Monday, April 8, 2013

Appreciation for Pink and Purple LEGO Bows

I want my daughters to play with LEGO. Which is sort of funny, because I never did. I have no nostalgic memories of constructing houses, cars, or abstract reliefs with these most famous of building toys.

My husband on the other hand so cherished his childhood LEGO bricks that when his dog occasionally ate a few he would go out into the yard and dig them out of turds. Having something to bond over with dad is a great perk, but that's not really why I want my daughters to play with LEGO.

LEGO sets are expertly-designed with high quality materials. As a consumer I see purchasing LEGO as putting my money toward quality products and quality jobs, opposed to shoddy toys made under cheap and sometimes abusive labor conditions.

Most importantly to me as a parent, playing with LEGO exercises mathematical reasoning, fine motor skills, sorting, following directions, and imaginative visual planning. Also nice for parents, LEGO encourages children to engage in long periods of quiet concentration, and yet can be also easily adapted to working together in pairs or small groups on a project. In short, LEGO is friggin' awesome.

Any parent knows that you can't make a kid like a particular toy. They can't be tricked or manipulated, at least not in any long-term and deeply transformative way. Kids are who they are. They might act a certain way around their parents to please them or to avoid conflict, but that doesn't change how they really feel or what they are really interested in doing. So I'm basically stuck just hoping that my girls will like LEGO.

After the birth of our first daughter, my husband and I longingly eyed the beginner sets of LEGO for ages 4+ and waited for her to grow. Just as she was about to turn three a male peer of hers had already started playing with and often talking about his LEGO sets, so during the holidays, three months after her 3rd birthday, we went ahead and bought her the blue box starter set. At first when she unwrapped the gift she repeatedly squealed with joy, then jumped up to hug my husband, saying, "Thank you, daddy! Thank you so much!" I thought we were golden.

But in the coming weeks I noticed that she didn't really want to play much with the set. In fact, she only really played with it when her male friend came over and played with her.

There was hope, however. She told me that for her next LEGO set, "I want pink and purple LEGO." I swear she'd never seen the pink LEGO box set or any of the Lego sets marketed mainly at girls, and yet, she assumed such things were out there. So after she completed a math activity book that we'd been doing, we went out and bought the pink box set as a reward.

She was overjoyed. The set came with a white horse figure, which interested her more than anything else. My husband mixed his old Star Wars LEGO sets in with her sets, and she started building and role playing scenarios. (At some point she was convinced Chewbacca was a bad guy and had built him a jail.)

This week she finished a second math activity book, so it was off to an actual LEGO store to buy her another small reward. She was the only girl among several boys engaged with the brick stations set up for play. As my husband drooled over the Death Star and Millennium Falcon sets, I fluttered with excitement over the huge number of small, simple sets which I knew would appeal to my daughter's interests. A girl magician, a girl with a foal, and a girl's karate class, each under ten dollars. Most sets of interest were from the new LEGO Friends line, the result of a four year study aimed at making LEGO more appealing to girls. Although there was  also a bride and groom set and a princess with horse and carriage set from the traditional LEGO line that I thought might also catch her eye. I briefly scanned the larger, more expensive sets to consider for future birthday or holiday season gifts, and was thrilled to see a LEGO Friends veterinarian clinic, since my daughter loves to play doctor with her stuffed animals.

In the end my daughter choose two $5 sets from the LEGO Friends series: Turtle's Little Oasis and Cat's Playground. Both animal figures came with little removable pink and purple bows on their heads. My daughter put them both together as soon as she got home (while wearing a pink bow in her own hair, which got me to smile and take the above photograph.)

The new LEGO Friends products have been met with some controversy and criticism, as can be expected. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood even nominated a LEGO Friends set for a 2012 TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children.) Okay, that just pisses me off. They wrote:

How do you turn one of the all-time great toys into a TOADY contender? Give it a makeover! Introducing LEGO Friends, just for girls and so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush. Bye-bye square, androgynous figures; hello, curves ‘n  eyelashes! And at the LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop, your little princess won’t need to worry her pretty little head about icky boy things like building. Instead, she can “get primped and pretty and have some serious salon fun,” “shop for makeup and hair accessories,” or “gossip out on the bench by the scenic fountain.”

What the hell is wrong with curves and eyelashes? Human bodies have curves and eyelashes, so that is basically a complaint about the figures being more detailed and naturalistic. What else is LEGO supposed to do about girls being plainly turned off by the "square, androgynous figure?" What are these "condescending stereotypes"? The set is two figures in fairly generic female attire in a generic beauty salon. This is a harmful stereotype? Don't real women get their hair done in salons? Don't real women wear makeup? I fail to see the kind of disturbing hyper-sexualization of the figures as featured in Bratz dolls, so what is the problem? Finally, how is she getting "primped and pretty" instead of building? Doesn't she have to build the set before playing with it? Don't boys role play scenes with their LEGO sets? (Often scenes of violence, which is arguably worse than getting a makeover.) Also, can't the pieces from this set be used interchangeably with all LEGO bricks to build new and unique creations? (The answer is yes.)

It seems to me a bit like LEGO is damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they don't reach out specifically to girls, they are criticized for exclusion (which is rather dumb to begin with because lots of girls do like and play with Star Wars, ninja, zombi, etc LEGO sets too) but if they do, they are criticized for encouraging gender stereotypes. I'm not saying that there aren't horrible toys out there that really do reinforce harmful gender stereotypes (which can hurt both girls and boys.) But, people, this ain't one of them!

I enjoyed and agreed with most of KJ Dell'Antonia's response to this TOADY nomination.

In another column, KJ Dell'Antonia worries that LEGO Friends sets (and that many of the new sets marketed to boys) are too specific, and are less likely to encourage kids being creative with their designs. She and others fear the girls will just put together the set and then play with it as it is seemingly intended without any creative deviation. Dell'Antonia suggests parents pour out the box of LEGO we already have and "help her to dig in." I tried that with the first set for my kiddo, and unfortunately it didn't work. But I'm not worried. The the first thing my daughter did with her new LEGO Friends sets was to follow the directions from start to finish. However, the next day she partially dismantled both the oasis and playground and re-made them into new props for her role play games. Kids are just naturally creative.

My daughter's interest in playing with LEGO seems to be ignited by two things: cooperative LEGO play with peers (not parents) and pieces which include more appealing colors (shades of purple, pink, and peach) and cuter, more detailed figures. Frankly, I have to agree with her. I never understood the appeal of the iconic yellow Lego figures. They just seemed blockish and generic to me. Sorry traditional LEGO fans!

This blogger is one proud feminist, no make-up wearing, buzzed hairdo mom who is thrilled that my daughter will benefit from playing with LEGO bricks and figures, in no small part because LEGO made the effort to market to typical girls. Bravo.