Is Playmobil Racist? Not if you are willing to do the hard work.
Emily has had a long standing and intimate relationship with Playmobil. It was the first toy that "clicked" with her. I tried Brio trains, I tried Lego, I tried Fisher Price, I tried Polly Pockets, I tried Groovy Girls....and she only had eyes for Disney Princesses. My feminist cred was deeply damaged. How did I end up with a girl who ONLY liked a bunch of princesses.
It wasn't until she encountered Playmobil in Ms Deb's Kindergarten that she found her love.
At first I wasn't sure what to make of it. Ms Deb's classroom had a Playmobil police station, which Emily and Sarah promptly dis-assembled to make into a house. For the girls, I think it was the ability to recreate the desired play space that was most attractive. They were imaginative enough to be able to fully discount what they Saw, and recreate it into what they wanted.
For that first Christmas, I presented the Modern House, with attachments and furniture. I vaguely expected her to discard it the same way she did the 1200 dollars worth of Brio Trains ( which later got gifted to Ms Deb's classroom) to have it sit in buckets in the basement for eternity.
To my shock and delight, the House was consumed with such relish and delight that Terrance and I were more than stunned. This child who was to be diagnosed with ADHD later that year rarely, if ever, spent more than 5 minutes with ANY toy. Now, she was sitting with and actually Playing. As in Making Up dialog and arranging and rearranging scenarios.
Since that first gift of the Modern House in 2002, Emily's Playmobil collection has grown and grown. Arctic Explorer, Shopping Mall, Grocery Store, Hospital, Fairy Set, A good portion of Pirates, Wedding Sets, Farms, The Rabbit Easter Sets, Egyptian Sets, and every year a new advent calender, which is later lovingly repackaged and stored with the others.
One of the things I loved about the playmobil figures IS the non-specificity of Gender. In many cases, a simple change of hair styles can adjust a male character to a female. I didn't have to contend with the overt gender messages that Barbie and her cohorts were promoting.
I did notice, and was concerned with, the lack of diversity in the figures. She had LOTS of white people, which in New Hampshire was the norm. It was then that I sought out and bought the African- American and Hispanic American family sets - 2 of each - to blend into her ever growing milleau of people.
That action met my need for Em to have dolls that represented her family and she mixed and matched to her hearts content. One of the many things I have loved about my daughter is her ability to simply accept - she is a kind and generous soul. She has never questioned why women might marry women, or men might marry men, or people of different ethnic backgrounds might marry. In her world view, it is just how it IS.
This has been reflected in her imaginative play as well. It is not uncommon to see a variety of figures standing in a variety of roles in her play scenes. Pirates may be paired with the Rabbits, and The Doctor might be riding the Red Dragon on any given day,
A recent post at another blog sent to be by Mayumi set me to thinking. Had I noticed this issue of African representation? Why hadn't I noticed this? What did I think about this, given Emily's long standing relationship ( and my many thousand of dollars investment) in/with Playmobil?
I think the overall criticism is valid - Particularly given the Western world's relationship with Africa as a paternalistic colonizing force.
However, in some ways I wonder about any toys ability to authentically depict ANY culture. The culture represented by Emily's basic Modern House is certainly that of a Western upper middle class family. However, the House wouldn't even neccessarily reflect a family in Japan of similar economic status.
The stores (butcher, bakery, ice cream shop) are staples in Our current neighborhood in Montreal- but are certainly not something one would see in every neighborhood.
My next question then becomes more paramount: