If you’re a fan of Lego it’s been impossible in recent days to avoid the charges of sexism that have been levelled at the company since, well, pretty much since the first days that the Friends line hit the shelves. Arguments against the aggressively-girly line have largely centred around the genderisation of creative play: why does a toy that relies on a child’s imagination to repurpose homogeneous elements need to undergo a gender split? There’s merit to the argument: after all, there was a time when Lego itself marketed just such a question to parents to get them to consider buying the toy for their daughters–
Both my children have a Lego collection, and they’ve both been given open slather when it comes to collecting sets: we don’t direct them, and the only limit we impose is one of price– no matter who the sets are aimed at, they’re fucking expensive. Even so, Master 9’s collection is dominated by Star Wars, dinosaurs and a black/grey/dark blue palette, while Miss 12’s Friends-heavy collection is a rainbow of pastel shades.
Which got me wondering, because as an AFOL, I love the Friends colour scheme and stock up on individual pieces whenever I visit Bricklink, but I’ve never bought myself a set, largely because I don’t like the minifigs. So I decide to run a little experiment, to see whether something in the marketing was affecting my children’s choices, or if it was, indeed, the range of parts and colours that was the deterrent. I asked the kids 3 questions, and these were their responses:
1. Your collection is very strongly dominated by (Miss 12: Friends, Master 9: Star Wars/ Dinosaurs) sets. Is there a reason why that is the case?
Miss 12: I like the story line in Friends, and the colours.
Master 9: I like the adventurousness of the stories.
2. Is there something in the colours and shapes of the parts that you prefer to other sets?
Miss 12: Yes. I like the Friends colours.
Master 9: No. I like the Friends colours, too. I like the Star Wars minifigs.
3. If I gave you $50 and sent you to the shops to buy a set, and you already had everything in your favourite range that was on the shelves, would you prefer to buy a set in the (Miss 12: Star Wars, Master 9: Friends) range, or would you prefer to buy a duplicate of a (Friends/Star Wars) set you already own?
Miss 12: I’d buy a duplicate.
Master 9: I’d buy a Friends set.
So, conclusions drawn from this exhaustive survey: Miss 12 responds to the Friends sets aesthetically, and chooses them over other sets based on an enjoyment of the palette and the non-aggressive narrative possibilities; Master 9 likes the combat/adventure narratives implied by the “boy” sets (not surprising, given his love of the Star Wars universe), but likes the Friends colour palette enough that he would buy a set and incorporate it into his building.
All very well and good, and easy to say. But would it hold true if, say, I instructed them to take 150 random elements from their collections and swap them? Could they happily build outside of their own preferred colour and set choices? Without telling them why, I did just that. The kids randomly picked 150 pieces from their collections, and then built with each other’s selection. These are the results:
Miss 12 created three works: two different spaceships and a tuning fork.
The space scooper has a scoop at the back to collect debris. The scoop rotates through a 360 degree angle to make pick up and delivery easier.
The Junker is made from pieces of space junk discovered by the Space Scooper.
The tuning fork. A great use of leftover parts.
Master 9 took a different approach, and created a series of smaller works:
Girl colours for a boy concept? A ballista, at any rate.
A beach scene, incorporating a shark net, diving board, and lifeguard tower.
The entrance to a cafe.
An abandoned tree at the end of a garden path.
And to finish, the classic tablescrapper’s use for that
pile of random pieces you can’t do anything with: some ruins!
So, in a complete lack of surprise, two different genders of children quite happily extended their creative building techniques when confronted with a random assortment of bricks, although I did note with interest that the general theme of their builds did conform to the kind of bricks they thought they were using: girly-girl Miss 12 completing a space-themed build, and rocket-powered-boy-attack Master 9 focusing on situational and domestic concepts.
What this shows, at least to me, is that the promotion of Lego does have an effect on how the demographic– that is, the kids who receive the sets– perceive the purpose of the bricks themselves, despite the fact that, as stand-alone items, the bricks are met with approval and enjoyment by both children. Miss 12, in particular, perceives a definite difference between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ Lego, at an age when advertising and gender-based marketing are concepts she pays attention to. Just as clearly, their ability to create and enjoy the act of creation with any random group of elements that is placed before them, shows that gender-splitting Lego is not only limiting the potential market penetration for Lego themes, it’s downright unnecessary.
And as Lego themselves once understood, it always has been.
Oh, and for the record, I don’t ask my troops to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. Here’s what I came up with, using the 150 Friends pieces I asked Miss 12 to give me:
The lost ruins of the Temple of Ice-Cream, the Pastel Battlestar, and, you know, some ruins…