Published on February 24th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Lego and the Pink and Blue Toy Industry
Lego is and always will be one of the best toys to give a kid who has finally figured out what’s edible and what isn’t. Through the variety of themes and styles that have been developed over the years, you can build whatever you want and explore whatever worlds you feel like. It’s a toy that doesn’t recognize the boundaries of race, gender, or religion. Until recently.
Among the different themes and licenses Lego has available is the Friends line, a selection of pretty pink sets featuring female mini-figures shopping at the mall and other similar activities one would stereotypically associate with women. Not surprisingly, this move threw up a lot of red flags for people and drew the ire of feminists around the world. How could a toy that has never catered to gender stereotypes suddenly make such polemic shift? How could they make a toy defined solely for girls with such stereotypical content? The answer is simple.
Lego has long made a variety of lines of sets, with licensed sets related to big entertainment franchises dominating their catalogue for more than a decade. Indiana Jones, The Lone Ranger, Marvel, DC, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit have all made Lego appearances. And their biggest and most profitable set catalogue belongs to Star Wars with sets from all the movies and the recent animated series. This is in addition to a plethora of other themes based on space exploration, medieval times, monsters, life in the city, and more. And, yes, Friends is one of those lines. But no one at Lego to the best of my recollection is remotely suggesting that female Lego enthusiasts should be relegated to only playing with this single line. It’s simply another line designed to hopefully appeal kids who don’t want to play with any of the other sets. The space sets don’t necessarily appeal to the medieval enthusiasts. Anyone can play with whatever lines they want. Period.
Where Lego has dropped the ball is in the number of female mini-figures in their other lines. Frankly, it’s a surprisingly low number. Female mini-figures are woefully underrepresented in space, medieval, and city themes, in part leading to the negative response to the Friends line where there are exclusively female mini-figures. (What, dudes don’t go to the mall too?) But the core of the issue is far deeper than that as the Friends line is frequently not shelved with the rest of the Lego sets.
Where do you find Friends? Most often in the girls section of the toy department, the pink area where all the My Little Ponies are and boys dare not venture.
This retail differentiation between boys and girls toys is misogynistic at its worst and archaic at its best. Not shelving the Friends line like regular Lego just deepens the belief that Lego itself is saying this toy is designed for girls and should be solely used by them. Here, Sally. You play with this. The other sets are for your brother. Is that actually what they’re saying? No, but that’s definitely what it looks like.
The separation of toys by gender based lines is a remnant of the belief that the toy you play with as a child can cause confusion in gender roles as said child matures. Again, the word archaic springs to mind. Let’s put this out there right now; playing with dolls will not make your son gay and playing with G.I. Joes will not turn your daughter into a lesbian. But such divisions are still prevalent in society. When ordering a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the person working the counter still asks you if the toy is for a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, everyone wants an awesome Adventure Time toy. Sure, you can always answer with whatever gender will get your child the toy they want but it’s an odd place to be making these kinds of distinctions. They can both eat McNuggets but only my son can have this specific toy and my daughter has to play with another?
If you ask these kinds of questions to anyone actually in a position to answer them, they will go into some kind of explanation about demographics and market research still indicating the necessity of such distinctions. In reality, it’s just that no one has pushed to change it yet. Show me who the sample group was, how the research was conducted, and how recent that research actually is. Maybe then I’ll buy that for a dollar. You don’t see sections in the kids department of bookstore separated by gender, do you? Not in any bookstore I’ve been to.
Still, Lego finds itself a target because of a decision that appears to be chasing a specific demographic, which is always a dangerous game at best. It’s more of a marketing decision than a design decision, which is mistake for a toy that has made its bones by being a design toy built on creativity. And it still is a creative toy, despite what some think.
Because of all the licensed sets and specialized parts now in Lego sets, there are those who complain that it’s less creative an experience to build than it was when you just got a bucket of random bricks back in the day. Poppycock and hogwash. If anything, it’s more creative. If you take all the sets in your house, and if your house is like mine there are several, you can take them apart and build whatever you want. If anything, specialized pieces have opened up the creativity by giving the builder more design options. It’s just easier to think that everything back in the day was superior, like dividing toys in stores by gender.
Kids are kids and are as such wholly unaware of these perceived gender bias issues. Adults are the ones slapping these labels on toys based on suspect market research, outdated practices, and misguided attempts to ‘protect’ children. Just let them play with whatever they want to play with, assuming what they want to play with isn’t a loaded handgun or a live rattlesnake. There are more than a few boys who have a collection of G.I. Joes and Spider-Man figures in their toy cupboards next to their My Little Ponies. And every little girl should have a kick ass dump truck to run over her Barbie dolls with.
Whether or not Lego intends for the Friends line to be girls only is irrelevant. What is relevant is how we as parents choose to let our children play. When you go to Toys R Us next time, don’t automatically bypass the ‘boys section’ just because you’re there with your daughter. These stereotypes might be perpetrated by retailers and manufacturers but they’re fostered in our children by us if we choose to let them take root.