LEGO Called Upon to Treat Girls and Boys as Equals
1.12.12 | Yeserday we discussed programs for students and teachers designed to encourage girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM subjects associated with higher-paying careers down the road.
Unfortunately, for every good STEM program there’s a bad product marketing idea, and it usually involves turning gender-neutral items (like science kits) into bubblegum pink versions for girls. It’s like the “Portlandia” episode in which a shop owner is encouraged to “Put a bird on it”—meaning everything in the store—because, well, birds are pretty. Therefore, any product with a bird on it is instantly more hip and desirable.
There’s nothing wrong with the color pink (or birds), but there is something very wrong with assuming girls are only interested in science if it can be harnessed to make beauty products.
The latest culprit is the new LEGO Friends product line. Five friends—all gorgeously thin with long hair and doe eyes—hold hands and giggle at each other in the online teaser. Their bios reveal their passions: Emma loves “drawing, fashion and giving my friends makeovers!” Mia loves sports in addition to animals, but her scenes only show her bathing a dog (doggy spa!). Olivia likes to “build things,” but with whom? Andrea, the only friend who isn’t snowy white, wants to sing and dance (sigh), and Stephanie wants to plan parties. This video demonstrates that life for LEGO Friends is one big party, with a stop at the “beauty shop.”
Some parents and educators think LEGO could attract more female users if the company featured more girls in its general products and advertising, instead of dividing boys and girls into different markets. Even Riley Maida, who is 4, has questioned why toys for girls seem to come in only one color, and she has garnered much attention for her tirade against the pinking of toy aisles: “Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses. So why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?” (Diane Sawyer was impressed.)
Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on the nature vs. nurture debate as it relates to children’s toys. Orentstein notes that while research shows that boys and girls generally have different playing styles and gravitate toward different toys (though they unite around stuffed animals and books), that’s not justification for enforcing a divide. In fact, there are many good reasons to do the opposite:
Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry, learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000 3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both girls and boys with older sisters.
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.
Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences? What do girls learn about who they should be from Lego kits with beauty parlors or the flood of “girl friendly” science kits that run the gamut from “beauty spa lab” to “perfume factory”?
Besides supporting the STEM programs that acknowledge the diversity of girls’ experiences and interests, you can also learn more via organizations like SPARK, which launched in 2010 to combat gender stereotypes and the sexualization of girls in media. SPARK posted a video this week (see below) showing young girls building towers and other creations with LEGO blocks and started a petition calling on LEGO to make all its toys available to girls and boys—like it used to do, back in the old days:
In the 1950’s LEGO burst on the American scene with TV commercials inviting girls and boys to build and create. In 1981, LEGO’s ad, ‘What it is, is beautiful,’ invited girls to play with LEGO in a way that didn’t appeal to this lowest common denominator version of girlhood, but gave us credit for being creative, smart, and imaginative. This has always been LEGO’s strength. It’s why they have been parents’ go-to toy. They’ve never sold kids out—until now.
SPARK’s Bailey Shoemaker Richards has more on the campaign.
It would also be nice if LEGO added more female characters to its other product lines. As the Techbridge program for girls has found, being able to see an engineer (or superhero) who looks like you puts girls one step closer to believing they can actually be that person.
And this may be picky, but looking at the LEGO minifigures, I had to wonder: Why does Intergalactic Girl have less strength than a genie or a mechanic? And why does she say, “No thanks needed” for saving solar systems? I realize that’s part of her character, but when women are too often expected to take on extra work without any thanks, it’s not the best idea to make that a personality trait. And why can’t Skater Girl want to skate for thrills or speed, instead of only wanting to feel the “wind whipping through her streaked hair, and her custom-painted board beneath her feet”? Can’t she be as athletic as she is stylish?
Yes, I know: They’re only LEGO’s. But this is the type of subtle negative messaging that educators are up against when trying to get girls to think of themselves as equals in male-dominated fields. Watch the video below for a look at how LEGO ads have changed over the years.
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