Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kid Considerations: Female Lego Scientists

Kid Considerations:

I Really Want to Like the Female LegoScientists, But....

Before I go any further, let me just make one thing clear—I LOVE Legos! Even though they were available in this country by the time I was born (and no, you don’t need to know exactly when that was...), they hadn’t really “caught on” with wide distribution, so, in other words, I never had any as a kid. When I started teaching (WAY back in the dark ages...1978, that is...), Lego was one of the toys that fueled my second childhood. At that time, this was typical of the ads that were in circulation: 

What a concept! A toy that was marketed EQUALLY to both boys and girls! A toy that was ASSUMED to appeal to both boys and girls!!! A toy that was, for all intents and purposes, the holy grail of toys sought after by enlightened parents and educators—the gender-neutral-everybody-can-love-it-creative-and-educational-toy!

My, my how times have changed.... 
As I have watched Legos change over the last 36 years, it has been simultaneously fascinating, disturbing, fun, and aggravating to see how the brand has changed their marketing, meaning both advertising and packaging. Tracking this progression provides an interesting insight into American (and western European) cultural attitudes. The overt representation in Lego of both race and gender, along with the more subtle cues regarding class and ability, has evolved, and not always for the better. And, with every iteration, I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the product, and about what it says about the messages we convey to children about imagination and identity.

Certainly, the color coding has a lot to do with this. About twenty years ago, Lego saw their market share dropping, and realized that fewer girls were playing with them. So their response was to make pink and purple Legos. That didn’t work so well. Girls still were staying away from them. By focusing on the colors, the company seemed to overlook the fact that, perhaps, girls weren’t playing with them because almost all of their advertising only showed boys playing with them. In addition, their target demographic had shifted away from young children, and their marketing and product development was increasingly directed at adolescent boys, coinciding with a product strategy that leaned heavily on tie-ins with movies that were also directed at adolescent boys (and young men), such as Star Wars (few women), Pirates of the Caribbean (one woman), Indiana Jones (one woman), Lord of the Rings (two women), Harry Potter (few women), and comic books (a couple of women). If girls don’t see themselves in these character-specific sets, why would they be inclined to play with them?

And that’s the biggest change of all—the characters and personalities (aka “minifigs”). Until the late 1980s, most Lego minifigs had the basic, non-descript face:

With this minimalist face, any child could, potentially, project any character, of any gender, onto the figure (a little more about possible limitations on this in a bit). But once the movie tie-ins began to appear, they were accompanied by the “themed” sets (e.g., space, castle, pirates, city, ocean, polar, etc.), and together, the minifigs took on more specific “character” attributes:

Of course, as these specific characters appeared, they also made ones that were clearly intended to be “female”:

The gender coding of these figures is pretty obvious. Male figures have facial hair and often snarling expressions, while females have eyelashes, eye shadow, and lipstick. And long hair. Because, apparently, this is how we teach our children to identify gender—solely based on stereotypical, limited representations. And there has always been far more “male” figures than “female” in these sets. And it is certainly possible to change the hair that attaches to the top of the heads, but children are pretty good at recognizing whether two attributes “match” (so putting Wyldstyle’s streaked high pony tail on a figure with a mustache doesn’t pass muster for many kids). This identification of gender based on these two single attributes (hair and facial elements) is so embedded in our culture that young children learn to default to it even when it doesn’t reflect the reality in their immediate environment—for example, if you ask a group of four year olds how you can tell if someone is a boy or girl, they will almost always respond that, “boys have short hair and girls have long hair,” even if they are looking right at a female teacher with short hair (I’ve even heard this response spoken by a boy who, himself, had long hair, looking right at me, with my very short hair). And if you give them a Lego head, unattached to a body and without hair, they will also tell you, without hesitation, that a face with eyelashes and red lips is a girl, while both faces with facial hair as well as faces with the non-descript features are almost always identified as boy.

And this is a critical point in this discussion: when figures are not visually coded as specifically female, children will almost unanimously assume them to be male. In other words, in our culture, there is, in a practical sense, no longer such a thing as a “generic” Lego figure, because maleness is the default. This was true of the culture years ago with the early Lego figures as well, but there was much more room for children to explore and ascribe other identities to the figures because girls were included in the equation to a much greater degree. By showing girls in the ads and the packaging on an equal footing with boys, their participation was assumed, and so their representation in the “generic” figures was an easier line to cross.

So, in response to concerns raised by girls (and parents and teachers) about lack of representation, and hoping to boost their market share and increase sales, Lego decided to include girls by making the figures more “girly.” They still didn’t include them much in advertising of the mainline Lego themed sets and movie tie-ins, though. When this strategy didn’t really work to increase sales to girls, they decided to create a line specifically aimed at girls, not just with pastel colored blocks, but with storylines and completely new figure styles. I’m referring, of course, to the “Friends” line:
 Now, no one would ever suggest that traditional Lego figures are in any way proportional or anatomically representational, but that’s part of what gave them imaginative potential. But the design of these new figures is troubling in that they are attempting a more accurate physical form (shaped legs and feet; longer legs and neck; arms more proportional to the body; suggestion of a bust; and a shaped head with dimensional and detailed features), but are defining that form with proportional choices that reflect problematic body image types: long legs, thin torso and arms, and weirdly large head and eyes above a tiny button nose and thin-lipped mouth.

And the age range printed on the box (along with the breast bumps on the figures) speaks volumes about who the target audience is here: girls between 6 and 12 years old, who are at a particularly impressionable point in terms of body awareness and social expectations. And who, not coincidentally, have more disposable income in their own control than younger children.

The Friends figures are also accompanied by artistic renderings on the packaging that is very different from all the other Lego lines: 

These images are not recreations of movie characters, but are extended interpretations of the minifigs. The minifigs are still limited in body position and “attitude,” but the packaging imbues these characters with plenty more. The jutting hip, the tilted head, the arm position—all reflect the current cultural emphasis on a specific type of heightened femininity that permeates a child’s world.

Please understand that I am not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with being a “girly girl,” as long as that’s the person that you are. But I am suggesting that this is one more way that we are limiting the expectations and possibilities for girls to develop a sense of self that is dependent on their own agency and personality, not on the overwhelming pressure of cultural images.

And this, my friends, is why I really want to love the “female scientists” that Lego recently released, but find myself, once again, ambivalent about the execution.

 Look at that! She doesn’t have long hair! Well, it’s not exactly short, either, but okay. But she still has those lipstick lips and those mascara eyes. And, just to make sure we know she’s smart, being a scientist and all, she gets glasses, too. Or, if chemistry isn’t your thing, you might want to be an astronomer/astrophysicist:

 Whew! I was worried there for a minute that female scientists couldn’t have long hair! At least she has it safely bunned up on top of her head. And, just in case you don’t catch the clues from the eyes and mouth, this one has a jaunty, fashionable, pink scarf.

I know, I know, many of you are shaking your head and suggesting that I am over thinking it (that happens to me a lot), and pointing out that these new science figures are selling like hotcakes (which they are, apparently, so much so that they’re getting hard to find), so just stop being critical and accept that girls like them because now they can imagine themselves as more than Friends or accessories. (And I haven’t even brought up the whole “race, class, and ability” thing, which would require another complete post. Maybe another time.)

I’d love to not have to think about it so much. But I can’t. Not completely. Of course there are benefits to this (did I mention my ambivalence?), but I still just can’t get past those faces, and I still am uneasy about the cultural imagery that is being perpetuated here. I just can’t help but think that girls are smart enough, and imaginative enough, to be able to see themselves in a toy by adding them to the marketing, and that every child’s gender development process could be enhanced by more open-ended choices. In other words, offer the amazing array of “outfits” and “hair” possibilities, but keep the faces neutral. No mascara, no lip stick, no beards or mustaches, no snarling expressions—just dots for eyes, the suggestion of eyebrows, and a simple smile. Kids will fill in the rest.

 (copyright note: some of the images above are taken from internet sources; others are photographs taken by me of products on store shelves)

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