LEGO has just come out with its new line of building sets hoping to attract girl customers, and (no surprise here) the theme is none other than Disney princesses.
*Cue the groans of feminist parents everywhere*
Much has been written about the dangers of marketing separate toys to boys and girls. The concern is that by encouraging girls and boys to play with different toys, we are encouraging separate gender roles. Pushing gender roles can do all kinds of damage. It can stigmatize individuals who don't fit into those assumed roles.
One of the biggest, specific complaints today about the toy marketing directed at girls is that it can steer potential talent away from STEM fields, and this at a time when more talent is needed and men dominate those fields.
As a mother of two girls, I definitely share these concerns about assigned gender roles. However, I don't want to join the throng of people railing against all things pink and princess without looking at all the available evidence and carefully thinking it through. Especially when my young daughter (to disclose my personal bias) has become a huge clothes horse, refuses to wear anything other than a fancy dress and tights, and revels in calling herself a princess.
The most popular toys, as reported by the Washington Post, are Barbies for girls, and LEGOs for boys, and certainly that fact lends credence to the idea that toys aimed at boys encourage interest in STEM, while toys aimed at girls steer them away. Given this situation, aren't LEGO building sets aimed at girls a good thing? A way to bridge the gap?
Last year I wrote about LEGO's recent efforts to market their building sets to girls, with Appreciation for Pink and Purple Lego Bows. In that article I made the case that typical girls are turned off by traditional LEGO, and that with the new Friends line of sets, LEGO has found a way to draw typical girls to their products in droves.
The LEGO Friends minifigs are more naturalistic, having numerous accessories, some curves and more facial, clothing, and body details. The buildings in Heartlake City, too, put more emphasis on the decor than the architectural design.
Critics of the new LEGO products and marketing campaigns argue that the Friends sets are LEGO altered to the point where the drawbacks of promoting superficial and stereotypical femininity outweigh the benefits of girls playing with building sets. Basically that LEGO for girls is just another version of Barbie.
The new Disney Princess series of LEGO building sets are a continuation of this new marketing campaign targeting girls. The minifigs are based on the Friends minifigs, not the traditional yellow ones. That said, they are hardly Barbie.
Consider this side to side comparison of the LEGO version of Merida (from the film Brave) and a Barbie-like fashion doll version of Merida. Certainly LEGO Merida is pretty, but she's not nearly as glamorous as the (heavily criticized) fashion dolls. These new LEGO figures aimed at girls might be more curvy than the traditional figures, but they are still stylized in a non-sexual way. They don't depict unrealistic ideals of female beauty as super slim and busty, as do fashion dolls. The essential spirit of LEGO as toys generic enough to encourage kids to impose their own vision is still present.
I must add that I'm getting kind of tired about how much I see written against girl toys that obsess over physical beauty, yet how little I see criticizing boy toys that obsess over violence. The LEGO City series is marketing to boys the same age group that Friends is aimed at for girls, so as young as five years old. While LEGO City has many everyday happenings such as trash collection, logging, and surfing, it is apparently also a place full of criminal activity which requires a huge emphasis on law enforcement. Other LEGO lines that tend to attract boy consumers such as Chima and Ninjago are full of violent conflict, weapons, and warriors.
I am hesitant to say that all these toys for boys that glorify violence are a definite bad influence. Of course they might be. After all, they do promote dehumanizing stereotypes of "good guys" and "bad guys" and depict war and noble, exciting, and even entertaining. But is there any evidence that boys whose parents ban such toys grow up to be less violent and more compassionate because of it?
Likewise, is there any evidence that playing princess with makeup, accessories, and costumes will dissuade girls from entering STEM fields? Can girls not be interested in STEM and also glamour and glitz?
Jennifer Welsh wrote an article for Business Insider, saying These Are the 7 Things Keeping Women Out of Science Careers. Her list includes teasing of girls for studying science, and stereotypes of female scientists as weirdos. The argument is that the culture and perception of STEM fields is not friendly to typical girls and women, and so only a minority of outliers brave their way in. The only real solution is for STEM culture and perception to change.
If we apply this to toys, and consider LEGO as representative of toys which direct kids toward STEM, LEGO's marketing to girls is a step in the right direction. With these new products and marketing campaigns, they are changing the broader perception of the LEGO brand as for boys. Once girls feel that they have been invited in by Friends and Disney Princesses lines of LEGO, they are more likely to reach for the more challenging sets found in the totally gender-neutral Creator and Architecture series. Boys and girls who are friends will also be more likely to play LEGO together, as the bricks from all the sets are interchangeable.
While concerns about gender stereotypes will (and should) haunt me as a parent, at the end of the day, I must admit I'm impressed with any toy that gets my four-year-old daughter to spend several hours over a couple days following a 67 page construction manual (the result of her receiving the Friends Pet Salon for Christmas.) And when my daughter begs me for princess toys, I'm happy to have an alternative to the fashion doll.
As much as I previously hated all things Disney Princess, when I saw LEGO join the princess parade, I cheered.