The Great LEGO Debate
As some of you may have noticed, LEGO is receiving a great deal of attention from the media and blogosphere regarding their new ‘Friends’ line, aimed specifically at girls. Many are expressing disappointment and frustration at the same old gendered stereotyping that has been trotted out by toy companies for generations now. Others see subversive potential in the new LEGO line. Either way, you’d think four years and millions of dollars later, LEGO could have come up with something more original than pink beauty parlors. There’s even a petition being circulated urging LEGO to, among other things, ditch their current ad campaign and make their ‘regular’ sets more appealing to girls by selling them in the so-called ‘girl aisles’ in toy stores. As Lyn Mikel Brown put it, LEGO already has a perfect product for girls. It’s called LEGO. While I’m apt to agree with most of the criticism being levelled here, I have hesitated to sign the petition. I think this issue is slightly more complex than it first appears.
You see, for decades now, feminists have fought for women to have the same rights as men; we’ve worked towards building a world that sees women as persons who are as fully human and capable as men. And this is a wonderful thing! In many respects, we’ve made huge gains in achieving gender parity (there’s still a long way to go, but that’s another post altogether). BUT, there seems to an unfortunate side effect. Some people refer to it as femmephobia. Rather than traits and behaviours that are assigned feminine qualities being seen as equally valuable as those assigned masculine qualities, they are instead devalued due to their association with the feminine. Masculinity is the more valued option; therefore, it’s acceptable for women and girls to want to engage in the same activities as men because those activities are more respected for being associated with masculinity. On the other hand, boys and men who enjoy so-called ‘feminine’ activities and behaviours are ridiculed and pathologized.
What is considered masculine and feminine is pretty much arbitrary though, as is the value we place on them. Thus, we have concepts like blue is masculine and therefore suited to boys, and pink is feminine and therefore suited to girls. Of course, this is just the current trend and has been subject to change throughout history, but people are generally short-sighted about these things. As it stands, many people would agree that girls are more naturally drawn to toys that are pink. Obviously, LEGO is banking on this by presenting us with the pink, feminine ‘Friends’ line for girls, and every other line for boys. The assumption is that girls don’t want to play with toys unless they’re stereotypically feminine and boys don’t want to play with them unless they’re not.
Let’s look at a couple examples to illustrate. First, a commercial for the new ‘Friends’ line:
And now one for Lego ‘Build Together':
Is there anything inherently wrong with either of these ads? Not necessarily. I think the problem lies not with their content, but with the very narrow gender roles they present. Take the second ad, for instance; there’s nothing wrong with marketing LEGO as a way for fathers and sons to bond, but why not also have a commercial with a father and daughter? Or mother and daughter? Or brother and sister? The same goes for the LEGO Friends ad. The implicit message is that only girls would want to pretend to go for coffee or get their hair done while playing with LEGO. What about little boys who are more social and less inclined to build houses? This type of marketing limits choices for girls and boys.
That’s why I’ve been hesitant to sign the petition. The ‘Friends’ line isn’t inherently negative; there’s no reason to shame girls OR boys who enjoy playing with things that are pink and ‘girly’. The problem is how these products are presented — each is appropriate for boys or girls, but never both. Were girls and boys to see themselves represented in ads for all LEGO products, I think they’d be interested in playing with most of them. As it stands, they’ve been told from a very young age that only certain toys are appropriate for them because of their gender. In that light, it makes sense that LEGO’s market research told them girls like pink and boys like everything else.
I’d like to see a LEGO line, available in a rainbow of colours, marketed to all kids, regardless of their sex. I’d also like a unicorn. Hopefully the first wish is more likely.