Friday, December 23, 2011

Gender politics and Automoblox

Update: Jason Thibeault, who has a much larger readership than I, helped me publicize this issue (thanks Jason!)... and the co-founder showed up in the comments and provided some corrections. Apparently this is the case only the case with the sports cars: the other models put the woman in the driver's seat. I still think it would be even better if all of the shapes were such that they could be rotated 180 degrees, but it seems the company has been trying to do the right thing from the get-go. Kudos to them.

I am still reading Susan Calello's comments and may have a second update later.

Some cursory googling seems to indicate I am the only person to have noticed this (or at least, the only person to have noticed it and blogged about it). The otherwise excellent toy Automoblox appears to have a subtle -- and probably unintentional -- misogynist implication inherent in its design. This is not really a huge deal, and since I'm thinking about posting this to Facebook (where my cousins, who bought them for my son, might well read it) let me say that this does not change the fact that my son loves them, I still think it's an absolutely fantastic toy, and I am ever so grateful to the Geigers for the gift. This is merely meant as food for thought.

So what's the misogynist implication? Well check this out: The two figures that ride in the car have features that strongly imply gender, and the way the car comes preassembled, the man is in the driver's seat. That by itself is not really an issue (it would be a nice feminist statement of Automoblox to have reversed it, but I can't expect everybody to actively support every cause 100% of the time) but the problem lies in that, although Automoblox can be reassembled in a variety of different ways -- this is part of what makes it an excellent toy -- a bizarre quirk of the design makes it so that you can't ever put the woman in the driver's seat.

In describing the educational benefits of Automoblox, Wikipedia states that "the passengers in each car have specifically shaped bases which lock into matching sockets in the car to encourage shape recognition and matching." Indeed -- except that the male passengers have either a square- or circle-shaped base, meaning that they can be rotated in any direction, while the female passengers have either a star- or triangle-shaped base (both with an odd number of sides) meaning that they cannot be rotated exactly 180 degrees from the default position.

You can reassemble the car so that the star-shaped socket is on the driver's side, but you cannot face the female passenger directly forward. No matter how you configure it, she will always face at an off angle if placed in the driver's seat. What's frustrating is that if they had just used, say, a hexagon and an octagon for the bases, this problem would be averted.

I imagine this was unintentional. And it's an excellent, excellent toy. I suppose the next step is to contact the company and maybe if they get enough pressure, in future versions they can correct this. Or am I just being hypersensitive here?


  1. I'm thinking it's a bug, not a feature. Modern gamedevelopers (lol physical toys) tend to encourage bug reports. But it still causes flame-wars, and everyone is always "hypersensitive".

  2. I imagine you are quite correct that it is a "bug". Probably a little pressure and they'd fix it. Too bad I'm a small fish... maybe I can get somebody from FTB interested?

  3. Even given that it's a bug, it's indicative of our male privilege culture. It could just as easily be designed by women and have that configuration, in the same way that the dearth of female plot-lines in movies never occurs to us either.

  4. It could just as easily be designed by women and have that configuration

    Very very true (and very depressing).

  5. I disagree.. a woman would not have made that oversight and the dearth of female movie plots most certainly does occur to some.

  6. Incidentally James, you might like to know that I got a relatively thorough (if absurdly outraged) set of corrections from the co-founder of the company at my blog:

  7. Checking it now... and putting an update on this post right away, as it seems the company really is trying to do the right thing.

    I sort of understand her outrage, since it seems the company was trying their best to get it right and still got called out on it, hahaha... But I haven't read all the comments yet, still digesting.