I Bought Gendered Lego
This is not the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love gendered Lego but instead the story of the time I bought gendered Lego, and why I did. I’m still kind of worried, but I’ve learned a thing or two.
First, that people with our Lego concerns probably shouldn’t have been in the Lego Store in the first place, but the guy behind the counter was nice and probably didn’t make much more than minimum wage, and so I elected to just smile dimly when he asked my daughter if she liked “Friends”.
‘Friends’ by which he meant Lego Friends — which has come to be known in our family as ‘Sexed-up Lego’ ever since we began being horrified by advertisements such as this one in which the shapely Lego lady exclaims, “I just finished decorating my house! Now time to chill with the girls!”
These are ads that Harriet has never seen; she had no idea what the man in the shop was talking about. She was just excited about clutching a new Lego kit in her kid-sized hands, a kit whose packaging was the Lego Friends’ signature purple for reasons I will delineate in a moment.
My daughter loves Lego, which is why we were in the store during our latest biannual family trip to the mall. At four, she’s not too old to still be in love with her gender-inclusive Duplo circus set, and she has a big blue bin of Lego proper that she likes to fashion with her Lego-loving dad into fire trucks and mechanic shops. They build houses, windmills, cars, boats and helicopters, and their own version of the robots from Wall-E.
We walked into the Lego Store wary of the Sexed-up Lego, but hoping we could still find something in the store for our girl to enjoy. Harriet had also just endured 45 minutes of watching me try on pants at the Gap, so she was definitely a child deserving of a treat.
At first, we steered clear of the ‘girlie’ Lego and my husband enthusiastically picked various vehicle kits off the shelf: police cars, stunt planes, rescue boats and more. But these toys made me as uneasy as Lego Friends did, being just as gendered. There was something fundamentally uninteresting about their insistence on speed and action. Harriet has also noticed that the Lego Men in these kits are almost always actually men — usually accessorized with a beard so there’s really no pretending. The opposite of ‘gendered’ isn’t ‘boy’ after all.
Out of frustration, I finally turned to the Lego Friends. I still don’t understand why the Lego Friends have to look like lollipop-head Posh Spice in miniature, while the Lego Men get to be solid and square. I didn’t like how little building is involved with the Lego Friends kits, or why the playing is so prescribed. But the bakery kit looked kind of fun, had the added bonus of being $7.99, and the Lego Store was so much less exciting than I’d expected.
And we like cupcakes. So we bought it and we left.
Am I a little bit ashamed for buying the very toy I’ve professed to hate in the past? Yes. But I fast reconciled my hypocrisy with what happened next, when we got home and Harriet dumped the pieces of her Lego Friends bakery kit into the big blue bin. Ever since our introduction to Lego Friends, Harriet’s Lego firehouse has featured a cupcakery. Her Lego Friends character is a baker and a firefighter, she has decided. The pink pastel Lego is now all mixed with all the other pieces and the possibilities of her play are more endless than ever.
I am also delighted to discover that the Lego Friends character’s blonde mane attaches to the burly Lego Man mechanic in his overalls, and that when the now-bald Lego Friends girl puts on the mechanic’s blue hat, she almost looks cool.
And so I have decided that I am okay with having bought the girlie Lego because, while that which marketers would have us believe ‘girliness’ is far less interesting than any girl I’ve ever met, girliness itself is not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with baking a cupcake or having yellow hair.
The problem is that the pretty girl with the blonde hair will never drive a stunt-plane, unless it happens to come in pastels (nor will she ever have a waist as wide as her head circumference), and the burly Lego man will never get to be a veterinarian or bake eclairs. The problem is that gendered toys teach boys and girls that they’re not meant to play together, that their interests are so disparate that they must remain on opposite ends of the Lego store.
The solution is probably to stop buying Lego, but I’ve seen what my daughter can make of this toy on her own terms and I don’t want to rob her of that experience. The next best solution is to buy Lego secondhand, already gloriously mixed into a perfect recipe for creativity. But nobody ever gets rid of their Lego so this is unlikely to happen.
So the option I am left with is to take Lego as it is, though not without being thoughtful and supporting those putting pressure on Lego to change how girls are represented in their products.
We will continue to mix and match Lego kits, keeping Harriet’s Lego world interesting and providing her with the tools for subverting some marketer’s incredibly limited ideas about the kind of person she is.