awareness, gender, systemic problems

Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House

When I was in third grade, my class did a unit on space and astronomy and NASA. It was the coolest. We got to go to the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium and eat freeze-dried ice cream, and we also got to do an experiment where we planted a bunch of tomato seeds that had been in space and a bunch of tomato seeds that had not been in space, to find out which ones would grow better. (I assumed that the tomato seeds that had been in space would grow into crazy bionic alien plants, but surprisingly, they just turned out to be a little less likely to sprout than the non-space seeds.) My hero that year was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and I wanted to be an astronaut just like her.

As it turns out, I’m not an astronaut. I changed my mind about career paths multiple times after third grade. But in thinking back, I do feel happy about the fact that I had a dream. I also feel happy that the dream wasn’t a total fantasy—rather, it was directly connected to something cool I was doing and learning in school, something I could continue pursuing if I chose to. I knew that if you wanted to be an astronaut, you should keep learning about science, including astronomy, and also math. A third grader’s version of a career map, basically.

Ok, so positive thoughts about choosing and pursuing a career: awesome. Now let’s talk about something else I was also interested in around that same time—something with a very different kind of message: M.A.S.H.

Not M.A.S.H. the television show, which apparently is actually spelled M*A*S*H (and which I have never seen), but rather M.A.S.H. the game, the one that you too may have played in elementary or middle school, the one that’s supposed to tell you about your future.

M.A.S.H., as I have recently discovered, has a Wikipedia page that you can check out if you want, but here is my personal memory of how my friends and I played it:

  1. One person is chosen to have their fortune told. Let’s say that person is me.
  2. My friend writes “M.A.S.H.” at the top of a piece of paper. M.A.S.H. stands for mansion, apartment, shack, house. It’s a list of possible places I might live when I grow up. We also sometimes played “S.M.A.S.H.,” where the first “S” stands for sewer.
  3. My friend scatters some categories throughout the page: “marry” (who I’ll marry when I grow up), “kids” (how many kids I’ll have), “live” (what city/country I’ll live in), and “car” (what kind of car I’ll drive). Additional optional categories include “job”  and “pet”.
  4. My friend writes down four or five possibilities in each category. I can make suggestions, but she gets to write down whatever she wants. Typically she will write down some desirable and some undesirable items in each category.
  5. A number, usually somewhere between 3 and 10, is randomly chosen; let’s say it’s 5. My friend goes through the entire page, crossing off every fifth item, again and again until there’s only one item left in each category, and circles what’s left.
  6. The circled items are a map of my future life.

My friends and I spent many hours playing this game in elementary and early middle school, trading off turns. When I was in third grade, my M.A.S.H. sheet might have looked something like this:

How will I fit the 7 kids AND the elephant into my apartment? M.A.S.H. does not explain this.

M.A.S.H. is typically thought of as a sort of harmless, goofy fortune-telling game. And I can see the argument for that. But the more I think about M.A.S.H., the more I really don’t like it.

Here’s why.

To begin with, M.A.S.H. is implicitly based upon the philosophy that your life will just “happen” to turn out a certain way. This is a somewhat subtle element of the game, but I think it’s a critical one. The way it’s played, it doesn’t matter who you want to marry (if anyone), or what type of career you want to have, or where you want to live. In M.A.S.H. you have no control over any of this: whatever happens in your life is due to blind chance. (You might end up living in a mansion and you might end up living in a shack: who knows? Let’s just see what happens!)

For the record, I believe that our circumstances as adults do often involve a substantial element of luck: not all children in this world have the same opportunities, unfortunately. But there’s a big difference between recognizing the existence of inequality and believing that there’s no point in having goals or trying to pursue them.

So to begin with, I’m not thrilled with the general life philosophy that M.A.S.H. seems to espouse. However, my main motivation for writing about M.A.S.H. is that it is a game that is largely, almost exclusively, played by girls. If you think I am wrong about this, then please let me know in the comments. But in my experience it is, for all practical purposes, a girls’ game. And M.A.S.H.’s subtle philosophy—that your life is predetermined, that your future will be decided by who you happen to meet and marry and what job you happen to accidentally fall into—takes on an additional significance when only a specific subset of children are playing M.A.S.H. My male classmates in third grade also heard the message that they could be astronauts someday, but the message they perhaps didn’t hear as much was that whether or not they actually ended up as astronauts would be the result of random chance.

I will also throw out there that “marry” is by far the most important category in the game: is it is always the first one written down (other than “M.A.S.H.” itself), and honestly it’s really the primary focus of the whole experience. I would always try to get my friend to write down the name of whoever I had a secret crush on at the time, and I would feel truly excited and fluttery if that person’s name was circled at the end. The other categories were somewhat less interesting: I didn’t really know which cars were better than other cars (and still don’t), and “job” was an afterthought if it was included at all.

To be sure, who you will eventually marry, or partner with—if anyone—is an important life question. But I’d be a little uncomfortable saying that it’s definitely more important than other facets of your life like your career, or that it’s something that’s important to focus on when you’re nine years old. And I’m especially uncomfortable if it’s only girls who are internalizing this sense of its heightened importance.

My first impulse is to blame M.A.S.H., or whoever invented it in the first place, for attempting to fool little girls into thinking that they don’t have control over their dreams and futures and that life is all about who you marry.

But as I reflect upon it more, I’m not sure that M.A.S.H. itself is really the problem. Asking about the origin of M.A.S.H. is kind of a chicken-and-egg question: which came first: the idea that girls don’t have control over their futures, or a game suggesting that girls don’t have control over their futures? I suspect that M.A.S.H. may just be reflective of pervasive, insidious messages that nine-year-old girls have already started to pick up from the environment.

Fortunately, there are a lot of awesome role models out there, girls and women who are actively pursuing big dreams rather than sitting back and waiting for fate to take over, and whose lives and examples therefore counteract the M.A.S.H. philosophy. Like Sally Ride. Like Misty Copeland. Like Amy Poehler (and Leslie Knope, because they’re basically the same person, right?). Like J. K. Rowling (and Hermione Granger, for that matter). Like Malala Yousafzai, a girl whose own dream is to empower other girls to take control of their futures through education. Like Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, regardless of how you feel about any of their politics.

To be clear, I don’t blame my nine-year-old self, or any child, for playing M.A.S.H.—it’s honestly a lot of fun, and everyone is curious about their future. But it brings up some important issues about gender, career, and goal-setting that are important to talk about. M.A.S.H. may be just a game, but the ways in which we think about our futures and our dreams as children, and as adults, have a powerful impact on who we become.

What do you think—am I being too hard on M.A.S.H.?
Also, I would LOVE to hear about your experience with this game (or lack thereof):
Is it really just a girls’ game? Is it played outside the U.S.? Do you have any other thoughts about it?

42 Comments on “Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House

  1. I remember similar games as a kid, but not this one. I also remember (hey, this was the ’70s) the game of Life (you got married, got a car, kids, etc) and Mystery Date (because your dream should be a Ken doll,yes? Oh lord, what must kids who weren’t WASPy have thought?) Life was non-gender specific, at least, but there were definite societal expectations wrapped in it.

    The fact that you’ve never seen M*A*S*H makes me feel unbelievably old.

    1. Well, I might not be that much younger than you (if at all). It’s more that I wasn’t allowed to watch much T.V. as a kid. There are a lot of shows I’ve never seen!

      Oh, and I *almost* mentioned the game of Life in the post, but I just couldn’t fit it in. I remember I always hated that game because you were required to have kids (i.e., put those little pink and blue pegs in the back of your car), and I was always like, what if I don’t want any kids? I think I vaguely remember Mystery Date. Sheesh. These messages that girls get are so incredibly pervasive.

  2. Oh my…my friends & I used to play M.A.S.H. all the time! A lot of what you mentioned relates to the experiences I had with playing the game as well. 🙂 Looking back, I do have a problem with it, too (and maybe I am just being hard on the game). The game exemplifies that fate predetermines all major life choices/goals/changes. Forget about the hard work, effort & decision making that goes along with the following choices – voila! Want to live in a large mansion with the man of your dreams? You’ve got it! But oh no, now you’re ending up with your least favorite job of choice and getting married to someone you despise. I think the difficulty I have with the game viewing it now is the glorification of “perfection” and the distaste for anything that is below those standards. If we played in a group of girls, everyone would “oohh” and “ahhh” over the person who got everything they wanted (when it was really just luck/fate)! You bring up exceptional points here, Sarah!

    1. Ah, I’m glad you can confirm what I’m talking about, Alyssa! I actually texted a friend while I was writing this post asking, “did boys play MASH too or was it just girls?” because I didn’t trust my memory. (Her response: “just girls”.) So I guess the messages were indeed as unfortunate as I recall. Again, though, I don’t know if MASH itself really had a strong influence or not….I’m more troubled by the fact that this game was so appealing to girls but not to boys. But in any case, it’s really interesting to hear other people’s recollections and thoughts about it!

  3. Oh MASH. Thinking back, it’s funny to think that Little me hoped for the same things I still want today: 0 kids, anything but the Mansion, and AJ McLean of BSB fame (by accident, or on purpose 😉, my husband resembles him).

    I don’t know if you are being too hard on MASH, but there is a lot of blame on the marriage part. There is too much emphasis on who girls marry or are attached to. Looking back at my classmates, it seems like all the girls that were boy crazy haven’t gone as far in life as those that didn’t care. Girls need to define their own self worth outside of boys attention.

    1. Wait, you are allowed to put celebrities on the “marry” list?? That was totally not allowed in my school. You could only put boys in your class. Man, your version sounds way more fun. 🙂

      But seriously, yeah, the marriage thing is such a theme, not just in M.A.S.H. but in the way young girls talk about a lot of things. I wish I had a better understanding of where it comes from (movies?). In any case, YES, girls do need to find ways to define their own self-worth regardless of what boys think of them. I don’t think I started to really be aware of that on a conscious level until a few years ago, but it’s so important.

      1. Typically, only one celebrity was allowed. It was also the only way I’d play the game because I thought all the boys at my school were stupid.

        “Marry into your life” is as old as fairytales. Everything about being a little princess (which I hate) says you’ll rely on someone else. Boys are told they have to work hard to be successful to provide for their family. Girls aren’t told that. If they are, there is a caveat that allows someone else to provide for them. I wonder if the evolution away from Disney Princesses can change that.

        1. YES. Again, this is something I’ve only started to think about recently, but I’m pretty certain I would have made very different choices in college and beyond if I’d believed that I would *definitely* have to support myself my whole life (and possibly provide for a family too). It was all totally subconscious, but I certainly had a vague sense that I would never really need to do this. How unfortunate. And I wasn’t even into Disney princesses.
          I need to write more about this in another post.

  4. First off, I never played SMASH – clever adaptation – second, I HATE this as a mom of two girls. I haven’t actually seen any MASH games coming home (yet), but they still talk about these things in the same way: “I wonder if I’ll marry Colin in my class! Or how many kids I’ll have!” Over and over I have to say “YOU CHOOSE! Isn’t it great that you get to CHOOSE!?” I love Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. And I’m glad that there are so many good influences out there now. My daughter also wants to be a scientist when she grows up. And I’m thrilled. My other daughter wants to be a sugar plum fairy… so…

    1. Oh goodness, Maggie, so you are actually living through this issue right now! Yay, YOU CHOOSE sounds like a great message to keep repeating. Also, YES, Smart Girls is awesome; I almost mentioned it in the post but left it out because it was way too long already.

      That’s awesome that your daughter wants to be a scientist! My grad degree is in a scientific field, and while I was in grad school, I was involved with GWISE (grad women in science and engineering), which is I guess kind of an adult/scientist version of Smart Girls. There’s also WISE, for undergrads; maybe your daughter would be interested someday. And luckily there are lots of cool female scientist role models out there (Lisa Randall is one who comes to mind at this moment). And regarding sugar plum fairies, hey, imagination is important, and there’s lots of time for other dreams to emerge as well. 🙂

      1. WISE and GWISE – Good to know. I didn’t know about these. Her school is awesome with STEM stuff. Florin is only 5, so we’ve got some time to develop real dreams. 🙂

        1. That’s great that Penny’s school is promoting STEM! I also just remembered that at least in Boston there’s this organization called Science Club for Girls — I don’t know too much about it, but a friend of mine works there and I believe they bring female scientists into public school classrooms to teach and mentor. There are probably programs like that all over. Yay science! 🙂

  5. I actually don’t recall that game from my childhood! But one thing that I did relate to reading this post was the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell argues that success largely depends on factors like luck that are out of your control – however, how much effort you put in is also extremely important and totally within your control. For example, Bill Gates was lucky to be born at the right time and have access to computers at a young age. But many people had the same luck. Gates worked his butt off to take advantage of these lucky circumstances. Just like you mentioned, “there’s a big difference between recognizing the existence of inequality [or luck] and believing that there’s no point in having goals or trying to pursue them.”

    1. Oh yes, that’s such a good point! I do remember that book and was really struck by the Bill Gates example. I think it’s definitely a mixture between luck and hard work — the luck part we can’t change, but the hard work we have a lot of control over. Bill Gates had some lucky circumstances, but he also worked hard. And I definitely think the best message to give to kids is that they should work hard and try to go after their goals and dreams.

  6. Thanks for a trip down memory lane. We played this in elementary school & I completely forgot about it until this article. If I remember correctly, the girls knew all the rules and did most of the writing & us boys just played along. I guess we were afraid of catching cooties.

    1. Oh wow, Josh, this is so interesting! I don’t remember ever playing it in a co-ed group. I really would love to do a large-scale poll and find out how widespread this game was (and still is?) and how different people played it, because in this post I’m basically going off of my own experience. That’s interesting that in your experience the boys were involved but not as heavily as the girls. Thanks for the comment!

      Cooties, that would be another interesting one to deconstruct…

  7. Though this game sounds familiar, I don’t think I actually played it. But I spend most of my “free” moments in school with my nose in a book. That said, I agree with your critique, and something similar could be said about the Game of Life, which I absolutely loved playing. Lots of PF writers have already critiqued that game so I appreciate your expose on this one.

    1. Ah, the Game of Life. I hated that game because you basically had to have kids to do well, and it irritated me that you didn’t have a choice. I didn’t realize other bloggers had written about that game; I should google that.
      Reading a book sounds FAR preferable to playing M.A.S.H.! 🙂

  8. I’m trying to remember — I think we played MASH with that folded paper thing? (Like this one, which by the way, is from a fairly contemporary blog post!

    This is all part of that message, like Kate said, that you marry into your fate. I’m *hoping* that girls today don’t get this message as strongly, but I’m sure there’s still a healthy dose of it. Also the assumption that the mansion is the best outcome, and anything else is worse — I’m sorry, but I have NO desire for a mansion. 1800 square feet is already too much work! Any more space, and I’d have to pay help — another big NO THANKS. But the “richer is better” model, which I think IS still pervasive, leaves no room for work that’s good for society or personally fulfilling — the only good outcome is earning tons and spending tons. Blech, Not a good message! Though I think the tiny house movement is a passing fad (and the houses have really become fetish objects), I DO think it’s a good discussion for society to be having, especially among the younger generations, about how much space we really need. We have to stop the insanity of ever-increasing house size!

    1. It is insanity, I agree! Man, I hope the tiny house movement doesn’t turn out to be a passing fad — but even if it does, it at least is getting people thinking about other alternatives, as you say. Also my brother used to live in a yurt, which was, let’s say, not large. Maybe that will catch on. 😉

      Wow, that blog post that you linked to explaining the cootie-catcher version of M.A.S.H. still seems to be presenting it as a fun game. I googled around a bit about M.A.S.H. before writing this post and could find nothing negative, which really surprised me. The weird gender stuff in the game seems like such a huge issue to me, as does the materialism stuff, which I chose not to get into in this post because it was already too long. But I think the game really has a lot to say about what people value and don’t value, in several different arenas.

  9. I think I played my share of MASH too! So it’s not just a girly game!

    I don’t know if the kiddos these days play games like this. They’re too high tech w/ their iPads and Playstations to play games like these. I think I’m being the crabby old guy talking about how we had it hard…back in my day we didn’t have internet! Remember AOL? and how chat rooms were like the best thing ever? and Web TV? Random tangents by Vic…

    1. Aha, interesting! One other male commenter said that he played it in a group together with girls, and that the girls were doing most of the writing. Do you happen to remember whether you were playing it with other boys or in a coed group?

      Oh man, AOL. I was not allowed in chat rooms, but they sure seemed cool! Tangents by Vic are always appreciated, by the way. 🙂

      1. I don’t remember exactly who I played MASH with. I’m thinking I have a lot of girl cousins so maybe I played with them? I was also the kid that was friendly with the girls in class so maybe that’s it? Who knows. Memory escapes me in my advanced age 🙂

        I’m thinking us bloggers need to have one massive online game of something. Like isn’t there some board game where like 10 people can play and we just take turns whenever? Which would mean a game could last months. haha.

  10. I don’t remember playing this game but I don’t remember much from childhood anyway. I’m lucky my mom was so clear about her expectations for us–careers first, kids later (if desired). She wanted to ensure we weren’t dependent on a SO or marriage to have everything that the MASH game represents. In fact, both of my parents did a lot to combat gender stereotypes to raise us independent individuals with many skills. I am forever thankful we weren’t raised the way Disney wanted us to be.

    1. Wow, Claudia, it sounds like your mom had really thought a lot about these things — that’s fantastic. What a cool message to get growing up. And definitely very different from the Disney message, that’s for sure! The more I think about this stuff, the more I realize these messages encouraging women to plan their lives around marriage are literally everywhere. Yay for people who are working to combat this! 🙂

      1. I agree! Women are taught that the world is a scary place and she needs a SO (preferably husband) to be protected–the biases and assumptions here are too numerous to mention in a comment. 🙂 There were many college friends who graduated and almost immediately married, had kids and rushed into the huge 3-bedroom house. Where is the entrepreneurial spirit to pursue a different path?

        1. Yes, I totally agree. And yes, there’s too much about this to fit in a blog post, let alone a comment! 🙂 I definitely want to write more about it at some point.

          Also, I don’t know what is wrong with my spam catcher plugin, but for some reason it flagged several of your comments without approving them, and I only just figured it out today. Which is so weird because you’re clearly an approved commenter! I will try to get to the bottom of this…

  11. Ha! I’d forgotten all about this game. I think one of the other disturbing things is that I always chose cars that I knew I *should* want. I didn’t really know what a Jaguar looked like. (The first time I saw one, I was seriously disappointed. Why was THAT so expensive?!) But I knew that it was an expensive car, and we should want to have a nice (ie expensive) car.

    1. Hahaha, I am totally with you on the car thing. Car prices still seem totally arbitrary to me. (To be honest, I often feel somewhat the same about wines, at least higher-end ones: why does this wine cost twice as much as that wine??)

      But yeah, I think you make a good point about yet another problem with M.A.S.H.: it suggests that there are certain things we ought to be striving for, just because they’re expensive or because other people are striving for them. Not a great message! :/

  12. I think you’re spot on – like a lot of games (well, pop culture generally) from the mid 80’s, it’s pretty problematic.

    1. Ah, the good old materialistic ’80s! I really do wonder how common M.A.S.H. is among kids today…I somehow suspect it hasn’t totally faded away. :/

  13. This game seems familiar but it’s been so long. But I do remember playing similar type games. Overall I think harmless, but it is kind of funny that we start out life that way, thinking things will “happen” to us by fate or serendipity. If it were true I’m pretty sure I’d be married to Tony Thomson and be a movie star today. lol!

    1. Hey Tonya 🙂 Yeah, it is strange, isn’t it? I really wonder a lot about why so many kids tend to think in this way. I know I definitely did: I remember I used to have fantasies when I was a kid of getting “discovered”. I probably read one magazine article about a movie star who serendipitously fell into fame, and figured it could/would happen to me too! It took many years to get out of this way of thinking.

  14. I admit, I had forgotten about this kind of game. I know I played it at a few sleepovers, but always thought it was dumb. I was never one to believe life just happened like that. I guess the joy of pessimism (which I have had since I was 2.5).

    1. Hey Kristen, thanks for your comment. 🙂 How interesting that you connect it with pessimism. In any case, I think it’s cool that you rejected that kind of deterministic outlook as a young child. I definitely wish that I had been a bit more realistic and proactive in thinking about my future options.

    1. Neither did I, back when I was playing it! It was only recently that I started really thinking about it. It’s really such a strange game…

  15. I know I’m late to the game on this post, but I love it! I agree- girls internalize messages of how important it is to find a husband. Not even a spouse, but specifically a man. (This despite the numbers that prove higher rates of depression and less life satisfaction in married women than single women.) It feels like an inevitability, which ties into your point that choice is often taken out of girls hands. It’s some bullshit, and I’m so glad you took the time to examine it in this way!

    1. Glad you liked the post, Kara! I think the message to girls to find a husband above all else is definitely rampant — not just in MASH but in lots of contexts. The more I think about it, the more I think that a lot of the career (and other) choices I made in my 20s were based on the subconscious idea that it was more important for me to focus on finding a husband than on establishing a career or becoming financially stable. I wish I had realized this earlier so that I could have questioned it.

  16. I’m a man who played MASH as a boy, but I also usually hung out in groups of both boys and girls, so maybe that’s why.

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