WoB Talk

February 20, 2012

Leggo My Lego

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kari Maaren @ 7:07 am

Okay, yes, admittedly, I just drew a comic on this very subject.  However, a number of people have responded to it, and I, in my turn, have responded to them with some mini-Rants that have threatened to turn into non-mini-Rants.  I know it’s a silly thing to rage about when the world is plagued by actual problems, but then, I rarely deal with actual problems in this blog.*  So here we go:  Why I Want to Punch Lego in the Face.

The basic situation is as follows:

Lego has been around since the 1940s.  Unbeknownst to many North Americans, the toy actually originated in Denmark, but it has since become popular worldwide.  Lego’s current marketing strategy, in place for the past seven years or so, has almost exclusively targeted boys, despite what I would characterise as the gender-neutral nature of the basic toy.  I mean, it’s a bunch of plastic bricks you can use to build stuff.  Are we really going to claim that girls will be naturally less interested in this sort of thing?  Why, exactly?

As of late (i.e., over the course of the past few decades), Lego has become more and more interested in producing “themes” instead of just plunking a bunch of brightly-coloured bricks down into a huge tub and letting children have at them.  A visit to the Lego site will give you something like thirty-five thematic options, each containing sub-options.  Some of these themes allow the toys to be broken up and added to the glorious piles of loose bricks; others are less adaptable.  Lego has occasionally come out with “girls’ lines,” some of which combine with the regular bricks more easily than others.  The latest girls’ line, Lego Friends, involves a number of female characters–all of them differing in several ways from the regular Lego minifigs–who are apparently bestest friends with each other and spend their days hanging out in beauty parlours and cafes.  The marketing for this line involves a lot of pink and purple and seems to imply that it will allow little girls to emulate the exciting lives of the Desperate Housewives.

Lego Friends is just one of Lego’s thirty-odd lines.  The other lines are marketed to boys.  This includes the Harry Potter line and the Spongebob Squarepants line.  I was not aware that Harry and Spongebob did not interest girls at all.  The minifigs in these lines are mainly male, with some token females scattered about here and there.

The mere existence of Lego Friends is not what has me Ranting and making frowny-faces.  Some girls are, well, girly.  They like frilly princess dresses and play house a lot.  If that’s what floats their boats, more power to them.  Some girls, however, do quite like, well, building things.  They like adventure.  They like running around with imaginary swords.  They like imagining that they are princesses who outwit dragons while dressed only in paper bags.  They are fond of pirates.  I wouldn’t actually identify any of these “likes” as normally being exclusive to boys.

Why is it necessary to have a “girls’ line,” anyway?  Why not advertise all Lego for all children?  Ads that exclude girls are going to drive girls away.  Are you afraid, Lego, that ads that include girls will drive boys away?  Why do we simply accept that it’s okay for boys to be ashamed of being associated with “girly toys” and “girly books”?  What would be so terrible about just making as many female minifigs as male instead of including a few female ones as tokens?  Would the whole concept of a toy with which both boys and girls could identify, not because it was specifically gendered but because it offered scope for children to imagine out stories involving male and female characters, truly be that much of a problem?  Is the idea of a gender-neutral toy really such a revolutionary concept?

People who disagree with me on this one tend to ask what the problem is.  If girls want to play with Lego geared towards boys, these people say, there’s nothing stopping them.  The Lego is there; they can skip Lego Friends and go straight for the space stuff.  What these people are disregarding is that lack of female minifigs.  It could be pointed out that there’s nothing stopping little boys from playing with Lego Friends, but many would probably agree that there is something stopping them:  the fact that all the characters in this line are female.  Even if a male character were introduced, he would be a token, like Ken in the Barbie pantheon.  We tend to assume that boys should never be expected to identify with female characters and may, in fact, be incapable of doing so.  Simultaneously, little girls who want the more adventurous Lego are assumed to be fine with playing with mostly male minifigs.  Lego is thus, again, framed as a boys’ toy; girls who buy the sets on sale in the “boys’ aisle” of the toy store are deviating from the norm of their gender instead of just choosing to play with a neat toy.  The fact that they have fewer characters with whom to identify shouldn’t be a problem because everyone should be able to identify with male characters.

Incidentally, why not encourage male interest in Lego Friends?  There are, heaven forbid, some little boys who might be attracted to the idea of going to the beauty parlour and then chilling in the cafe with their BFFs.  Why not do Lego Friends with minifigs so it can be combined more seamlessly with other sets, and “Emma” and “Olivia” can hang out with “Harry Potter” and “Voldemort”?  Why not introduce a few spin-offs?  Lego Friends in Space!  Lego Friends in Their Time-Travelling Ice-Cream Truck!  Lego Friends Discover a Dystopian Otherworld in the Sewers of Heartlake City!  If you’re going to embrace themes, Lego, don’t stop with the boring stuff and claim you’re covering the female demographic.  Let the girls have their adventures too.  Also, consider using a bit of green and dark blue in the bricks used to construct the beauty parlour.  Better yet, build a comic-book store next door.

The possibilities here are actually limitless, and no, I am not being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek.  I hate Lego Friends at the moment, but the hatred doesn’t have to last.  The line seems limited because Lego appears to have set limits on it.  If it tried, it could do more than simply assume that all girls were alike and should be exposed to only one type of play.

*Unless the actual problems involve bullying in some way.

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11 Comments »

  1. Oh. Haven’t been around a toys store in the past 15 years or so, so I didn’t go Lego had gone in that direction. A pity – I love Lego as a kid. In a similar vein, I remember playing with my dad’s old Meccano at my grandmother’s (the new ones are pretty much limited to making cars) – I’d never thought about what gender it was targeted to and my dad and grandma definitely didn’t care – until my aunt came and started exclaiming that it was so funny to see a little girl play with a Meccano, next thing she’ll want to become an engineer! (Admittedly, even at a young age I was always very verbal and usually more into books and languages than science-y stuff, so I can see that she was surprised, but still…)

    Of course, my aunt is dumb. In general, though, I think it’s a pity that pretty much all construction games have gone from “here’s some construction material, do whatever you want with it” to “here’s the stuff to build a spacecraft and nothing but a spacecraft, now be a good kid and follow the directions”. I mean, isn’t it the creative aspect that made it fun? Those new versions must be hopelessly boring.

    Comment by Roeslein — February 20, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  2. I want to build a robot. How hard can mechanical engineering be?

    In the middle of your rant I went off on a rant of my own about the restrictions of gender constructs and why can’t anything a girl can do be a girl’s behaviour instead of there being some imaginary line across which she become threatening to society’s norms.

    Don’t get me started…

    Comment by mimi — February 20, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  3. Let me start by saying that I agree with your thesis. There is no reason Lego should create a divide between genders.

    However, it is not something new to Lego. I grew up with ’80s and early ’90s Lego sets. The themes had established themselves by then: town, space, castle, and later pirates. The city line was probably most gender-neutral, but even there we had an astounding number of police cars, fire trucks, construction vehicles. The female minifigs (identifiable by wigs, and sometimes a necklace printed on the torso) appeared mostly in trains and things like houses or shops. This minifig set has a 4:2 male/female ratio (and one of the females is holding a broom…): http://www.brickset.com/detail/?Set=6302-1 . Space didn’t have any obviously female minifigs at all (but with the helmets and standard smiles it’s hard to tell); castle and pirates fared little better.

    In recent years (following the hugely successful Star Wars line) Lego has started licensed themes. I think this may actually have increased the number of female minifigs slightly, with the Hermiones and Ginnies. And I haven’t seen any Spongebob marketing material, but is that really so obviously aimed at boys?

    My second complaint with your rant is that you treat Lego in isolation. To me, it seems that Lego is following the toy industry standard: “is it a construction toy? Then it’s for boys. Is it pink? Then it’s for girls.” It’s stupid, and causes no end of trouble down the road (where are all the science and engineering girls?), but it’s what seems to sell, and Lego needs to sell their stuff. Apart from that shameful “Friends” line, they don’t seem to be nearly the worst offenders.

    In closing: may I point your attention to the collectable minifig series they’ve launched? While female characters form the minority, they are certainly there, and not always in stereotypical roles. http://minifigures.lego.com/en-us/Bios/Default.aspx

    Comment by fan — February 20, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

  4. Fan: Thanks for an interesting perspective. I do agree that my Rant doesn’t cover every angle, but that is mainly because it’s already over 1,000 words long, which is pretty hefty for a blog post. I could go on about this issue for months. I don’t deny that this problem has been brewing for a while, and I’m certainly not saying that things used to be better on the minifigs front; I do think Lego ads used to include girls occasionally, but it’s true that there have never been as many female minifigs, and many sets come with only males. I was five in 1980, so my Lego experience was mostly ’80s-based. We had a lot of random bricks, some house parts, some trees and flowers, some truck parts, and some spaceship parts. I remember that most of the minifigs were male (or in helmets); there were one or two female ones. I’m not trying to whitewash over any of this; it was pretty bad. However, that was thirty years ago. The fact that things sucked in the past, mostly because the establishment was still clinging to societal gender stereotypes, doesn’t mean that things must continue to suck now. It’s the very lack of change I object to, especially in light of the anti-feminist backlash that has given us the drive back towards “traditional” family structures and gender roles. As well, the shift away from free play and towards “themes,” some of which are difficult to integrate with the random bricks, means that it’s now harder to ignore the gendering of the toy.

    Regarding Spongebob: the one Lego Spongebob commercial I’ve seen shows only the hands of the children. However, it does use advertising tropes frequently associated with boys: driving music, a sportscaster-like male narrator, quick cuts, an exciting hero-vs.-villain story. I’m not saying that I, personally, would not get all overly stimulated by this commercial. I’m saying that as far as the advertisers themselves are concerned, they’re targeting boys. If they were targeting girls, the commercial would have tweedly music, a cloying female narrator, longer takes, and an emphasis on puppies and ponies. As far as I’m concerned, both assumptions are unfair. Some girls will go for the “boy” commercials; some boys will be attracted by the “girl” commercials.

    It’s true that I treat Lego in isolation here. Again, this is because the Rant is already so long. I do mention the “boys’ aisle” of the toy store; perhaps I’ll deal with that issue in a separate Rant. If I walk into a toy store and find a blue aisle and a pink aisle, my first impulse is to walk right out again. Lego Friends is a symptom of a larger problem: the basic assumption that boys and girls belong to different species and should be segregated in their play in preparation for the gender segregation of the adult world. Okay, yes, gender segregation sells. There are two arguments here: it could sell because it’s what people want, and it could sell because it’s all people are offered. I tend to plump for the latter. My favourite toy store tends to avoid the whole gender-segregation thing, and as far as I can tell, it’s never NOT teeming with customers.

    I do think things need to change, but just saying, “Well, that’s the way things are, so we need to accept it and move on” is probably not going to help much. Things are the way they are for various reasons; it doesn’t mean trying something new won’t work. Has Lego even bothered to make its Tubs o’ Bricks widely available lately? I checked online out of curiosity, and the only place I can find one is eBay (for twice what it’s actually worth).

    Comment by Kari Maaren (@angrykem) — February 20, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

  5. Their own online store has some of that in the category “Bricks and More”: http://shop.lego.com/en-US/Bricks-More-ByTheme . I don’t see the good old 1000-piece blue tubs, but there are quite a few 650-piece boxes.

    If you walk into a Lego store (Toronto has two, it seems), you’ll find the “pick-a-brick” wall has a prominent position.

    I don’t know about eBay pricing, but remember that Lego is bloody expensive.

    Comment by fan — February 20, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  6. This 704-piece Lego tub on eBay is what I was thinking of. I do know that Lego tends to be expensive (the Lego people have got to be making a killing).

    I’ve never been to either Toronto Lego store; both are a bit out of the way. Perhaps I’ll venture up to the Don Mills one when my niece and nephew are a bit older (my nephew is still at the age where if you handed him a Lego brick, he would eat it). The pick-a-brick wall does seem dangerous; it would be like being let loose in a candy store.

    Comment by Kari Maaren (@angrykem) — February 20, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

  7. I was just procrastinating on my marking, and I came across this Lego ad from the 1960s. I do find the terribly transparent gender portrayals amusing–the boy builds a PLANE! the girl builds a HOUSE!–but hey: there are both boys and girls in the commercial. The toy is marketed to both at once. That doesn’t happen very often with any toy any more.

    Comment by Kari Maaren (@angrykem) — February 20, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

  8. Well, you’re kind on that eBay seller: that is nearer to 3 times its actual value!

    I love the old ad.

    Comment by Stefan — February 21, 2012 @ 4:21 am

  9. Yeah…when I said “two times,” I WAS being kind, but I was also remembering the price as being about $70. I was clearly wrong about that.

    The old ad is fantastic. Old ads in general tend to be fun to watch. It’s also worth noting that though the girl is, predictably, the one to build the house, it’s a pretty kick-ass house.

    Comment by Kari Maaren (@angrykem) — February 21, 2012 @ 4:49 am

  10. The problem is that so many people honestly believe that gender segregation in play is a natural thing. A housemate of mine was horrified when I said my nephew had a dolls house and was totally convinced that he wouldn’t play with it the way a girl would. Boys are violent and will automatically play with guns and shooting people. Girls are not, they’ll play house and the like. Somehow the opposite is never meant to happen (which contradicts my own memories, but I’m a mathematician so clearly not a “real” female, because men are naturally more gifted this way, females in the area are an anomaly).

    I’ve known parents that tell me things like “we never treated our children differently because of their gender” – to which I generally reply that I don’t believe them and that they probably did. I’m sure they choose their clothing and gave them names that were associated with particular genders (I know they did). It’s actually hard to avoid – my sister complains a bit that it’s really hard to buy girls clothes that aren’t all pink and purple. If you dressed your daughter in “boys clothes” then this leads to its own problems (for the child), because then they are “dressing like a boy”. From what my sister has said, her kids weren’t worried about things being for boys or for girls until they started going to school/clubs etc. and interacted with others (she doesn’t have tv, so they don’t get influenced by tv ads except second hand). Personally, I’m pretty much convinced that ads and marketing matter – a LOT in this respect. Add this to parents and grandparents that teach kids that what they do in life should be determined by their sex, and it’s hard to see change.

    Personally I’m all for lego marketed towards interior design and that sort of thing, I just don’t like how they’ve done it and how it’s kind of implying that this is the only option for girls and is just for girls. Does everything have to be pink and purple and frilly? If this was just one of many then it’d be a different matter. As a kid I never had lego, but my neighbours did. They basically had the massive collection and you turned it into whatever you wanted. The themes can be good (seriously, instructions for the young child who wants a helicopter isn’t going to stop them using it for other things or making other things with other blocks), but they do need to be more gender inclusive – and both ways. So totally for lego being actively marketed for girls, just wish the actual products didn’t have to differ so much from what is marketed to boys.

    Comment by Mer — February 25, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

  11. Mer: you make some good points. It’s hard to get away from the gendering of young children because our society seems to expect it. The bit that bothers me the most is that there’s an element of shame associated with boys who like “girl stuff.” A girl who is into cars and sports and explosions is a “tomboy,” which has become an accepted category of femaleness but also one a girl is expected to grow out of. In the media, tomboys are frequently portrayed as admirable loners; they’re “different,” but not really in a bad way. They’re simply misunderstood by their peers, who can’t see that these girls just want adventure and excitement in their lives. “Female” becomes a category that must be transcended by the tomboys; they’re still girls, but they’re girls who want a little bit more (sort of like the character Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). “Tomboy” can be a negative category, but many portrayals emphasise it as a category that is wrongly viewed negatively by society. Effeminate boys, on the other hand, are generally mocked. The word “effeminate” itself has negative connotations. I know someone who doesn’t like his son watching Dora the Explorer because it features a female protagonist. Dora the Explorer is designed to appeal to three-year-olds! Almost all the characters except Dora are male! Yet this person sees the completely innocuous Dora as a threat to his son’s masculinity.

    When I was a kid, I played with Lego, dolls, stuffed animals, a tea set, a collection of miniature cars, marbles, jacks, skipping ropes, baseballs, tennis balls, badminton sets, a Pogo stick, and various board games and puzzles: basically anything you threw at me. My sister and I would play Batman and Robin (I was Batman). I had both “girl” toys and “boy” toys, and I didn’t really think of them as “girl” toys and “boy” toys. They were toys. I owned one Transformer and one Barbie, both of which were fun to mess around with. I wasn’t a girly girl. I wasn’t really a tomboy either; I was extremely bad at sports. I suppose “bookworm” would have been the appropriate term for me. Note the fact that it is not a gendered word. We seem increasingly reluctant to let kids be kids; we cram them into gender categories as soon as they’re born and don’t know what to do with them if our labels don’t fit them.

    Regarding Lego being marketed to girls: there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is that the Lego people felt they had to think up a whole new product to market. I do think this may go back to the “shame” thing; there’s a fear that if “boy toys” are marketed to girls as well, boys will be driven away from them. Thus the genders must be segregated via their toys. I’m going to go bang my head against the wall now.

    Comment by Kari Maaren (@angrykem) — February 25, 2012 @ 3:30 pm


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