Saturday, January 7, 2012

Gendered Consumption, Girls, and LEGO Friends

Marion Ravenwood, a female fig from the Indiana Jones line.
The LEGO Friends line has barely hit American stores’ shelves, and already a media backlash against the new toys is working its way into an online frenzy. Every article and blog post I have read thus far takes LEGO to task for releasing a line of toys marketed directly and exclusively at girls, while at the same time decrying the toy company’s established penchant for making boys the sole focus of its mainstream offerings.

All of the critics thus far seem to be women, mostly mothers, and their wrath is roused by the stereotyped way in which the Friends line depicts girls. The pastel colors, the re-tooled figures, the playset versus construction focus, and the girlier activities and interests presented are all being roundly panned. There is, however, a certain Catch-22 element to these critiques. If LEGO only makes toys for boys, then they are sexist. If they make toys for girls, then they are still sexist, only it looks like the second option might be even worse in the critics’ eyes than just continuing to make the toys for boys. 

The media stream provokes some interesting questions. Can LEGO make a toy line that attracts girls AND boys equally? Will girls like the new Friends line, or will it fizzle just as Belville and Clikits did before? What has LEGO done to make itself so tremendously attractive to boys that it hasn’t been able to replicate for girls?

I might, in fact, be the single most-qualified person on the planet to talk about these issues. Seriously. I’m a 20 year AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) and an active member of the adult LEGO hobby community, and I just happen to have a PhD in Feminist Criticism and Theory. I’m also a working scholar in the field of popular culture studies; I’ve even presented papers about LEGO at academic conferences. Oh, and I’m a woman AND a mother to a little girl. When it comes to talking about gender, girls, toy culture, and LEGO, I’ve got the bases pretty much covered. 

An female fig from the Castle line of the early 90s.
My own reaction to the new Friends line is tempered by these qualifications and the knowledge that comes with them. LEGO has tried to tap into the girl market before, and it has never been very successful. Previous girl-oriented lines died out fairly quickly, even as the core lines of toys for boys expanded and then boomed. I have seen LEGO try this kind of thing before. I think we have to give them credit for continuing to try to get it right, even if Friends isn’t the product we were hoping to get. If Friends also sinks into oblivion, there will be a few years of quiet and then LEGO will try again. After all, there are millions of girls out there who could be spending their birthday money on LEGO sets instead of Barbie dolls.

Speaking of Barbie, I don’t think we can make LEGO the villain when culture dictates the gender divides that rule our children’s lives and desires. Nobody stopped you from buying your daughter superhero action figures and LEGO sets, but perhaps you steered her toward more conventional girls’ toys because you wanted her to be popular, or heterosexual, or “cute” like the little girls our culture imagines as the standard. Do I think LEGO could do a better job developing toys meant for both boys and girls? Sure I do. I also know that they have made a lot of effort in that direction over the years. There are more female minifigs in sets now than ever before, and not just in the $100 sets. I wrote the company a letter back in 1994 asking them to put more female figs in their products, and they sent me a reply saying they were working on that, along with a goodie bag of fig hair and heads to make my own female figures. What does that say about their corporate culture? The company has a long history of engaging with and listening to its fans, especially in the adult community, but most of the critics on the internet don’t know that.

An Indian girl from the Wild West sets of the 90s.
I bought one of the new Friends sets as a trial purchase. My daughter and I have both examined it and its contents. My daughter thinks the new figure is nice, although she says it lacks the deeply ingrained appeal of the classic minifig. We bought the inventor set to get the least “girly” example of the line, and I admit that the overall bent of the product is much too gender conventional for my tastes. While I don’t mind the pastel bricks, I’d rather have a huge bin of them rather than just a few little bits for a playset (I liked the pink bulk tub LEGO produced a while back very much and bought a lot of them). I think both my daughter and I would have preferred a set with a traditional minifig and a more diverse palette, but I don’t think the new line is terrible. LEGO is trying to react to market demand, and the pink  aisle in the toy section shows exactly how that demand is perceived.

What would I, as an invested, female fan, like to see from LEGO when it comes to girls? Well, I’d like to see the whole line get out of the deep end of the blue aisle in stores. That sends a message to girls all by itself – “This is not for you!” The Friends line seems to be taking up residence in the pink aisle, near the Polly Pockets whom the new figures resemble. Breaking down the gender divide in the toy section is a herculean task, however. I don’t know that LEGO can do it alone. Playmobil might be a useful model, but Playmobil recently vanished altogether from our Target aisles, and they also are prone to the blue/pink divide in their toy lines. Is there no room at the inn for a gender-neutral toy line? I’d like to see more lines that both boys and girls can enjoy, preferably in neutral color packaging (how about green? Or yellow?). A zoo line would be neat. Fewer police and firemen and more shopkeepers would be great. The Café Corner line is gorgeous but far out of the price range to get girls INTO the hobby in the first place. I’d like to see more female figures in the less expensive sets, especially the licensed ones. The new Super Heroes line ought to be a good place for that, and LEGO ought to think about how accessible it makes figures like Wonder Woman in comparison to Superman and Batman. I’d like more animals, more colors, and more options to make a LEGO world that reflects my individual tastes beyond the expectations of gender. 

The appeal of LEGO is that you are supposed to be able to make the world you imagine. I want to imagine hair salons AND fire stations, veterinarians AND bank robbers. Maybe boys and girls would like that, too.