Pink LEGO vs the Imagination Police

Up until this morning the whole LEGO Friends kerfuffle had passed me by. I knew the product range existed and had guessed it arose from yet another desperately unimaginative attempt to appeal to all girls, ever. Nevertheless the only child I know who happens to want a LEGO Friends toy is my youngest and guess what? He’s a boy (and in case you’re wondering, it’s the Adventure Camper, £36.95 – and no, I’m not dipping into the Shoe Fund to purchase that). Anyhow, I wasn’t particularly annoyed that this range existed. After all, there are a million other crappy toys just like it. Indeed, some of them aren’t even that crappy. Looked at independently, “girls’ toys” aren’t any worse than those marketed at boys. The problem is our failure to think of them simply as “toys”, and the way in which, through marketing, this message then gets passed on to our children.

This morning I happened upon this magnificently patronising article by Hannah Betts, telling all feminists who’ve signed a petition in protest against LEGO Friends that they ought to “think twice”. I didn’t even know there was a petition. But anyhow I had a look and discovered this:

After 4 years of marketing research, LEGO has come to the conclusion that girls want LadyFigs, a pink Barbielicious product line for girls, so 5 year-olds can imagine themselves at the café, lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends. As LEGO CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.”

Did Knudstorp really say that? Really? If so, what is he on about? Never in my life had I realised that LEGO – LEGO, for Christ’s sake! – was not for the likes of me and that some form of LEGO Equality Outreach service was required. What the hell have I been doing all this time? I bet I’m not the only one of the “lost” 50% who’s already indulged in LEGO-based antics. Perhaps that’s why these days I’ve started to get all these extra hairs on my chin.

Look, I like LEGO and I don’t want to be mean to LEGO creators. I totally understand that when you develop a new product, it tends to involve splitting your market into arbitrary “segments”, and that sometimes these “segments” aren’t particularly PC. What’s more, I can see that if you work for LEGO and know that most of the children who play with your product are boys, it must be tempting to get all excited about the “untapped” female market. Honestly, I get all that. Did Jorgan Vig Knudstorp write the gender stereotyping rules? No, he didn’t. Unfortunately, no one did (although the likes of Steve Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen often seem to want to claim the credit). I don’t blame LEGO for trying to make a fast buck out of sexism. It’s just, don’t make it so bloody obvious! Because that’s just insulting. And now I’m actually quite narked. Hmph!

And then along comes Hannah Betts – Hannah Betts, the journalist who’s too cool to be a parent herself but suddenly a total bloody expert in telling parents what to do – and those of us who might have got a bit cross are told to calm the hell down. After all, we have simply misunderstood the nature of <pompous voice> “play”:

While the Lego puppy parlour is ghastly, play is not simply a rehearsal for life but an experiment with fantasy – even unpalatable sorts. Compare the ubiquitous little boys in camouflage gear clambering over cannons at the Imperial War Museum. The young pass through stages, assuming and discarding potential personalities. Allow a child to move through her pink pash and she may well progress to recasting Action Man as President Barbie’s gay strategist-in-chief.

Thanks, Hannah. Silly old feminist mummy here was thinking “play” really was a “rehearsal for life”. That’s why I currently work at the My Little Pony Show Stable and drive around in a wind-up version of General Lee. You mean I could have been a train driver after all? I mean, for fuck’s sake. This isn’t getting in a tizz about kids “assuming and discarding potential personalities”. It’s about telling them in advance which personalities they can indulge in and which they can’t. And yes, you might think your past experience as a child makes you an expert in the ways in which the boundaries of gender stereotyping can be transcended. But guess what? We’ve all been children. And those of us who now have children of our own – yes, us, the boring ones – tend not to appreciate it when our own offspring start to ask, as mine have done, what they are “allowed” to like.

The truly ludicrous thing about Betts’ argument is that she associates a failure to challenge arbitrary gender boundaries with freedom:

It is the fate of parents to be forever in the wrong. Nevertheless, as a culture we engage in a curious vacillation between under- and over-parenting. While society could do with being considerably less child-centric, more adult and boundary-focused in terms of infant behaviour, the one area we should never seek to police is their imaginations. As Larkin taught us, we’re going to fuck them up, but let’s fuck them up with just that bit more nuance.

“Police their imaginations”? What polices a child’s imagination more effectively than rigid stereotypes based on the genitalia with which that child happens to be born? Betts might sneer at the more extreme forms of gender-neutral parenting – “treating one’s offspring as some sort of neutered lab rat” – but does she really believe that telling your child “you are a girl” or “you are a boy” does not limit their understanding of themselves and their potential? As a parent, I’ve still gone for the “you are a boy” option, perhaps because, not in spite of, the distorting attitudes to gender that surround us. But I’m not going to pretend this is the best possible path. What’s more, it has bugger all to do with “nuance”. There’s nothing “nuanced” about the pink/blue thinking that makes children afraid to express themselves for fear of being labelled “abnormal”.

And when you look at the comments which follow Betts’s piece, you really see just how “nuanced” the stereotype defenders are. Here’s a typical one:

Perhaps we have such distinctly different toys for boys (rockets, cars, trains, soldiers, dinosaurs) and girls (babies, cooking sets, my little ponies, hair & makeup sets etc) not because of some sexist societal brain-washing, but more simply because boys and girls have inherently different interests.

Yes, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Personally, it strikes me as rather convenient for boys to be “inherently” interested in going places while girls just can’t get enough of being in the home, ideally in front of a mirror preening while dinosaur-rocket-scientist daddy’s tea is cooking, but whatever. If it’s all so bloody natural, why does all this aggressive gender stereotyping need defending at all? Why can’t we let children choose what to like, if it’s so certain that they’d like the same stuff anyhow? In short, what are all these people so afraid of?

The thing is, I really don’t care what colour my children’s LEGO bricks are. I honestly do not give a toss. Nor do I care whether the LEGO people are chillin’ in the puppy parlour or hanging out in the Millenium Falcon. It makes no difference to me. What does make a difference is all the oppressive discourse that surrounds it. Knudstorp’s “50% of the world’s population”, Betts’s entirely bogus “nuance”. This isn’t about freedom of choice, it’s about the freedom to limit young imaginations. Sod it, forget the shoes – I’m gonna have to buy my son the Adventure Camper anyhow.

5 thoughts on “Pink LEGO vs the Imagination Police

  1. I am afraid I cannot find it right now, because I am on a train on my mobile. But I read the original article with the interview from the lego representative, and what he *actually* said (or at least what I took from it) was that they’d done some research and they found there was a segment of the market, mostly but not exclusively girls, who wanted something not currently offered by lego. They wanted pastel colours (not previously available) and more relatable figures that could be used for more complex interactive play.

    I’m fine with lego providing this. They called it ‘lego friends’ not ‘girls lego’. That it’s been assumed to be such is a failure of secondary marketing, and unfortunate gendered assumptions. I’m sure there are many boys (and girls) who are very pleased to have this new range, and this is why a recent significant increase in lego’s profits have been reported.

    Naomi

    1. I don’t really want to single LEGO out for this (which is why I mentioned that other toy manufacturers do the same – and yes, they are more explicit in their marketing). And obviously LEGO aren’t responsible for the market feedback they get. Even so, looking at this (ad from 1981), I can’t help but feel disappointed in the direction they’ve chosen to take. They’re not solely culpable but I really feel they are complicit in the reinforcement of these stereotypes, having had the kind of status that would have enabled them to take bigger risks. And if on the one hand this range increases their sales but on the other they gain some criticism, I don’t think it’s such an unfair hit to have to take.

  2. I’m a bit muddled about this one. Obviously I adore the 1981 poster with all my heart, as I have done since I first saw it on Blue Milk (http://bluemilk.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/it-used-to-be-better/), but it seems a bit like Lego are trying to bridge a gap between the pink princesses and the “boy-ish” lego, which has grown in the intervening period.

    I haven’t seen much regular lego marketing in many years, so I don’t know whether that’s specifically aimed at boys or if it’s neutral, but in our current toy culture neutral often comes across as boy-oriented (remember men/boys are normal and women/girls are “other”!). So by having something a weeny bit girlier, but with all the fundamental lego-y-ness they are trying to bridge some kind of gap. I would have thought a better way, though, would be to have kits that could be easily integrated into regular lego.

    It’s heartbreaking that your child asked you what he was “allowed to like” in this context. Incidentally it’s things like this that really put me off ever bringing up children – the constant stream of this kind of crap.

    Sorry for the garbled comment – I’m trying to finish my dissertation and I think it’s turning my brain to mush.

    1. It’s heartbreaking that your child asked you what he was “allowed to like” in this context. Incidentally it’s things like this that really put me off ever bringing up children – the constant stream of this kind of crap.

      What I find really hard is not playing along with gendered culture, too. I don’t want to tell my children what is “normal” – but part of me is complicit in telling them what they “should” like simply so they don’t get made fun of. For instance, my eldest wanted to go to school on World Book Day in a dress to look like the witch in Room On The Broom. I persuaded him to go as Duffy Driver from the Little Red Train books instead (I didn’t say “don’t go in a dress”, but kept really pushing this second option until he gave in). I feel bad about this but couldn’t bear the thought of him being mocked and worried it might make him feel even worse about the books and dressing up clothes he likes. So instead I’m pre-empting the prejudice, which is just another way of reinforcing it…

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