After months of writing, campaigning, researching, talking to the press and parents and kids, SPARK finally had the chance to meet with LEGO to talk about the Friends line, and LEGO’s role in shaping kids’ play. LEGO agreed to meet with SPARK representatives after we launched a Change.org petition that garnered over 55,000 signatures and sent them a letter requesting a conversation about the dangerous road we saw LEGO starting to traverse.
On Friday, April 20, Dana Edell, Jamia Wilson, Stephanie Cole and I had the opportunity to sit down with three LEGO executives – Michael McNally (brand relations director), Laura Post (senior director) and Nanna Ulrich Gudum (senior creative director). What was intended to be an hour-long meeting lasted 90 minutes, and the SPARKteam left the meeting feeling energized and encouraged. McNally made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that their role as LEGO’s ambassadors was to be active listeners and take our concerns into account. We were thrilled that they were so willing to engage with the research and information we had prepared.
Before beginning the meeting, we discussed the media treatment of the discussion. SPARK has approached our critique of LEGO from a place of long-time admiration and disappointment, rather than one of anger. Despite that, the media loves a good brawl and has portrayed SPARK as an angry feminist group out to get the LEGO Friends banned because we hate pink. This has not been the case, however, and we made sure that the LEGO representatives were aware that our criticism is based on wanting the best for girls, as well as the LEGO company. While news outlets might have more fun telling the story of a fight, the meeting was pleasant, productive and inspiring for everyone involved.
Probably the least effective complaint sexists can leave on any article about the LEGO campaign/meeting is that I’m ugly (or must have had an abusive stepfather because I have short hair and therefore I want people to wear more vests, because really that one doesn’t even make any sense). And yes, I know, never read the comments, but I do what I want
This is not an insult to me. Saying you’d rather “fondle one of the LEGO Friends toys” than me is a comfort, not an insult. It’s creepy as all hell, but I am so glad that you find me repulsive and physically displeasing. We are in complete agreement on being repulsed by one another.
But what you fail to understand is that it is not possible for me to care any less what you think about my appearance. Goes with the whole “I’m a feminist” thing. I don’t allow you to define my worth by whether or not you’d like to have sex with me. I don’t allow you to invalidate my work by whether or not you think I’m attractive, or whether or not you like the length or color(s) of my hair, or my clothes or boobs or face. It is irrelevant in every imaginable way.
This is not an effective attack, because it is the most meaningless front on which to try to insult me. It also validates the work I am doing. If you see me out there fighting for kids to have healthy play that doesn’t subject them to regressive ideals of a normalized white girlhood, and the only thing you can think of to counter that is that you find me ugly…well.
Then I have already won.
Cue ’Little Green Bag’
Can we talk about how bad ass our SPARK activists look in this photo? I guess I’d feel pretty bad ass too if I’d just left a successful meeting with LEGO where I talked about gender stereotypes and healthy play. (In reality I was sitting in Rockefeller Center wringing my hands waiting for them to tell me how it went—significantly less bad ass, all things considered.)
Anyway—SO PROUD! We’ll have a full recap from the meeting up on Monday, but until then, check out our Facebook page for the deets!
That’s me with Bailey, Dana and Jamia! The SPARK/LEGO meeting was a huge success!
Check out my latest blog for SPARK on the LEGO Friends controversy, and why we still need to be talking about it. We’re meeting with LEGO this Friday to talk about the totally unnecessary gender stereotyping in their otherwise great toys and give them suggestions for what they can do to be as awesome as they wanna be. Get stoked!
Part 2 of Feminist Frequency’s examination of LEGO is, like Part I, one of their most well-researched and well argued looks at the LEGO fiasco that can be found. But it also raises some questions for me as to the types of narratives that are being marketed to children in general. LEGO is falling into stereotypical traps when they market battle/conflict/ammo oriented narratives exclusively to boys and nurturing, friendship-oriented but otherwise banal narratives exclusively to girls. As a little girl, and now as a young woman, I have always preferred my narratives to have an action-oriented, adventurous edge. I think that explains the persistence of my “geeky” interests in Star Wars, LOTR, Quentin Tarantino films, etc. Therefore, I always get a little miffed when 1) Media and society tells me and other women and girls that stereotypically “male” interests aren’t for me, and 2) When women and other feminists dismiss those interests as “testosterone” fueled, violent and stupid. I spend a lot of time within the happy community of geek women bubble, where we can all bond over the new Hobbit trailer, and other amazing things, and frequently rage against sexism. But sometimes, when I step out of the happy bubble, it seems like my interests are getting hostility from both sides of the camp.
So of course, when LEGO’s focus on Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and some sortof Ninja story was brought up in this video, as it has been brought up before, as evidence of LEGO excluding girls, this feminist fangirl was ready to see gender stereotypes at work. Because there is nothing to say that girls “naturally” should feel put off by action oriented narratives.
But then I took a closer look, and realized that the narratives being sold in toy aisles, and the narratives frequently enacted by boys and girls at the school where I work, rarely resemble the narratives that I love. Feminist Frequency points out that boys are sold violence and conflict, while girls are sold love and nurturing and relationships. But the best narratives are when both components come together.
In Star Wars, there are exhilarating battles and explosions and action sequences, but there are also vivid characters, (I’m talking original trilogy, of course), an emphasis on family, friendship, love, and strong human connections, a sense of good and evil and moral ambiguity, and the insistence that war and conflict are not the natural order of things and that peace is the ultimate goal. Same goes for The Lord of the Rings, which is also anti-war, pro-humanity, pro-environment and pro-love. And Harry Potter, while also chock-full of awesome action, is all a massive love-fest in the end. That’s because all of these narratives are built around classic mythic structures that have been humanity’s go-to narrative for millennia. And for good reason! The actual purpose of myth is to examine universal themes of life and love, and there is no better background for such an examination as a trying conflict between good and evil.
Meanwhile, with products like Beyblades and Pokémon,narratives that emphasize battles with no rhyme or reason or hope for peace, boys are getting all the conflict and none of the pathos. And with LEGO Friends and other residents of the “pink ghetto,” girls are getting a whole lot of beauty and love and no challenges or conflict. Either way, we are emotionally shortchanging the next generation, narrative-wise.
Sure, Star Wars remains incredibly popular with boys, but I doubt they get it, especially with their minds so pumped up on ammo. The Clone Wars television series is incredibly popular with youngsters, mostly boys, but it seriously goes over their heads! I recently watched some of the series for the first time, curious about these new Star Wars narratives that were playing out without me, and I was struck by three things. 1) The show is MUCH better than the prequels, though that’s not difficult. 2) The stylized animation looks less weird in motion, and 3) The show is incredibly political and ultimately carries a timely message about the corruptive power of corporate/military systems. I see a lot of first grade boys running around the playground during recess making “pew-pew” noises and spouting words like, “Separatist warship” and “Republic army” etc. without understanding that the “good guys” in the Clone Wars are going to be the Empire in the trilogy, and these battles they are playing out are a farce. Star Wars itself is very thematically aware of the cynical fact, kids are not.
But that is not to say that they are incapable of grasping the deep, life affirming themes that mythic narratives have to offer. A parent who waits until their child is seven or eight, sits down and watches Star Wars with them, and allows them to absorb the narrative with some thought and discussion, will have successfully introduced their children to a timeless story for any gender. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings should be approached in a similar manner. Last summer, working as a day camp counselor, I actually told The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a story to a rapt audience of seven year olds, four girls and two boys. It took two weeks, included all the scenes and most of the dialogue, and it was a huge hit. Boys and girls equally loved the Nazgul and the Orcs and the Riders of Rohan, but they were mostly moved by humanity’s struggle to survive great evil, the bravery of the Hobbits, the last march of the Ents, and the triumph of peace. It was magical to see a myth affect an audience so deeply. It transcended any presumption of what boys and girls were supposed to like, it was the transformative power of narrative in action and it was beautiful.
I have always considered my self-given titles of geek and fangirl to be a casual way of explaining a much deeper feeling. Because the narratives I love have given so much more to me than my shallow expressions of fandom could ever hope to approximate. It saddens me that our current consumer culture reduces the value of those narratives to pointless explosion fests for boys and puppy parties for girls. The real stories are there, but for ad-drenched kid brains, they are becoming increasingly hard to find. If we’re not careful, the nuance will disappear for the next generation. Cue Imperial March.
 Sorry adult Pokémon fans. All nostalgia aside, I have yet to hear a good argument for the narrative values of Pikachu.
 Episode IV comes first. It’s just good parenting.
When I’m not happily offering my feminist (over)analyses of my favorite fandoms for you lovely folks, I’m busy offering my more general feminist perspectives as a blogger for the ever-awesome SPARK. My latest gender in the media rant had a bit of thematic crossover, so I thought I’d share.
Lego Builds the Wrong Message For Girls
I speak from personal experience when I say that to be “media aware” is to open oneself up to the possibility of being infuriated every day. It’s actually a pretty invigorating experience, but I find that since I’m a pretty positive person, I cannot allow every sexist or sexualizing thing to seriously bother me. Otherwise, I would be in a constant state of mental and/or verbal ranting.
When some new piece of media does come up that royally pisses me off, it’s interesting to think about what exactly about it struck a nerve. In the case of the announcement of the new Lego Friends line, I’m pretty darn steamed. And I know exactly why. To summarize; Lego, which up until recently tended to rely on licensing from pre-existing franchises to furnish it’s more narrative oriented products, (Star Wars, Batman, and Harry Potter, to name a few), has recently embarked on a new direction for their toys. While they aren’t giving up on movie partnerships, they are looking to market more Lego exclusive characters and stories. As a part of this new direction, the brand has embarked on its greatest departure from its previous MO with Lego Friends, a product line for girls, or as Lego CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.” The new Lego figures look drastically different from the toy’s traditional “minifigs.” They are taller, skinnier and they have boobs. They will be marketed to girls five and up. Why? Because, referring to the blocky figure of old, the Lego executive VP of Marketing Mads Nipper said, “Let’s be honest; girls hate him.” Hmm…..I was unaware that the proper pronoun when referring to Princess Leia and Hermione Granger was “him.”
The whole thing really pisses me off for two pretty blatant reasons. First of all, there is the awkward Barbie-fication at work here. I was never a Legos kid, not because I wanted my figurines to have boobs, but because I didn’t like all the assembly required before I could start staging battles and cowboy adventures. Playmobile was more my speed. The only appeal I can personally see in Legos is the hilarious, boxy figures of its characters. They all look the same, with their only curves bizarrely situated below their pelvises. Sure, the minfigs are weird looking, but that’s the point. To beautify them is completely anathema to the Lego brand.
And who is to say girls hate them? I’m guessing Lego arrived at that conclusion after some focus group fun. Which brings me to my next point of anger. Marketers and ad execs and Hollywood and just about everyone else in the media are so busy insisting that women and girls, 50% as Lego puts it, are not interested in what they are selling unless it is pink or cute or a romantic comedy or on Lifetime. But they say this even as they refuse to market their products to the women and girls they are so certain will not like them! Who populates commercials for Legos? Boys! Where in the toy store can you find them? “The boy’s aisle.” So no wonder girls won’t buy your products!
Having been in the education field throughout my college and post-grad life, I can speak from personal experience and assure you, Lego, that girls do like minifigs. They also like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and they like being creative and making up stories that involve adventures and good and evil and things blowing up. But if you keep on excluding them from your marketing vision, soon they will start to believe that they would rather have hot tubs and little plastic boobs. If your research is correct, many of them already have. And if that happens, some girls might miss out on all the fantastic, adventurous imaginative play that only comes around once a childhood. The part of me that still fondly remembers epic Lego vs. Playmobile battles with my sister and cousin, is pretty royally pissed off.
Are you pissed too? Well, I have good news. First, Lego is listening. Sort of. They actually responded to my blog via twitter, which is more then can be said of most of the companies SPARK addresses. Second, you can join our “Bring Back Beautiful” campaign on the Lego Facebook page and tell them you want them to start including girls in their regular product line! Just post this fantastic retro ad and share your thoughts. And please sign the petition!