The Board Game That Turns Feminism Into a Joke

I played Ms. Monopoly so that you don’t have to.

Hasbro / The Atlantic

First we have to choose the pieces we’ll play with.

There are many options: an airplane (“It’s how I get around the world at a moment’s notice!” the game’s packaging explains), a barbell (“Love my mornings at the gym!”), a journal (“It’s full of ideas!”), a wine glass (“Put your energy into empowering others, and your glass will always be half full!”), and a watch (“Don’t you agree it’s time for some change?”). There’s also a standard top hat—this one painted white (“Mr. Monopoly isn’t the only one who can rock a top hat. And that white sure makes a statement!”).

Shrugging, I pick the wine glass. Shrugging, Andrew picks the hat. We set up the board.

We’re playing Ms. Monopoly not so much because we thought it’d be fun—I don’t think I have ever in my life had fun playing Monopoly—but because I was curious and Andrew is patient. I’d just seen the ad promoting the game—the one that resurfaced this week, after it was originally posted last fall, and that is … if you haven’t seen it already, you should probably just watch it:

And so I asked Andrew, a man, to join me in a round of the game that is supposed to celebrate womanhood. I wanted to know how Monopoly, a game premised on the notion that the zealous accumulation of wealth is a fun way to pass the time, would treat feminism.

The answer is: pretty much in the way you’d expect. Only, somehow, worse. The game, one of the many spin-offs of Monopoly that Hasbro has dreamed up in recent years, is centered on the character of Ms. Monopoly, the niece of Mr. Monopoly, the game’s top-hatted and mustachioed avatar. The idea is that she’s a Silicon Valley–style investor who is focused on the inventions of women. (An explanatory note informed us, with no evident mordancy, that the niece of Mr. Monopoly—himself a character who is also known as “Rich Uncle Pennybags”—is “a self-made investment guru.” This was a hint of what was to come.)

The board mimics the layout of the original Monopoly. Along its perimeter, in place of the standard “properties,” are goods and services that were invented—or partially invented—by women: windshield wipers, bulletproof vests, round-edged makeup applicators, and so on. Cards list the products on one side (“Fire Escape”) and, on the other, a brief explanation (“1887: Before Anna Connelly’s fire escape bridge, people had to parachute or rappel from burning buildings!”). The goal is to buy up those products—so that, ostensibly, as you learn about women’s achievements, you can also profit from them. (In Ms. Monopoly, it is possible to own, and then charge rent on, “modern shapewear.”) At the center of it all, on the board, is Ms. Monopoly herself: Clad in a blazer, heels, and skinny jeans, one of her hands is on her hip and the other clutches a portable coffee cup. It is printed with the word BOSS.

Ms. Monopoly, turn by turn, echoes the logic of the original: Move around the board, buy properties, pay rent on other players’ properties, get money for passing “GO.” It is all fairly familiar. Still, the most consistent emotion Andrew and I experience while playing the game is confusion. One of Ms. Monopoly’s primary gimmicks is that it is “the first game where women make more money than men”; its instructions stipulate that the lady players should start off with more money ($400 more) than the guys, and also get $240 for passing “GO,” while men get the traditional $200. We dutifully follow the directions: Roll the dice, move forward, buy, pay, repeat. Andrew lands on Community Chest. This is what his card says: “You see the newest superhero movie with a female lead, and it’s awesome! COLLECT $50. If you’re a man, COLLECT $100.”

We understand that this is a board game intended for ages 8 and up and probably shouldn’t be overthought. We get that it’s probably meant to be played by women, and that there might be something quietly powerful in the way its instructions and assertions default, correctively, to the women’s perspective. But still we are confused: Is the idea that women start with more money but then, over the course of the game, watch that readjustment swing back in favor of men? Is it simply that men should be rewarded extra for seeing a film that stars a woman? Why $400 more for the women at the outset? Why $40 more with each rounding of the board? How is the Hasbro corporation defining “woman”?

The instructions themselves offer very few explanations. And the subsequent rounds keep reminding us that we should resist attempts to find coherence in this gamified treatment of corporate feminism. But even “fun,” in this condensed economy, is in notably short supply. A Chance card informs Andrew at one point, “You dropped your phone in the toilet!” and then announces that his punishment will be to move back three spaces on the board. Another shares the good news that “your office replaces its glass ceiling with solar panels!” A Community Chest card requires me to pay $25 to the bank because I “buy a new pair of high heels, and ouch! (They were probably designed by a man).”

The line between celebration and condescension, I am remembering, is a thin one. Today’s Monopoly is a version of The Landlord’s Game, created by Lizzie Magie in the early 1900s—a time when American culture was treating board games not just as tools of diversion, but also as methods of communication. Her game, Magie wrote, was intended as an argument against Gilded Age inequality—“a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” Until recently, though, Monopoly’s mythology insisted on a different origin story: that it had been created by a man named Charles Darrow. (Darrow had merely learned of the game from a friend—and then sold it to Parker Brothers in the 1930s, ultimately making millions.) The woman invented; the man got the credit. The original game argued against inequality; the game that caught on made entertainment out of exploitation itself.

So you can see Ms. Monopoly, for all its cartoonish cheeriness, as a belated act of atonement. You can see it as yet one more reminder of how commonly women’s “empowerment” is understood to be an outgrowth of capitalism. Being just a game, Monopoly inoculates itself from the need to answer. Fun is its own reply. But, circling the board, I keep thinking about how well-meaning parents might buy Ms. Monopoly for their kids. I keep thinking about Magie’s insight that games are also instruction manuals. Money as an easy sport, women as an easy monolith, “empowerment” as an easy fix, around and around it goes.

“How … much longer are we going to play?” Andrew asks. Not much; I’m tired too. We put in a few more rounds—“ice-cream maker,” “hairbrush,” “dishwasher”—before we decide to call it. He ends up with $1,655. I end up with $4,340. But in this game, there’s no winning.