The Gender of Plastic

Lego isn’t the only plastic toy with a gender problem.

The economic uncertainty of the Great Depression created the need in the model hobbyist arena for less expensive, space saving train layouts. Through this HO scale/H0/1:87 – ‘half O’ scale was born. This scale, in which the people are roughly 2 cm tall, boomed in the 1950s and became the most popular scale for realistic model layouts in the 1960s. It remains the most popular scale today.

This popularity means more houses, scenery, people, etc. etc. But the time period in which its manufacturing exploded, is where most the items available on the market here in 2017 still reside.

Let’s take Preiser’s line of HO scale figures for example.

Preiser is a scale model manufacturer known in part for its precision hand painted, and thus high quality figures. The most recent catalog I can find available online is theirs from 2015 so here goes. The HO scale section spans pages 2 – 183 with up to 18 sets of 3 – 12 figures or so per set. Here’s a deep dive into just the very first section, pages 2 – 13. Download for your own perusal here: https://www.rocousa.com/preisercatalog.htm

On these pages, excluding children, there are 480 men and 263 women. That’s 65% men to 35% women. Within those numbers the women hold the following 25 roles:

  1. Passenger
  2. Railway personnel
  3. Mother
  4. Farm Worker
  5. Housemaid
  6. Gardener
  7. Photographer
  8. Bride
  9. Wedding Attendee
  10. Beach Goer
  11. Housewife
  12. Roller skater
  13. Tennis Player
  14. Nudist sunbather
  15. Nude model
  16. Nurse
  17. Traveler
  18. Cyclist
  19. Dancer
  20. Motorcyclist
  21. Waitress
  22. Golfer
  23. Figure skater
  24. Swimmer
  25. Skier

Men, on the other hand hold the following 38:

  1. Construction/Maintenance
  2. Passenger
  3. Railway Engineer/Track Worker
  4. Farm Worker
  5. Trucker
  6. Gardener
  7. Soccer player
  8. Referee
  9. Coach
  10. Minister/Reverend
  11. Motorcyclist
  12. Fisherman
  13. Photographer
  14. Film Crew
  15. Roller skater
  16. Beach Goer
  17. Groom
  18. Wedding Attendee
  19. Cyclist
  20. Painter
  21. Sculptor
  22. Traveler
  23. Emergency services
  24. Nurse/doctor
  25. Dancer
  26. Police Officer
  27. Friar
  28. Musician
  29. Firemen
  30. Innkeeper
  31. Waiter
  32. Mountain Climber
  33. Postal Worker/ Delivery man
  34. Golfer
  35. Diver
  36. Figure skater
  37. Swimmer
  38. Skier

Gender may be one noticeable gap, especially when it comes to the roles represented. But even more so is race with almost all of the figures available being white. The non-white figures sets are typically marked as such. And on this small sampling of 12 pages, 1 of the142 sets was of non-white figures – these were Japanese, and unmarked there are 4 woman and 1 man in 3 different sets that look like they may be black. That’s a total of 11 figures, 1.5% of all on these pages.

All this said, I don’t know that I’m actually trying to effect change here.

Many of the figures produced across all model train manufacturers are models that have been produced and re-produced for years and years. Train modeling is a nostalgic hobby practiced largely by white, middle aged men and therefore what is sold is going to be directed at them.

So, I think instead, those of us who photograph them have to simply be aware of the selections we’re making and what we end up portraying in our images. HO scale figures come in a huge number of options. There may be a gender gap and most definitely an ethnicity gap, but search hard enough and you might just find what you’re looking for. If all else fails, customize, modify, and paint away.

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