Monday, May 21, 2012

LEGO Girl-FRIEND, let's talk

So LEGO's Friends - their new line of toys for girls continues to generate criticism from those shocked and dismayed that LEGO could engage in such stereotypical gendered play.

The definitive response to the matter, I think, is Thinking Brickly's The LEGO Gender Gap: A Historical Perspective who convinced me that LEGO Friends isn't the first or the worst way LEGO has tried to appeal to girls.  Still, the debate seems to be missing some important considerations... which is why I am writing this.

LEGO Friends have breasts. Just like girls.

Much of the original uproar about the LEGO Friends line is that the mini-figures have breasts. To be honest, I didn't even notice that they have breasts because the LEGO figures are supposed to look like older girls and, as such, they have as normal-looking breasts as you can expect LEGO minifigures to be. We're not talking about Barbie-like endowments, here, we're talking about normal breasts. And breasts are normal.

I'd have a lot more respect from those who are outraged that LEGO Friends have breasts if these same folks were also upset that Superheroes are ridiculously muscle-y creatures designed to act as male power fantasies

Children's play is already gendered

It doesn't happen to all kids and it doesn't happen at all ages, but there are phases in a child's development when kids are completely caught up in "gendered play" (otherwise known as the 'I'm not playing with that! That's a girl's toy!" phase). For example, earlier this morning my 4 year old daughter and I played a game of I can do that! and she refused to play cards featuring Nick and would only play cards featuring Sally (or The Cat in the Hat instead).

I suspect that this pre-school developmental stage might be less about gender and more about self-identity and group identity. But what is quite obvious is that this phase is very much being exploited by companies that are trying to sell a small spectrum of toys to a large population. That being said, there are still some very strong societal pressures that re-enforce the idea to boys that the worse thing that you can be in the world is a girl which sucks - no argument, there.

The girls are alright. Let them play

I'm a little disturbed by the line of thinking that says it's okay for girls to play with "boy's toys" but it's not okay for girls to play with "girls toys".  Case in point, the cover story of the June 2012 issue of WIRED is "How to be a Geek Dad" with a sub-heading of "How to NOT raise a princess". 

If boys are allowed to play in un-realistic fantasy worlds of comic book heroes, ninjas, star wars, cowboys or what-have you, why can't girls play in the fantasy worlds that they would like to inhabit? In other words, why can't girls be princesses?

Personally, I don't encourage princess play with my daughter (she's gets enough of it through her friends at daycare) But I don't discourage it either. What I do instead is try to expose her to lots of different storyworlds that she can imagine herself in and see what she takes to.

Besides, I suspect that playing Princess and playing Barbie is just a very specific form of dress-up for girls. At least it seems to be for my four year old:
Me: What's your favourite part about playing princesses?
Anna: It's just the clothes.
Me: Do you play with princes? With dragons?
Anna: It's just the clothes. 

Girls that imagine themselves - through dolls or other toys - older and in beautiful dresses and high-heels - are just imagining themselves in a more powerful state (although in my more cynical moments, I wonder if the reason why so many girls wish to be princesses because it's the only female job that has status). As a woman who personally feels vulnerable when wearing high heels and dresses, I'm actually quite sympathetic to this kind of play. I'd hope my daughter feels more confident than I did as a girl.

LEGO, to its credit, knew better to stay away from Princesses for it's LEGO Friends line and designed sets in "reality". A reality that girls might like: a beauty salon, pet grooming, fashion design, and musical stage (yes, there's also a invention workshop but this set is clearly an example of overcompensation as a means to achieve gender equity and racial harmony).

Still, the princesses are coming to LEGO and unfortunately, they are coming to the DUPLO line - the one place where LEGO had less-emphasised gender play done right and this news makes me more angry and disappointed in LEGO than their Friends line.

There are differences in the genders but they are small and should be made smaller

All the other LEGO sets (Star Wars, ninjas, underwater explorers, pirates, space aliens) are marketed as boy's toys and it's really very unfortunate that the mini-figs in these sets are almost all male.

I'm not saying all of this because I'm ultimately concerned that girls and their poor numbers in science and technology (that's another series of posts which boils down to this idea: the worlds of science and technology has to change more than girls have to change). I'm saying all of this this because I'm ultimately concerned with the failure to imagine a world where women and men find ways to work and play together and this is a massive failure of imagination from a company that is supposed to be at the forefront of imagination.

Don't tell me it can't be done. I just watched three seasons of a kids show that had lots of strong females who kick butt *and* smooch strong males. So where is my LEGO Appa?

If you don't have the time and effort to read the entirety of Thinking Brickly's lengthy history of gender and LEGO, just skip to the end to read his recommendations. This mom got it right and I'm going to follow her lead.

Why I bought LEGO Friends for my daughter

My daughter has an older brother and we already have a lot of LEGO in the house that she sometimes plays with and I didn't see much harm in buying Friends. Now all the pieces of her two sets are integrated with the larger mass of LEGOs in our house.

I like LEGO because it's open ended play. Sometimes my son plays with his LEGO Star Wars sets and re-enacts those stories. Sometimes he makes up his own stories. Sometimes he takes apart the sets and builds things. Sometimes his sister does it too and sometimes they even build together.

I don't expect toy companies to build the toys we need - just the toys that a large market will buy.  And I've been to enough girl birthday parties to see that girls aren't getting a wide spectrum of experiences through their toys. They get princess coloring books and sticker books and sets that allow them to make their own jewellery.  I've noticed that the girls never get games as gifts and that's where I've decided to try to influence their worlds.
I'm somewhat hopeful that forces like Kickstarter and small-production lines can bring about new lines of toys that are better for girls *and* boys.

But I'm not too wrapped up in toys to be honest. Toys are traditionally scaled down and safer version of real-world tools.  Kids mimic the world around them and I think the best way that I can prepare them for a world that I can scarcely imagine is to have them see me and work with me in building a better future with the tools and the toys we have.


Rob Russell said...

While I completely believe that it is just the clothes there's an extra risk that the princesses create. Engaging in princess play signals to other princess players that your daughter is interested in or open to the rest of the storyline that goes along with princess play. That's what always scared me.

Maybe the fact that we encourage girls to play with "boys toys" (sometimes overtly and sometimes implicitly) reinforces the idea that there's something wrong with being a girl. But if the toys produced for girls really don't provide engagement in the same ways - ways that lead to problem solving and thinking skills - then those toys really are second rate and shouldn't be encouraged for any children. Which puts you in a bad spot again since most of her peers have these as their only toys.

It's very tough place to navigate. My only consistent advice is to give children screwdrivers at a young age :-)

Andromeda said...

I'm not convinced the whole princess thing *doesn't* prompt thinking and problem solving.

So here's my experience: Ms5 believed Pants Are Clothing And Dresses Are Not until about a year ago, when nearly instantly, overnight, she wanted dresses and pink sparkly shoes and, at the same time, suddenly became dramatically more outgoing. And I could see the wheels turning in her head:

"Gender is a THING. OMG. What kind of thing is it?!? How does it relate to me?"

"Social relationships are a THING. aieee!"

And ever since then she has been churning her brain full-time on these -- embarrassingly junior-high-girly but also super-important and super-hard -- problems: how do you navigate conflict, and stay friends? can people still be friends if they have different interests, if they want to play different games, or want to play with different people right now, or want to be by themselves? is someone still your friend if sometimes they're mean to you? how do you deal with being angry?

Like I said, hard problems. Even for grownups! And the way she's been dealing with them and her noticing them at all, it's bound up in her relationship to gender, because it's all part of noticing the social world and figuring out her role in it and how to navigate it.

Dresses and fairies are things she engages with because she's noticed that these problems are important. And they also give her storyworlds, to borrow the term, where she can enact storylines about relationships, and practice these ideas she's working through.

That's not the same kind of problem-solving that she does when she and her dad sit down with the Arduino. But it isn't easier or less important, either.

Mita said...

+1 for the suggestion of the gift of screwdrivers.

You both alluded to something that I wish I had mentioned in my post: that play is negation. Siblings and kids at school have to usually figure out a common "universe" where they will make believe in and before playing, there is usually some discussion, if not full-out arguing about what everyone is going to play now.

My introduction to this particular perspective is The boy who would be a helicopter. After that I, like Andromeda, couldn't help noticing how my kids were working out social conflicts and other anxieties in their lives through play. Just a year ago, I overheard my daughter saying "No she is my friend!" as she played with cars.

I don't think my daughter has realized that "gender is a thing" yet but I am hopeful that it will happen eventually, because with that comes the understanding that gender can be hacked ;)

Mita said...

Yikes! I only noticed now that autocorrect turned 'negotiation' into negation in my comment above!