the other part of a set of Friends LEGO. (I could buy a set with a girl baking and working as a waitress, or a set with a girl lounging at the pool. Yep. That's what girls can fantasize about when they play with girl-segment LEGO.)

I have claimed that the Friends LEGO figures don't fit with the others, but I have been a little uncomfortable with the claim, because I hadn't really studied them well enough to be absolutely certain. But let's look below:

 First, the Friends figure is taller. She will not fit into the cars, planes and many wondrous creations in the regular Lego series.
 Next, she can't actually sit in the brick cars, fit on the horses, or stick in the pilot seat of the planes. She is designed to not fit in with those objects.
She can stand on the brick sets, so building a city, for instance, she can stand on the street or in the houses.

She can't fit into the helmet, even if we remove her hair.

It belongs to the story that I had to costum build my space girl. I tried to buy the lovely little pink space-suited figure on display in the store, but it belongs to a special set that is no longer produced.

So what is going on here?

1: It's 2012. Do I really have to point out that the LEGO Friends character is slimmer and has budding boobs, while the old-fashioned one is a genderless brick figure? With the increased sexualisation of childhood, this is one more object cementing a feminine ideal of slim, tall women. Slim tall women who can't do what the small, squat, genderless figures can. The LEGO men have all the powerful options.

2: The structure of LEGO makes it impossible to use the Friends figures in as many ways as the regular ones. The version created for girls has, in game-structure language, less affordances and more restrictions. This is a game-changer, literally, as it means the girl toys offer a different game from the boy toys.

3: LEGO wants to make twice as much money off the consumers. I can understand that. Childhood is a big money machine in the western countries, and we already wade in LEGO. They have to do something if sales are to be increased. So by making certain that the figures don't match, parents of children of two genders have to buy both series if they want to offer equal opportunity building bricks to their kids.

Yes, there are other important topics out there for the Danish minister Manu Sareen to pay attention to. I am not certain if they are more important than the commercialisation and gendering of the childhood.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Feeling stupid lately?

I keep getting all these questions, as if people expect me to have been drinking from the fountain of knowledge, or eating the apples of wisdom as a regular diet. Of course, the University tap-water does come directly from mimisbrunnr, but what that has made me good at isn't giving answers, but asking questions. That is what Deep Thought and most scholars and researchers have in common, and it is why feeling stupid isn't always such a curse.

(Of course, being stupid is a curse, but those who are stupid mostly feel like they know everything, so the curse is on the rest of the world.)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Anything for money...

Some days ago, I was in a meeting where the group discussed how to attract the right type of applicants for a research project. I had pointed out that they might need to rethink their call, if they wanted new partners, because not everybody would be willing to cooperate or interested in the call the way it was presented. The response was "researchers will do anything for money."

At the moment, I responded snappy and snarky, as I sometimes can, with enough humour that there was laughter. I didn't stop thinking about it though. Do we do it all for money?

My paycheck, to start there, indicates that of the group at the meeting, I am the least motivated by money. They all out-earn me, some of them several times. Then to the things I do for them and for others. I am a pretty cheap lecturer, and a very easy partner for discussions. I travel large distances to contribute, sometimes without decent funding even for the costs. When that same group needed to make the initial plan for the research call, I sat aside a day, for free, to speak to their staff and assist them. If I had asked them for help, 1000 kr an hour would have been charity.

I respond at length to journalists, I give lectures at schools and organisations at a symbolic pay, I respond to public hearings and I publish for nothing but the chance to have my work aknowledged. While I do get a salary, I don't even get all my books and computers covered, the tools I need in order to do the work I am hired to do.

I, like most others in the same position, put in a huge amount of effort at unpaid work, reviewing for journals and conferences, and a huge amount of underpaid work, such as assessing exams and applicants for various positions - luckily some of the last work is occasionally paid fairly. That is not the rule, though. And all of this adds up to work-days which are illegal according to Norwegian law. If I registered all the work I do my employer could get in trouble for taking advantage of the work-force.

Yes, sometimes money motivates me. Like right now, while we are two people on one salary, I would really like to be paid for some of that extra work. But when I apply for research funding, it's not the money that motivates me, it's the project.

What I am willing to work 50-70 hour weeks for is the research itself. For this I am willing to write applications and argue for funding. I will patiently and politely listen to employers who insult my professional integrity, and then spread the money I get out of it so thin that it looks fake, in order to make it really, really last.

Next time people claim I (a researcher) do anything for money, I'll ask what they get paid. What motivates them, you think?