Lowest Common Denominator

Lego wordle from Lego Friends tv commercial. Any of that say STEM to you?

I know we’ve been talking about Lego quite a bit.

What I find so fascinating about this story is how it is the perfect microcosm of all things girlhood these days. Corporate pink-washing, relegating girls to all things pretty and sweet, beauty over brains, using sexism to defend sexism, make-up on 8 year olds in a Lego tv commercial, and the list goes on.

So while this is about Lego, this is about so much more. Lego is just a symptom of ginormous problems staring down our girls. I just hope we are raising them to be tough enough to take it on and squash it.

Lowest Common Denominator

To be fair, the new Lego Friends isn’t all bad. It is just that it isn’t all that good, from a brand parents go to as an amazing brain-boosting toy. This new line leaves many parents wondering how Lego sees their girls’ brains, as the girl’s line is heavy on the cute, light on construction (I don’t count putting flower petals on stems or bows on dogs as building). I do like the science lab and tree house, and even the cafe (a little bit) and vet clinic. Olivia’s big house looks like it would be fun to build. Amelia, my almost-6-year-old would like them, but we would both be left wishing the majority of the sets required more actual construction. And challenging construction at that. There are so few building pieces, it would be hard to take them apart and build your own creation. That is the kind of stuff that breaks my Lego-loving heart.

The other part that breaks my heart is how segregated by gender Lego has become. Amelia received and loved the Lego City Marina for Christmas. For her birthday next week, my mom and dad got her another section of Lego City. I bought her a tub of primary colored bricks and a green and blue building board. But I wonder in a couple of years how my kids will view Lego, with the boy-dominated licensed sets and the all-girl Heartlake City. Lego has drawn a rather thick pink and blue line in the sand. Try as I might, I don’t know how much longer I will be able to keep Lego gender-equal in my home. As it stands, Lego seems to have some pretty sexist messages jumping off their boxes at kids, and I’m not a huge fan of teaching my kids sexist messages. Lyn Mikel Brown says,“The human brain is “fantastically plastic” and the best thing we can do for our children is to give them a full range of opportunities and experiences, especially in the early years. We don’t know at five how little Tierra’s or Tommy’s passions and talents will surface, so why pay good money to limit their options to the pink and blue aisles of toy stores?”

Lego is in the spot they are in not because girls changed, but because Lego changed on girls. To boost sales in the early 2000′s they focused on licensing deals with boys square in their sights. Girls stopped playing with Lego because Leg0 stopped including them. You’ve all seen the 1981 “What it is, is beautiful” ad circulating….1981 was 31 years ago. 31 years is a long time, Lego. Lego’s own marketing told girls that Lego wasn’t for girls. You can kinda see how girls went they way they did on this one.

Lego used the lowest common denominator  in girlhood to design their line. Lego says the end result is after four years of $4 million in global research and this is what girls and moms want. For reals, Lego? I guess they didn’t interview the several thousands of moms (and dads and aunts and uncles and grandmas and caring adults) who voiced their opinion on the Lego Facebook page, several thousand more from the Pigtail Pals Facebook page (and other rad groups like Powered By Girl, SPARK, New Moon GirlsPrincess Free Zone, Reel Girl; and the formidable girl culture expert, one Peggy Orenstein). A change.org petition calling for Lego to try harder for our girls has a couple thousand signatures.  Lego says their research revealed girls play in the first person, are interested in beauty, and want to get to their role playing more quickly than boys. This fascinates me, as I have spent the past two weeks watching my female child play HOURS of Lego and not once tell herself to hurry it up so her Lego self can get her plastic hair done at the beauty salon.

Amy Jussel of Shaping Youth asks, “How (and why) are we missing profound opportunities to leverage neuroscience breakthroughs for positive change, wellness and play? How can we finally be tossing aside ‘hardwired corpus calossum theories’ on differences in boys/girls, acknowledging brain plasticity and realizing this play pattern/edu deficit stuff is NOT ‘set in stone’ and yet simultaneously standby to see Lego spend $40 million in mega-marketing bucks to proceed to SET it in stone.” Read the entire amazing post HERE.

You know how I always say, “I’m not anti-pink. I’m not anti-princess. I am anti-limitation. When we limit our children, we limit our children.”? Well, that pithy Amy Jussel says it this way and I like it:

I AM against stacking the deck of ‘learned behavior’ with pervasively marketed signals of stereotyped imagery embedding into the brain with stiflingly narrowcast assembly-line rote mimickry. I far prefer pure, imaginative, problem-solving free form fun.

I encourage you to watch the Lego Friends tv commercials, with the make-up clad third graders in the opener making a heart with their hands (awww, somewhere Taylor Swift just did one back) and the music sparkles and we are introduced to Heartlake City, the pinky-purple enclave where the Lego Friends live. With hearts on sky scrapers not a male in sight. Weird.

Watch as the saccharine-sweet narrator talks about the Friends partying at the cafe with the girls (only after they’ve been styled at the salon) because they need to chill after decorating their houses. It is important to note the commercial doesn’t show the girls finishing up a surgery at the clinic and then heading over to the science lab to help Lego Friend Olivia with her latest experiment. Lego shows the girls get coiffed at the salon and then go party.  I think Lego needs to Redefine Girly just a tish.

I think the commercial speaks loudly as to how Lego sees girls, what Lego thinks girls are interested in, and how highly Lego holds girls’ capacity for spacial reasoning and construction play. Will this attract our girly-girls out there who think Lego is only for boys, or will only play with pink and pretty things? Maybe. I am yet unconvinced the ends justify the means. Being a girly-girl doesn’t make one incapable of building and planning and designing and reasoning, but Lego doesn’t seem to see it that way. Lego has a very clear idea of what “girly” means to them.

I am left wondering, in the age of childhood obesity, why Lego could not have created a juice bar/farmer’s stand with fresh produce and flowers? The all-female residents of Heartlake City are shown in the commercials rolling down to the cafe for burgers, shakes, and cupcakes. Instead of a cupcake baker, couldn’t Lego Friend Andrea be an organic farmer and we could build her a barn and big Chevy farm truck? And she could have a little laptop where she tracks weather systems and soil conditions and Skypes with other organic farmers around the world? No? Too much?   

I also wonder, why can’t a single one of the girls work in downtown Heartlake in one of those skyscrapers? Maybe as, oh I don’t know…an engineer or architect? Is that just crazy talk? Why are they in the burbs decorating houses and cupcakes? Did I miss the Lego Friends Time Machine that zapped us back to 1952? Were you to lay a track of the Lego Friends commercial over one for Barbie Charm School or Lelli Kelly sparkle toe shoes or anything Disney Princess, they all sound exactly the same. Somehow Lego and other marketers decided the way to attract XX-chromosome customers you need a syrupy-sweet female voice with blue birds singing in the background to sell girls on the notion their role in this world is to be pretty and sweet. Way to STEM it up, Lego.

As Daniel Sinker says in his post, “Legos are still held up as a gateway to engineering and science, and despite my misgivings about the current state of their kits, I still believe they are. But if they’ve become toys marketed to a single gender, then we’re just reproducing the already awful gender imbalance in STEM education and employment.”

If girls are playing in the first person, as Lego says their research found, why is Lego not making people that are amazing role models for girls? Why is Lego not taking this opportunity to promote STEM to girls? In addition to a cafe owner, where is the calculus teacher or surgeon or CEO or scientific explorer or rescue worker or geologist or…..anything but what they gave us that sells girls short. Mireya Mayor is a famous National Geographic wildlife explorer, author, and a total girly-girl, even when treking across the world discovering new animal species. Lego, the king of licensing, couldn’t send her an email? I’d buy Mireya Mayor or Bindi Irwin Lego by the bucket. I like the vet (short skirt-wearing vet, this was questioned by a vet on our Facebook page) and the invention lab, but instead Lego morphed Polly Pockets and Barbie into brick form. Lego had such an amazing opportunity here to break away from the pack at the quarter pole and be a champion for girls. They didn’t take it. It is still out there, Mega Bloks, in case your listening.

Somebody please have the guts to show our girls how strong and smart and incredible and powerful they can be. I do it with my shirts and I sell them by the thousands. Let’s put that into a little plastic toy form. I’ve got ideas, who wants to listen? Mattel, wanna talk? Manhattan Toy Company? Is there ANYONE out there who has not drank the pink Kool-Aid?? I think I’m going to make myself cry.

Let’s move on…..

NBC’s TODAY Show Uses Sexism and Stereotypes to Promote Sexism and Stereotypes

On Tuesday morning many of us watched incredulously (jump to 5:01 in the video) as Matt Lauer interviewed Star Jones, Donny Deutsch, and Dr. Nancy Snyderman. One of the topics discussed was Lego Friends, and the two minute discussion was a master’s class in using ingrained cultural sexism to defend sexism. The interview left many of us furious and offended. As was brilliantly said on the Pigtail Facebook page: “Having people with such a reach not GET IT is overwhelming.”

Margot Magowan of Reel Girl transcribed the segment:

Matt Lauer:
Star Jones: And they give you little electric mixers and brushes and combs and purses.

Donnie Deutsch: Perfect, perfect.

Matt Lauer: You’re sounding down on this.

Jones: When you’re a little girl, you want to build bridges also. You want to put them on top of each other. You don’t want–

Lauer: So go out and buy the architectural Lego.

(Nancy Snyderman laughs.)

Jones: Which is exactly the way my three year old goddaughter does. She has the architectural one. The big yellow ones.

Nancy Snyderman: These are perfectly okay. The reality is there is a gender difference. Girls like playing with girl’s things, and you’re still constructing things. If the cupcake girl can still do calculus, I have no issue.

Umm…I have an issue. A really BIG one. Nancy Snyderman is a medical doctor, which is going to have people seeing her as an authority. While I think I understand what she was trying to say, she didn’t say it well. I’ve been on tv, I’ve been on live tv, and I know the interviews move fast and you have 2-3 seconds to say what you need to say. So maybe she didn’t mean it the way it came out, though her laughing and body language during the interview suggests otherwise. But this “Girls like playing with girl’s things”? What is that, Good Doctor? Is that  your professional opinion? Or a categorical stereotype? My daughter likes to play with her giant whale/dolphin collection, her oceanographer figures, her marine biology boat, and her science kit. Before the ocean phase, she was into dinosaurs. Before that, volcanoes and she carried grotesque dock spiders around in little jars. Despite her love of sparkles and leg warmers, she has zero interest in princesses. So what are “girl things”, Doctor? Should I be concerned for my daughter? Could something be wrong with her? Oh dear!

Then there’s this part, Italics mine because there was so much interupting at this point it is hard to follow:

Deutsch: You’re teaching them to build! (Not really, the sets require precious little challenging building.)

Snyderman: It gets girls into architecture and math and design, I’m all for it!

Jones: Give them some alternatives for goodness sake. (Visibly frustrated.)

Lauer: There’s no law that says they can’t go to the store and buy the Frank Lloyd Wright line. (No law, but a hell of a lot of marketing.)

Jones: They (don’t) put the Legos in the girls sections. (Star was interupted here and not able to finish her sentence.)

Deutsch: Little Girls do like princesses and things like that. I like princesses. (Categorical stereotype presented as fact. My little girl does not like princess. I know many others like her.)

Snyderman: And will parents buy this for boys? (Laughs loudly)

Deutsch: No they won’t. (Laughs loudly, with an “Oh my God, that’d be so gay” look on his face.)

Lauer: That’s probably not going to happen. (Gives Nancy a “Are you crazy” side glance because everyone knows boys don’t touch girls’ things.)

(Matt, Donny, and Nancy all laugh loudly as Star sits slumped and defeated in her chair.)

Well then. If that isn’t offensive, I don’t know what is. First, for a segment on marketing, no one but Star Jones seemed to understand marketing. How a product is packaged, and who is shown playing with it, matters. Where the product is placed in the store, specifically the pink and blue toy aisles, matters. The images and messages and color coding our kids see over and over and over again, matters. This is called marketing, and marketers know all of this matters. That is why they spend so much money doing it. Keep in mind, Donny Deutsch is an ad guy. A famous one. And he uses a cupcake and princess analogy presented as fact, when what he is doing is missing the point that girls are programmed and conditioned to like those things because so often, they have no other choices. They like what they have to choose from. It is like Henry Ford saying, “You can have any color you want so long as it is black.” Girls who are given a wider range to choose from demonstrate a variety of interests. If from that wide range they choose cupcakes and tutus, bless their little hearts. But sweet baby jeebus give them choices. Choices! 2012 could be the year of choices!!

Second, the bigger issue is the laughter over the idea of boys playing with this Lego Friends line. And not just a chuckle. Three of the four “professional” panelists had cracked themselves up over the idea of a boy playing with a toy so feminine. Clearly the panelists feel there is a definite distinction over what girls and boys should be playing with, and the idea of a boy being interested in Heartlake City is hilarious.

The Sanford Harmony Program  said it best on the Pigtail Facebook page: “This was a tremendous missed opportunity for bringing boys and girls TOGETHER. If children are given more chances to establish some common ground, and work and play with one another, they will be more inclined to engage more often – learning from and about each other along the way. The messages and images polarizing our girls and boys contribute tremendously to the notion that boys and girls grow-up in “separate worlds.” In these single-gender peer groups, kids are honing their communication and problem solving skills in isolation of one another and socializing each other in different ways. The world is co-ed – let’s do something to help bring our kids together.” 

Vintage Lego ad, when Lego knew who they were and what they meant to kids.

 Side by Side Gender Apartheid: A Visual Reference

I headed to YouTube to catch some Lego tv commercials, and see if maybe this all wasn’t just in my head. So I watched two Lego Friends commercials, and then created a wordle from the words in the used by the narrator in the commercial, and the colors most represented by the brick colors in the sets. I then did the same for a Lego Dino and Lego City commercial.

You be the judge.

Apartheid (n): From the Afrikaans word for “apartness”, a system of segregation.

Words captured from Lego commercials, Lego Friends on left, Lego Dino and Lego City on right. (pigtailpalsblog.com)