When toys define beauty & limit possibility

by Kristin on January 6, 2012

in Love, family & community

I’ve been called a rabble-rouser, even though I wasn’t setting out to be one.

Yesterday my friend Jen happened to mention on Twitter that her family was headed to the LEGO theme park in Florida, so I said, “make sure you give them a hard time about their new ‘Legos for girls” line while you’re there. ridiculous.” (And let me be clear, the photo I’ve used to illustrate this post is an old-school LEGO ad that I love. I couldn’t bring myself to include a photo of the new sets for girls.)

I assumed this was something Jen, who was one of my first true feminist friends back in college, was already fired up about, but it turned out I was igniting the fire—under her family vacation, no less. (Sorry Jen!)

Our tweets on the topic caught the eyes of other friends and generated a fair amount of conversation yesterday, as well as blog posts by Shawn and Jen. I guess as parents (who were once kids ourselves), we have a few opinions about gender stereotypes and toy manufacturing, eh?

In the case of the new line of LEGOs (here’s an overview about it), my complaint is fairly simple: I don’t mind that they’re making some LEGO sets in girly colors, based on themes that might appeal to girls. What I mind is that these new sets, for the most part, take away all the ingenuity, creativity, sticktuitiveness and problem-solving that have always made LEGOs such great toys.

These new sets, apparently, do not have bags of little LEGO blocks and pages of intricate building instructions, nor do they even have lots of open-ended pieces that you can use to simply give shape to your inspiration and imagination. Instead, they’re mostly ready-to-play with buildings, people and accessories. With all the focus today on the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) studies for girls—especially the efforts to bust through stereotypes that surround those subjects—it’s frankly shocking to me that LEGO has created a set that essentially says to girls, “We know you don’t have the building, design and engineering skills to handle real LEGOs, so we’ve made you a special set that lets you pretend like you’re playing with LEGOs without actually doing any of the complicated work.”

The fact that the characters in these sets for girls are aesthetically Barbie/princess inspired and come with the most ridiculously stereotypical accessories imaginable (a purse, a hair brush, a hair drier, lipsticks, a spatula, an electric mixer, cupcakes) just adds injury to insult. REALLY?

Affirming what girls love while opening them up to possibility

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a mom of girls—girls who have embraced their femininity in various ways over the years. When they were little, we had cars and trucks in the house but they adored their baby dolls, who went everywhere with us (it was like having four children, not two!). They also loved their dress-up clothes (there was a period of about five years when my girls were almost never in their “street clothes” at home).

In other words, I’m not against girls being girls, and I certainly get that there are biological tendencies and pulls that we can’t control. I have loved watching my kids be creative and express themselves in these more typical feminine ways throughout childhood. I was, after all, a bit of a girly-girl myself, even though I had an older brother who was off in very boy-like directions. I just don’t like the idea that anyone (or any company) might try to tell a kid what it means to be a girl—or a boy for that matter. No one should tell them what it means to be them. They should just be given the freedom to discover it themselves.

Which brings me to my second point. If my first point is “Don’t use stereotypes to limit the potential and abilities of girls,” my second is “Don’t use stereotypes to communicate what defines beauty.” Because the aesthetics of the LEGO girl characters and the choice of accessories do say something about beauty—what the world deems beautiful, what is worthy to be called beautiful, who gets to decide what is beautiful.

That’s why I love the early 80s LEGO ad I used to illustrate my post (which I first saw here). I love everything about it—the look of pride on the little girl’s face, her rumpled blue jeans and braids, the crazy creation she built out of those gender-neutral LEGO blocks. But what I love most is the headline: “What it is is beautiful.” That’s the beauty of original LEGOs: they’re open-ended. That’s also the beauty of childhood: it should be open-ended, too—open to whatever loves and expressions and possibilities each girl and boy can begin to imagine. Why would a company with all the power to facilitate exactly that decide instead to create limits?

Similar Posts:

Share:

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • email
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Twitter
  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Thanks for your perspective. I love that picture – she actually reminds me quite a bit of my 3-year-old daughter…who also has plenty of dolls and dresses and princess tiaras. It sounds to me like what you’re saying is some sort of balance would be nice. I agree.

  • molly

    We love Legos around here and I have often wished there were some sets that appealed more to my oldest daughter. She loves building houses for her “guys” but if we go to the store to pick out a set she asks for something more “girlish”. I guess I feel like most of the Lego sets these days are so specific these days (Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc.) that a lot of the imagination is removed (actual characters instead of a generic smiling mini fig who could be/do anyone/thing). Also, the Hero Factory figures, which my 4 year old boy loves, require almost no concentration to put together — which leads me to think that my girl will probably love the girly Friends stuff. So do we buy it? I don’t know. Sorry, I’m sort of rambling but I guess I am trying to say that I agree — toy companies should not be telling boys and girls what they ought to be and let them figure it out for themselves.

  • Joi

    An interesting problem is this: Through my years of experience with kids, I have TRIED to interest girls in construction-type toys. They almost never stay with it, unless they have had what seems to be an important play relationship with a brother, grandpa, friend who truly wins them over to the idea — even then it doesn’t seem to stick. Construction activities, whether we like it or not, are usually a boy thing. Personally, I like construction toys a lot. When I was in high school I took one of those preference tests and was appalled to see that my aptitude was “mechanical!” I found that embarrassing, a signal that I was not gifted in an important way. Now I embrace the idea, but not then. In retrospect, I wish someone would have given me the wonderful Erector Set that belonged to my brother — totally off limits to me. Instead, I turned my construction aptitude to sewing and fixing things. But I do think the message the majority of girls send from their youngest years is a strong disinterest in construction toys, no matter how available they may be in a pre-school setting or how often a parent gives them as a gift. I think probably Lego is trying to come up with a way to entice girls into this area, but I don’t think they will find it too successful. Girls simply will not clamor for this concept or wish for expanding sets. When I bought the Lego “theatre” for my grand daughters to play with at our house, I thought the cross-over concept of creating scenes, etc. and dreaming up plays would be neat for them, but it had little appeal. It seemed like “putting together” something before using it for play was too much to bother with, and it fell short in the category of realism — all those angular figures, etc.

    If you could brainstorm totally different building challenges for kids, for instance a couple I can think of as being truly creative would be a “dragon maze” or an awesome haunted house or a grocery store, and send your ideas to Lego, then I think you would be doing all children — even girls — and Lego a favor!!!

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    I was a big Lego fan as a kid — in fact, I got three Lego-related gifts for Christmas (an Advent calendar set, a book and an architecture series set. Your argument is one I’d make for all of Lego these days. There were so few themed sets when I was a kid that you HAD to use your imagination to turn them into something. Now all the sets have pieces designed to be what they’re supposed to be (the Advent calendar set is a good example — there was little to put together and hardly any way to change it up.

    From the looks of the other article, it does seem as if they’ve dumbed-down Lego even more for the “girl” sets, which just adds to the shame.

  • Kirstin

    I agree that the heavily themed nature of current Lego sets is a problem. They all seem tightly scripted and themed, and the few Lego sets that aren’t advertising a movie or TV series have a flowers-and-house vibe that seems babyish next to Harry Potter and the Transformers. There are other factors as well. My girls LOVED wooden blocks. For a while one of our babysitters was an engineering major who would help them make the most amazing structures–but even on their own, the blocks were a standard go-to, precisely (I suspect) because of their open-endness. They also scaled well with other toys and block-structures could be easily populated with plastic animals and action figures. Legos not so much. The girls wanted to combine building with imaginative play, and the scale of the Lego world tended to skew toward the building side of things. They would lose interest before their structures were in a state to be played with, and the Lego figures were too small with too many bits to be satisfying actors in their dramas.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I ended up writing a bit of a rant myself when I saw the news about the new Lego sets. I definitely agree with The Modern Gal’s point about today’s Lego’s of all kinds lacking imagination or flexibility. My 7-year-old nephews have plenty of “boy” Lego sets that are specifically themed to some movie or show (that they’ve almost always never seen). But more often than not, they prefer playing with the old school Legos that belonged to my siblings and I – those original Legos aren’t gendered or themed, which gives them so many more opportunities for creativity.

    I think these new Lego sets for girls are missing the point – the original Legos were great for building motor skills and teaching kids to put things together according to their own perferences. Selling kits that leave little to the imagination – that just doesn’t sound fun to me.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    In the two days since we started this conversation, which has been mostly pleasant and interesting, but not in every venue, I’ve had time to rehash these ideas again and again. I agree with every point you make. (duh). Two other ideas, one of which I see here, is the stifling creativity in ALL children. With the prethemed sets and instructions, rather than open play. Second, not all boys are interested in Star Wars or Pirates. So…perhaps Lego is simply doing what the rest of the culture does: limit children (and the adults they’ll become) to predetermined gender roles. Gah. Parenting makes me tired!

  • Carrie

    We have Legos by the zillions at our house. My son loves them and for a long time, we bought the sets and then when they came apart, we dumped them in a tub for free play. Mostly he wanted the mini-figures to play with in his buildings and they weren’t available separately for a long time. Last year, I found a full set of the mini-figs on eBay for the same price as the set I was looking at so I bought that for him instead and it is his favorite piece of Lego stuff now. This last year, he as also decided that he doesn’t want his sets dumped in the box, so he has started gluing them together (GAH!) and keeping them like models so we bought a tub of 450 plain bricks for general building.

    I like the idea of more gender neutral sets, instead of all superheros or pirates or Star Wars. Not really “for girls” but just not marketed directly to boys. More of the Spongebob sets (which we have a couple of) or other cartoon shows and things like that. It doesn’t need to be a kitchen play set, just not always a death laser.

    However, I hate these new sets. They could have made the people basic mini-figs and had the buildings build-able and it would have been totally fine. Shame on Lego for going this route.

  • http://www.jenwritesstuff.com Jen

    Jen’s tweet got my attention because I was thinking “Oh hey, Legoland! I know where that is!” Then I started reading the interesting conversation and forgot about Legoland. ;)

    I’m not a parent, so discussions like these usually get me reflecting on how things were for me and my sister instead. Our experience, like Kirsten said, was more into imaginative playing. We didn’t really get into Legos, and we had our Barbies, but they weren’t nearly as interesting as our stuffed animals, drawing and coloring books, and making up stories. We did really love video games though, so I guess there was a problem solving balance there. In fact, my sister will gladly give anyone willing to listen her “video games are good for kids” rant. =)

    I’m not sure how I feel about Lego Friends. They’re dumb and boring compared to regular Legos, but not as offensive as, say, Bratz. My bigger gripe with girl toys is why do so many revolve around fashion and makeup and shopping? Bleh.

    I do think Computer Engineer Barbie, while still a bit pink, is kind of awesome. http://gizmodo.com/5470587/computer-engineer-barbie-has-a-phd-in-fun-and-breaking-down-stereotypes

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Shawn, yes, balance is definitely what I’m after as a parent. Mostly I want my kids to follow what’s inside of them, not what the world outside of them is saying they should follow. Giving them exposure to different things without pushing them, encouraging them without inserting your own opinions, wanting them to be individuals yet recognizing they have peers and are part of a broader culture—it’s all such a tricky line to walk! Thanks for talking and walking alongside.

    molly, you bring up an interesting point—one that I’m not in tune with since my kids are mostly past the LEGO stage (AND I don’t have any boys)! It does seem like all LEGO sets are more specific (and gender specific) than they were when I was a kid. Wouldn’t it be great if they just sold some very general sets of blocks—maybe some were more earth toned, some primary, some jewel toned, and maybe they would have some specific parts geared toward architecture or vehicles, etc.—and then they sold small, more specific sets of figures and accessories to tailor the play (outer space, construction workers, Harry Potter, hospital, school, home, etc.)?

    Joi, part of me knows that what you’re saying about boys and girls is true, yet part of me still resists it. It’s true that I wasn’t very into LEGOs as a kid, but I still wonder how much of that stems from nature and how much stems from nurture or the environments we grow up in. (ie: As a girl, you didn’t think you were “supposed” to want to play with an Erector set.) My girls played constantly with the Playmobil sets we had at my house, but at their dad’s house they had tons of general LEGO sets and played constantly with them, creating houses and towns and sculptures and all kinds of things. I’m sure that’s due, in part to what you said: They had someone there who loved playing LEGOs with them. At any rate, I love your ideas for LEGO sets that are less gender specific (grocery store, etc.).

    The Modern Gal, I’m assuming you mean you got LEGO-related gifts for Christmas this year, right? I love that! And yes—this is what I wish LEGO was still about: “There were so few themed sets when I was a kid that you HAD to use your imagination to turn them into something.”

    Kirstin, I completely agree with your assessment here. My girls loved blocks when they were little (ages 3-8 or so) for that precise reason—they were more of the scale to mix well with other various toys we had on hand. (That’s so great they had an engineering major for a babysitter!)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Meredith, I (not surprisingly) agree! “Selling kits that leave little to the imagination – that just doesn’t sound fun to me.” I’m so glad your nephews gravitate toward the original, more open-ended sets. Maybe LEGO will eventually make their way back around, too.

    Jennifer, your on-line life is clearly so much more interesting than mine! Where did you find the unpleasant discussion? :) Anyway, you make a great point: “So…perhaps Lego is simply doing what the rest of the culture does: limit children (and the adults they’ll become) to predetermined gender roles.” I agree—when you look at the big picture, it hardly seems fair to pick on LEGO. I guess I just have much higher standards and hopes for them.

    Carrie, the mini-figures are the best, aren’t they? I think the look of the characters is what I dislike most about the new sets for girls. That’s so great that you took the initiative to put together your own “set” for your son. Great idea.

    Jen, yes! LEGO “Friends” are “dumb and boring compared to regular Legos, but not as offensive as, say, Bratz.” Absolutely. It’s just disheartening to see the bar lowered, then witness as higher quality toys stoop in a “can’t beat ‘em so join ‘em” stance.