Gender Enforcement at Five Megahertz

A picture from an old Lego advertisement from 1981 has been going around lately that shows how toy marketing has changed in the last thirty-five years. I recommend reading this article from 2014 where the woman that girl from the ad grew up to become talks about what she thinks about toy marketing today. It’s an interesting article and includes the original ad if you haven’t seen it.

As someone who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, I can say that what Lego did was not unusual. EZ-Bake Ovens had a boy on the box along with a girl or two. Battleship had its “G-4. It’s a Hit!” box with a girl turning the tide in her losing game against a boy. Compare that box to the mid-sixties box. Sure, there was potentially contaminating”girl stuff” that boys like me would avoid, at least when any other boys were watching, but I really think think gender roles were less stringently enforced back in the seventies than they are today.

I attribute much of that difference to the actions of Second Wave feminists. They really did something. They changed the Spirit of the Age. I could feel it as a ten-year-old boy. But it wasn’t all Second Wave enlightenment. Much of it was just capitalists being capitalists. Lego did marketing research and found that parents of girls weren’t buying much Lego. Unleash the freckled girl to make them buy more.

So what happened? How did we go from 1981 Lego to today’s Lego? There are lots of reasons: The rise of Christian Conservatism in the 80’s, anti-gay sentiment in the age of AIDS, the anti-feminist backlash of the 80’s and 90’s, and financial motives are obvious places to look. But I’m going to propose that another contributing factor; Obstetric Ultrasound.

The first ultrasound imaging system was invented in 1956 by a Scottish doctor. Ultrasound scanning of pregnant women took a long time to catch on. The early machines were extremely expensive and had poor results. Five megahertz was a good frequency choice for reflection off the surface of a fetus, but turning those reflections into easily interpreted images took two more decades. Getting the price low took until the early eighties. Even then, many were convinced that ultrasound was unsafe, so scans were not commonplace until the late 80’s or so. I base this mostly on my own perceptions and this discussion at SDMB. If anyone has links to hard data or even personal anecdotes, please tell me in the comments.

I really do think that knowing whether you were having a boy or a girl makes a difference. Sex roles, gender enforcement, could now reach into the womb. Babies can now be born into a world of prearranged gender enforcement. And also gendered marketing. In some circles “Gender Reveal” parties and announcements are popular, and affect subsequent baby showers. Of course, these are really sex reveal parties, but are afraid of saying “sex”.

Ultrasound is a valuable diagnostic tool, but I think it’s part of why we don’t have a Lego girl today.




7 thoughts on “Gender Enforcement at Five Megahertz

  1. I remember when I was growing up in the 90s and my mother’s friends were having children. I remember being a bit upset by how they found out the sex from the scans, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on why. I’ve always been secretly happy that my parents didn’t know what sex I was until I was born. They wanted a girl anyway, but I’ve always been glad they didn’t know for 9 months of my life – and I’ve never been quite able to explain that, either. This might be the reason why – I am reacting against this prenatal gender enforcement and I was doing that even as a child.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My cousin was born in the late sixties, and there was a bunch of little boy blue stuff bought for him with the stipulation that if he turned out to be a girl, it could be exchanged for pink stuff. I was born in the late 70s, and I think that my mom told the technician not to tell her my sex because she wanted to find out when I was born. So, while ultrasound does help those who want to plan ahead to saturate their babies in gender, it wasn’t necessarily impossible before or universal after. (Though I’m betting it’s becoming more and more socially difficult to do what my parents did.)

    I’d argue that one of the effects of 2nd wave feminism, namely that better-educated women with career prospects have fewer children, is also partly to blame. Marketers started pushing heavily-gendered products to parents in order to be able to sell two sets of baby clothes and junk, but if you knew you were going to have five or six kids, you were more likely to buy and make gender neutral stuff in order to reuse it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve made a lot of good points. There was a whole lot more going on than just ultrasound. Changing demographics. When people my age started having kids in the mid-late 90’s they were nearing thirty, or even past thirty, and planning on smaller families.


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