Thursday, April 24, 2014

Enfant Perdu

But war and justice have far different laws,
And worthless acts are often done quite well;
The rascal’s shots were better than his cause,
And I was hit - and hit again, and fell
[from Enfant Perdu by Heinrich Heine, Lord Houghton’s translation]

I yield to no one in my insistence that women (and girls) need to learn to ask for what they want rather than expecting the government (or anyone or anything else) to give it to them or protect them or make everything okay. Therefore, I initially found myself nodding in agreement with a recent piece in The Federalist. It recounts the story of a young woman, Antonia Ayres-Brown, who was unhappy being asked if she wanted the “girl toy” or the “boy toy” in a McDonald’s Happy Meal and channeled her unhappiness into a filing with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. As the author, Amy Otto, puts it:

This could have all been solved by her parents simply encouraging her to ask for the toy she wants.  If girls are continually taught that they as individuals have no power to negotiate a situation as simple as “I’d like that toy” without the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights getting involved, I submit that these women are proving the case that they should not be put in positions of leadership or power.

Ms. Otto then spends a fair amount of time explaining why McDonald’s handles toy distribution the way it does: the company is attempting to give its customers what they want and most girl customers want girl toys while most boy customers want boy toys. This is just smart business on McDonald’s part.

Ms. Otto concludes with:

Girls would be better served learning about the beneficial reciprocity of capitalism and the innate power of just asking for what they want in the first place. McDonald’s will be happy to accommodate them.

As it turns out, Ms. Otto has left out some significant information. First, Ms. Ayres-Brown originally became concerned about the boy/girl toy practice in 2008 when she was eleven years old. She wrote a letter to McDonald’s asking them to cease and desist. The corporation’s response, from a customer satisfaction representative, was to assure her that:

McDonald’s doesn’t train their employees to ask whether Happy Meal customers want boys’ or girls’ toys, and my experiences were not the norm.

So much for Ms. Otto’s contention that asking “boy toy or girl toy” is simply an example of McDonald’s smart business practices.

Finding this response unsatisfying, Ms. Ayres-Brown visited “more than a dozen local McDonald’s locations” to collect data on this practice. After finding that “McDonald’s employees described the toys in gendered terms more than 79 percent of the time”, she brought her complaint to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. It was dismissed as “absurd”.

Then, this past summer, she decided to revisit the issue. (She doesn’t say why she decided to do so after six years. I’d love to know what the catalyst was. Anyhow.) In this new round of investigation she was specifically testing the claim of one of the McDonald’s stores that she had:

“conveniently stop[ped the] experiment short to concoct this case.” The store claimed that if I had just asked for a boy’s toy they would have been happy to oblige.

Ms. Ayres-Brown constructed what I thought was a nice little experiment. She sent young boys and girls into McDonald’s stores 30 times to order Happy Meals. They were given the gender-appropriate (my words, not hers) toy 92.9% of the time. So far, so good (again my words, not hers - she finds this unacceptable). When the children immediately returned to the counter to ask for the other toy, 42.8% of the requests were refused.

Ms. Ayres-Brown then wrote another letter to McDonald’s and this time received a response from McDonald’s “chief diversity officer”:

“It is McDonald’s intention and goal that each customer who desires a Happy Meal toy be provided the toy of his or her choice, without any classification of the toy as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toy and without any reference to the customer’s gender. We have recently reexamined our internal guidelines, communications and practices and are making improvements to better ensure that our toys are distributed consistent with our policy.”

Although this is really the same response she received back in 2008, Ms. Ayres-Brown is claiming this as a win.

Is this a tempest in a teapot? I think so. Is there anything intrinsically wrong with noticing that there are girls and boys and that almost everyone identifies as, and can be identified as, one or the other? I don’t think so. Even if this isn’t a tempest in a teapot and even if there is something intrinsically wrong with noticing gender, is a government agency the right forum for resolving this? I don’t think so. As Ms. Otto put it:

That’s the handy thing about capitalism: If parents feel like their children are having a negative experience at McDonald’s; parents will not take their children there.

However, while Ms. Otto does make these points, the frame for her criticism was that here was a young woman who was being “taught that [she had] no power as [an individual] to negotiate a situation as simple as ‘I’d like that toy’” and that such a young woman is “proving the case that [such] women should not be put in positions of leadership or power.” My take is quite different.

Ms. Ayres-Brown demonstrated that individuals do not have the power to successfully negotiate a desirable outcome to the situation of being asked if they want the “girl toy” or the “boy toy”. She also demonstrated that individuals have a difficult time obtaining the toy they want; that is, almost half the time individuals do not have the power to successfully negotiate the situation of “I want that toy”. She made her concerns known to the corporation’s management and, yes, filed an action with a government agency. In other words, she encountered a situation she found intolerable and took repeated action to change it to suit herself. I’m not sure how her actions differ from those of, for example, people who were foreclosed on illegally, attempted to resolve the issue by communicating with the company doing the foreclosing, and then sought relief from the government.

True, I find the latter’s concerns important and valid while I find Ms. Ayres-Brown’s concerns trivial and, well, dumb. But surely one of the tenets of conservatism should be that people have the right to do whatever dumb things they want, up to and including availing themselves of government agencies and programs that we the people, in our infinite wisdom, have established to help them do those very dumb things about which they care so passionately.

I have no problem criticizing Ms. Ayres-Browns’ views on gender issues. I believe firmly that telling McDonald’s she would no longer patronize them would have been a far better approach than turning to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. But I don’t think Ms. Ayres-Brown in any way embodies a young woman being taught that she has no power as an individual or being discouraged from asking for what she wants.

1 comment:

Elise said...

Just testing my Recent Comments widget.