By Michele Yulo
Right on the heels of Disney's controversial introduction of their pre-k princess, Sofia, comes another disappointing piece of news on the gender front from Lego Land. Posted in Bloomberg Businessweek online, the article "Lego Is For Girls" announced the addition of a new set called "Lego Friends" which will be specifically marketed to girls. Based on the title, you would immediately think that this was going to be positive news addressing Lego's lack of marketing related to what should be half of its consumer base. I say "should be" because Lego has, for the most part, completely ignored girls as part of their market with no question that "the Lego Group deliberately [has] focused on boys" (so much so that it has resulted in the actual developmental term "Lego phase" to describe an actual phase in boys lives) to the tune of over $1 billion dollars in sales in 2010.
Recognizing that girls have essentially been told "no girls allowed" when it comes to entering a virtual boys club of colorful plastic pieces, figures, model sets, and video games (for which Lego received criticism based on the fact that girls names were left out of the options for their avatars), Lego conducted heavy anthropological and sociological research to determine how exactly they could increase profits by appealing to the other sex. Their findings? That the current state of Lego, from an aesthetic standpoint, wasn't winning with girls whose "'greatest concern...really was beauty."
Based on this very narrow version of what little girls say they want, Lego decided that the status quo is what will be offered to girls come the New Year because, as Rosario Costa (a Lego design director) put it: "'The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them.'" (I have to tell you, my daughter does not look like this piece, which is a highly stereotyped version of a girl, and would have nothing to do with her.)
To further point out the sheer ignorance of such a plan, I'd like to provide an ad from 1981 when Lego and girls actually seemed to have a symbiotic relationship. I have blogged about and posted this picture before, and probably will continue to do so, since it perfectly illustrates the tragic game that has been played with girls over the last thirty years. Based on the ad from 1981, Lego seemed to recognize then that girls didn't need to "have a figure they could identify with," or "six new Lego colors--including Easter-egg-like shades of azure and lavender." Way back then, it seems that girls were perfectly fine with the basic Lego set and primary color offerings. Of course, who doesn't remember playing with these? My brothers and I played with them often-- and there was no need for two distinct sets based on gender. Can you imagine? We actually played together! Using the same set of Legos. And, isn't it ironic that the 1981 ad reads, "What it is is beautiful"-- but now "beautiful" is being used, in its most superficial sense, as the psychological basis for how to appeal to girls. Looking at these two images now and seeing the distinct difference makes my stomach turn. It's obvious that the definition of what it means to be a girl, from a marketing standpoint, has changed drastically.
I found it also interesting that another article was released yesterday from the British publication, Daily Mail, related to girls and stereotypes called "Girls are no worse than boys at maths: Study in 86 countries shows differences caused by attitudes to women." The article is based on the latest scientific research that proves girls supposed lack of mathematical agility stems from gender inequality and cultural stereotypes versus any actual biological determination. The research concludes that, "The differences in performance seemed to be caused by social factors--i.e., each society's attitude to women."
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the latest Lego marketing scheme, along with Disney's princess pushing methods, are inherently part of how we view girls here in the United States, with limited versions of femininity continuing to be perpetuated. As we continue to debate why so few girls end up with careers based in math and science, isn't it obvious? Isn't the definition of crazy often said to be doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? We will never get different results by adhering to stereotypes that we ourselves have created and continue to allow others to perpetuate.
Sadly, Legos even admits to what the Bloomberg piece calls the "paradox," which is that "break[ing] down old stereotypes about how girls play...risks reinforcing others." An actual neuroscientist and author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, Lise Eliot, admits that "'there is no reason to think Lego is more intrinsically appealing to boys," and yet says, "'if it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I'll put up with it, at least for now, becasue it's just so good for little girls brains.'" Huh? What is good for girls' brains? Reinforcing a limiting stereotype that has girls actually believing that they need a plastic building block to be beautiful? And this came from a neuroscientist?
But this is the new lay of the land in which companies, like mad scientists, have created and produced a monster that continues to benefit them in terms of their profit margin. It has become such a no-brainer that nobody wants to think about what it all actually means for girls. In a recent NPR piece that focused on how some companies were responding to outcries for better messaging to girls, one designer put it bluntly, "'I guess it's just so ingrained in our culture that it's an easy sale. It's going to be easier to sell a shirt that says, you know, 'My Little Princess' than 'My A Student.'" The key word is"easy."
So, what could Lego have done differently? They could have simply given girls a plain, primary colored set of Legos and observed. (Or they could put girls in their commercials, ads, etc.--included them in their marketing to begin with.) Instead, they actually fed them what they knew they would like, while somehow expecting that girls would tell them something different. It's like feeding a kid candy everyday for a year and then introducing a piece of broccoli. The Disneys and Legos of the world just keep feeding kids candy by deferring to these stereotypes--making it more difficult to offer something healthy. Because it's just plain easier that way. You know what I call all of this inability to do the right thing and see girls as intelligent, multi-faceted beings who are more than capable of handling any set of Legos produced? Laziness. And I'm sick of it.