In the post-Christmas slurry of newly unwrapped plastic playthings, it’s clear that parents of young girls fall into one of two camps. There are those who attempt to resist the tides of pink princess crap. And somewhere else, there are those who think the whole pink ghetto thing is genius.
Starting tomorrow, parents in North America will have another litmus test for the strategy of their gender indoctrination: whether to buy their daughters “Lego Friends,” Lego sets that have undergone specific redesign to be, allegedly, more appealing to the fairer sex.
Chief among these newfound appeals is its pastel-tone building blocks and redesigned minifigures that are, as far as plastic minifigures go, significantly more life-like than the traditional, “iconic” minifigures. Picking up on girls’ apparent interest in creating narratives for their playthings, according to Lego’s research, each minifigure has a pre-set character — Olivia the smart girl, Andrea the singer, Emma the beautician, &c.
(Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that Lego has attempted to cater exclusively to girls, however: this graphic shows the various attempts to market to the demo. You’ll notice the — apparently not particularly lucrative — assumption that the epitome of playtime for young girls is making bracelets. Go figure.)
Spurned on by an extensive article in Bloomberg Businessweek detailing Lego Friends’ genesis, the interweb (subsection: feminist commentary) was awash with condemnation for the line. Jezebel’s damning headline read, “Lego Targets Girls With Pink Blocks, Cute Figures, & No Creativity”, even though the article was illustrated with a graphic of one of the new minifigures in a scientific laboratory, apparently designing a robot. (How sexist!) Apart from the new minifigure and the colour scheme, very little seemed out of place from lego sets from the 80s or 90s.
Remarkably, the feminist response to Lego Friends prompted a pro-Friends website: the assiduously updated “Feminists freak out over Lego Friends” (seriously, 17 posts in 17 days). An example of the blog’s complaints: that that “Riley on Marketing” video (the one with the three-year-old ranting about “why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff”, the one that’s been viewed 2.7 million times) was actually staged by the kid’s feminist (gasp!) mom intent on sabotaging Lego Friends’ release.
On a more realistic note, The New York Times enlisted Peggy Orenstein to point out that, while girls and boys may play differently with toys (insert some stuff about gender-essentialized play styles here), the advantages of having Free-to-be-me-and-you–style play are significant. Boys who grow up in egalitarian homes take better care of babies, she points out, and girls with older brothers have stronger spatial skills than younger siblings (of both genders!) with an older sister. She concludes that “blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine.”
What’s intriguingly absent from all of these conversations, however, is the role that parents play as purchasers of plastic toy crap for their kids. When Mads Nipper, Lego’s executive VP for products and marketing, in the Bloomberg piece, passes the following judgement on Lego’s icon minifig: “Let’s be honest: Girls hate him”, the world of children’s toys is deliciously free of the greater context of the market and the role of parents-as-consumers.
With the five years of research informing Friends’ release, and thus in Nipper’s mind, we are now uncovering some essential Girl that exists outside of time and culture, one that is simultaneously a transcendent ideal and an ideal consumer.
Speaking of children as consumers with tendencies unmediated by cultural trends or market foibles, however, belies the central reality of toy production: parents do the buying. Sure, nagging children are effective, but they are not the ones forking over the money.
Moreover, the whole issue of girls not playing with Lego blocks isn’t because they are somehow essentially deficient in the manual dexterity or spatial reasoning departments, but because the unisex Lego largely went the way of the dodo in the early aughts. Lego nowadays is a “for boys” not because boys suddenly pushed aside the girls in some real-time scuttle to the toy bin. Rather, issues like Lego’s commitment to quality (read: virtually indestructible) blocks intervened: once you got Lego, you got Lego for a lifetime. Not exactly encouragement to buy more blocks and keep the Danish company afloat. There were a few bad marketing decisions along the way, too, that prompted Lego to abandon its unisex design and begin launching boy-specific toys starting in 2004. The focus paid off, however, and paid off again with collaborations like Stars Wars Lego (aside: my six-year-old daughter’s first successful Google search was for “star wars lego games”, which both impressed and terrified me) and Harry Potter.
Maybe what Lego should consider bottling for the ‘rents, however, is the 70s and 80s gender-utopic vision of Lego. Just as cranky classics like Good Night Moon remain classics not because of their enduring relevance to childhood, but because parents want to revisit their childhoods through and with their children, so are the primary-colour Lego blocks for those who are babymaking these days. As for me, I think my nostalgia lingers like that of many other mothers who grew up playing with Lego; it lingers in the whereabouts of that 1981 poster for Lego featuring the girl with the proud engineer-girl dimples and the “beauty” that is more mischievous than poised.