LEGO, You Ain’t no Friends of Mine
So, we got the new LEGO catalog the other day.
This is always a big day in our household, especially for me, as it’s when I can start planning my holiday shopping for the kids and usually identify what I want under the x-mas tree as well. (Pro tip – it is usually a large building with preferably more than 2000 pieces. 😉
For myself, I was happy to see that they still have the Fairground Mixer listed as available, as I think it would fit nicely with Mo’s obsession with how the rides at
ourcounty fair operated, as evidenced by at least half the pictures I tried to take involving her looking away from the camera at the machinery with a gigantic grin on her face. And the Mini Cooper would be fun.
And I’m sure that my son will find at least half a dozen sets that he would happily receive, although I kind of think that for the most part, he’d rather have more Axis and Allies miniatures.
Poor beleagured Mo.
She immediately turned to the Friends pages and broke her mother’s heart.
“Are these the girl Legos Mommy?”
“Er, well, those have a lot of girl figures, but they’re for anyone who wants to play with them, sweetie.”
“But are these for girls,” she asks pointing to the 3 or so pages splashed with pink and aqua, “and these for boys?” she finished, indicating the rest of the catalogue.
“No, they are all for kids, for anyone who wants to play with them, girls or boys.”
“But these are all boys,” she says, looking at just about everything. “This is for boys,” she says, pointing at a Mindstorm robot.
“No, sweetheart, those are for older kids who want to build and program robots. It’s a little old for you now, but we can get you one in a few years if you want.”
She considered that. Then we walked through the catalogue, me pointing out the female characters in Star Wars (sadly few identifiable in the latest round of releases), and Ninjago (ah, Nya, so much rides on you), Chima (“See, this is a girl and this whole huge mammoth belongs to her!”), and she did note Wyldstyle from the Lego Movie sets. And I pointed out all of the women and girls in the Expert level town buildings (all of which were literally shadowing our conversation from the shelves behind the couch) and the aforementioned Mixer.
But in the end, she still returned to the Friends pages. And honestly, I can see why. She’s 4, and the cute animals and bright colors appeal to her in a way I would expect them to appeal to any preschooler. Those jungle rescue sets are pretty sweet and show the girls of Heartlake City having real adventures and actually doing something active and interesting. And as we all know, my daughter never shies away from anything pink.
I had high hopes for those Jungle adventures, to be honest. Because damn it, I want to like Lego products. And really, in a vacuum, they look pretty cool. The gals are camping (something my daughter loves) and hanging out in their jungle tree house with a zipline and a slide and more of those cute animals. They fly helicopters and pilot boats and drive ATVs (just how old are these girls, anyway). I want to encourage her love of nature and science and while I still hate the girly-figs, these sets get her right where she lives.
But I can’t quite get over the shopping center on the next page. I know I’ve said before that there is nothing inherently wrong with a certain level of stereotypically “girly” activities, this takes the cake, with a bridal salon and a figure in full on spa gear and a facial. From Lego’s own description:
Head to Heartlake Shopping Mall for a girls’ day out! Stephanie and Emma are driving there in their new convertible for a fun day of fashion. Check out the sports shop and try on a dress in the bridal boutique. Then head to the food court for a slice of pizza before a well-earned relax in the spa with Sophie. Take some pictures in the photo booth before strutting down the catwalk in the charity fashion show while the DJ spins the decks, all to raise awareness for jungle animal rescue. Phew – what a day!
More like “Eew – what a day!”
And this is not happening in a vacuum. It is like 1 step forward, 2 steps back with this company. Sure, they make the Research Institute, more commonly known as the “female scientist sets”, under duress, then they sell out in days and state that they won’t restock. (Meanwhile, co-branded products like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future sets have become long term fixtures.) They come out with sorta cool sets like the Jungle Friends, but back that up with total vapidity (a bridal salon? Really?)
Then there’s this, a quote from LEGO’s CEO, in an article just last week, which suggests he’s never actually looked at his US product line:
I don’t buy this premise that the number of minifigures needs to be an equal amount to be gender neutral. Nobody makes artistic products like that, nobody makes a movie and says there has to be equal numbers of men and women.
It’s more about how you portray those figures … are you respectful, are you stereotyping boys into always being policemen and stereotyping girls into being hairdressers or… are you painting a much more balanced real life picture that children can identify with? -LEGO CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp
As noted by Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of Redefining Girly and founder of Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies (and, full disclosure, also a friend), “Stereotyping the sexes is **exactly** what [LEGO does].” Aside from moving the goalposts – asking for some sort of gender balance – the inclusion of more female police officers or a single woman on the arctic explorer team, and more integrated inclusion of girls in LEGO’s marketing and product development, rather than specific and deliberate exclusion. We want Friends to be a gateway to broader opportunities for cross-gender play, not a systematic way of treating girls as different and not as interested in being powerful or driving fast (seriously, look at this ad for the new Fusion sets in this fabulous post, something we thought might be awesome, but which treats boys and girls as if they are different species, one hard driving and one giggly, rather than realizing that inclusion sells and little girls, just like little boys, like variety and have multiple interests.
I love playing with LEGO, I LOVE building their sets, and of course, I can selectively purchase just those sets that better reflect my values, but that doesn’t change the underlying messaging my daughter receives about where she belongs in LEGOLand (and the accessories she should be wearing while in it). Not buying the shopping mall isn’t enough, when every dollar spent on the Friends line reinforces its overall popularity. And I’m just not sure how much more money I want to give to a company that doesn’t actually seem to want half of my family as a customer, except in the most limited of ways.
Featured image, courtesy of Flickr user mahjqa. Future engineer on a fair ride from the author’s personal collection. Lego image via wikia.