A picture from an old ad flashed around the internet with viral speed a week or so ago. It's a little red-headed girl, holding out her colourful, glorious Lego creation. The discussions and the issues this brings up has touched me both personally and as a researcher looking at play, games and leisure. Lego has long been the benchmark of free creative toys, dominating the market with their simple and sophisticated idea.
When my sister had kids, some 15 years later, we started looking for Lego for them. It wasn't really that easy any more, because it had all become extremely gendered all of a sudden. The different stories that could be told with Legos had taken off, and where my kids could have a kingdom's castle (which was great, female characters make as good knights as the male ones), 10 years later the options were much wider - and almost all for males. Ninjas, Star Wars, Pirates of the Carribean - girls could still play with them, but it was clearly aimed at the tomboy side of girls. If we wanted something neutral, it was getting tricky. For years, we actually stopped buying Lego, because buying the boy-stuff for the girls would have made it seem like a present for the boy. We did not want to encourage the gendering of toys by getting him space-legos and the girls crayons, so it ended up with crayons for everybody. But we kept looking, and once in a while we'd find a nice design, a house, some cars, some animals. We still loved Lego, you know.
The last few weeks have made me seriously reconsider that love. Lego has redesigned their toys - supposedly after four years of research - and created a girly line. I am stunned. Here I was, happily thinking I'd just have to wait out the space-ship and pirate runt of the last few years, and I'd be able to find lovely, gender-neutral Lego again. Instead they go dramatically in the opposite direction, gendering the toys beyond recognition.
Check out more pictures from the new Lego sets at Geekologie and Stylist.co.uk, and have a look for yourself. The figures are no longer compatible with the other lego sets, so if the girls want to create a pink-suited space girl to fit in the rocket and use the same gear as the boys, they can't do it. They can't put them on the horses, they can't work the farms, they can't fit the police uniforms and they certainly can't fit a hard-top over their styled hair.
Lego, I understand that girls have been telling you they want more stuff for girls. I have been looking for more good stuff for girls myself. But I have not been looking for yet another arena where boys and girls are shown that their interests and activities can never mix. The beauty of Lego was that it could all integrate. If I had wanted to get plastic toys with more realistic figures, different shapes and standards that didn't match the other toys, I'd have bought Playmobil!
Instead I would have liked to see a bakery next to the car-wash or a complex model of a cupcake factory or a dairy - have you ever looked at those? They are the model-train enthusiast's dream come true! Why not let the girls have pink space-suits, purple cars and sturdy female ambulance drivers in the same fit and design as the rest? The Lego universe is potentially as diverse as reality as it is, and yes, a kitchen in bright colours would be cool, but can't it fit in right next to the command bridge on the death star? Even evil villains taking over the universe have to eat, you know.
This all makes me want to go stick my head into SWTOR and never come back out. In there I can be female and look gloriously competent and dangerous, in armour sets that do not bare my boobs, either. Thanks, BioWare. The next toy I buy for a child of any gender may be a digital game.