Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In which I discuss pink Lego for entirely too long

Ten years ago I was in a particularly rabid part of my action-figure collecting phase and was at Toys R' Us looking for one figure or another, wandering the action figure aisle, which contained Spider-Man, pro-wrestling fugures, GI Joe figures, etc...  All toys the store, the toy manufacturers, their marketing people, and seemingly most of customers, seemed to believe were aimed at boys.

A very young boy, probably no older than four or five - old enough to start knowing what toys he wanted to go look at on his own instead of having toys handed to him - was standing down the aisle while his mother stood near an empty cart.  She waited for another mother to roll into the aisle with a child of a similar age (also a boy), and the first mother began addressing the newly arrived mother.

"Can you believe this?" she said, making sure her voice was loud enough for everyone on the aisle to hear.  "They're dolls.  My son wants to play with dolls.  That's all these are."  She made sure to roll her eyes and make big hand waving gestures.  Her son just sort of tensed up.  This was clearly not new behavior from mom.

"Well," said the other mother, more quietly.  "He knows what he likes."

"They're dolls," laughed the first mother, making sure she got the point across.  "I can't wait for him to realize that."

To break it down:

1.  Forget the clear marketing at boys (something geek girls complain about regularly), these are dolls, if that is your definition.  But they're also dolls with bazookas and anti-aircraft weaponry and robot arms and what-not.
2.  These are not dolls in the traditional Raggedy-Ann sort of fashion.
3.  If your son IS playing with Raggedy-Ann, God help him because I suspect you'll make his life a living hell.
4.  Way to emasculate your child in front of a store full of strangers.  In no way will that sort of thing come back to haunt you both.
5.  It wasn't clear what toys this mom thought were okay for 5 year old boys to play with, but it was pretty clear she wasn't too up on what 5 year old kids actually do.
6.  Nor did she notice "this aisle is literally full of people all shopping for the very items I am ridiculing.  Maybe I'm a bit of a jack-ass".
7.  We may not like it from an abstract sociological standpoint, but toys are actually sold differently to boys and girls.  The exact same toys, sometimes.

Pursuing this conversation is, of course, a politically correct landmine, as it treads into the territory of "what is" versus "what we think" or "what a white paper clearly demonstrated" or, basically, the cynical realities created by forces of nature, nurture, culture and marketing forces stronger than your best laid plans.  And the fact that when money is involved, all you have to do is consider that businesses are either growing or they are failing, and the rest just shakes out.  And why even getting your hackles up over this development is kind of weird.

Lego is taking heat over the recent introduction of Lego toys colored pink and purple and made extra cute.  Online and in social media, I have seen a lot of people complaining about Lego's latest efforts.

If I may:  I don't really buy toys like I once did, and at the risk of ending up on To Catch a Predator, I will say that I have spent a lot more time in the toy aisle and in toy stores than your average childless adult.  I don't work in a toy store or in a store that sells toys, but its not exactly rockets science how this works.

I don't know if you know this, but at Target, the only part of the store that has pink shelving dividers and lavender or pink packaging on 90% of the product is located in the toy section.  This sub-section is home to the Barbies and other fashion dolls, and, honestly, I am not sure what else.  The only time I've walked down this aisle was when I was looking for the limited edition Wonder Woman Barbie.*  In a move that surely draws the ire of many parents (but no where in the neighborhood of most parents), they've branded the area pink to attract the wee children who will want to play with a Barbie doll, usually, but not exclusively, girls.

What I think is a mistake is to read Lego's recent addition of a pink and purple colored line of Lego aimed at girls as segregation or exclusionary.  Lego has been around for a while.  Like Coke or Pepsi, they kind of assume people know about their product.  They occasionally introduce new items to broaden their market appeal.

Its incorrect and nostalgic to think that, by the way, Lego is the same product we bought as kids.  Its not.  Today's kids have these remarkable play sets that build far crazier things that homes and hospitals and fire stations.  Sure, those are available, but in comparison to the premium sets...  building houses is kind of lame-o.  And kids do not like lame-o.  The new play sets build attacking aliens, Batman's cave, pirates and The Sears Tower.    Like many boys' toys, these toys are considered "gender-neutral", depending on what your darling child may want to play with.  You may well be or have a little girl who likes playing with Batman or marauding aliens.  If so, good for you.

But your daughter is not the only girl in the playscape.  There are a lot of girls and moms out there who are the mom on the other side of the Action Figures are Dolls conversation.

Rather than convincing girls that they should want to build houses and hospitals or that they should want to play with marauding aliens, they are going after a market that is not buying their product.  Nobody at Lego is saying "don't buy our other Lego sets".  What they're saying is "hey girls in the Barbie aisle who spaz out anything colored pink.  Here's some Legos you can might like.  Here is a product you might have otherwise ignored.  Also, it sort of has a doll.  And you can BUILD YOUR OWN DREAMHOUSE."

I shared the story about the action figure-doll scenario because I have no doubt the reverse scenario happens all the time in the Lego aisle.  I have no doubt that there are moms out there with dollars to spend on toys that look at the alien spaceships, the Batman caves, the jet fighters, etc... who look to the other moms and say "this is all violent, dumb boy stuff.  She should be looking at dolls."

If there is a pink Lego set (including a doll), you may have just won a customer from that mom.  You are giving little girls who like pink (and don't say you wouldn't defend that hypothetical little boy who likes pink, because you totally would), the chance to build her own playhouses and cool pink cars and all the things kids who wanted to play with spaceships have been doing for decades, a chance to play, too.

I know, I know.  You read Slate and the Atlantic Monthly.  You're a hip, aware person.  Well, pat yourself on the back and buy your kid the gender-neutral toy of your choice.  But keep in mind, nobody has been stopping kids of either gender from buying Lego sets.  There is no gender check at the cash register other than kids' taste and their crazy-assed parents.

And I don't know if you've seen a Lego TV commercial lately, but I actually watch cartoons and I have seen them.      They're marketing the genre of the toy using 3D animation of the Lego.  No children are harmed in the creation of these commercials.  And it IS NOT the Dr. Pepper approach of reaching a new audience.  Nobody is telling anyone else to stay away in order to build solidarity.

Here's the thing:  let the kid play with whatever @#$%ing toy they like provided nobody is going to lose an eye.

If I may, I find it a bit interesting that we're still judging things along these lines - that pink is still associated with weakness, etc...  As if girls who liked make-up and purses didn't go off to become PhDs, that they had to stick to some gender-neutral model, that we can't celebrate the creativity and fun a little kid might have with pink Lego just as much as we'd salute that same kid (of either gender) playing with the fire truck or Batman or whatever the hell...

*which I still want


Gerry said...

Well said. As a father of a 2 and a half year old girl, this is big issue for me. While my wife and I try to balance what she is exposed to and let her decide what she likes, the rest if the family floods her with princess stuff. It's quite challenging. Yet, she will ask for Batman, Spiderman, etc. so I think we're ok. Pink Legos will attract that girl that has been trained into believing she can only play with pink things. Legos will allow her develop a better, more useful skill set than most other pink, girl toys. So, yeah, its not ideal that they have to be pink, but the end result is still good.

The League said...

To me, there are two things going on.

1. Lego is already selling as many sets to kids as they can with their current type of products. Adding stuff that's more traditionally aimed at girls is just opening the door to a market its ridiculous to ignore
2. There's nothing more inherently wrong with a pink race car set (and that's one of the sets) than there is with little boys playing with figures of a crazed urban vigilante that dresses as a bat. Except for some pre-programmed ideas regarding empowerment and how cool it is when girls co-opt those same revenge fantasies.

All I know is that we go completely crazy when it comes to dealing with this stuff with kids.

Gerry said...

The issue isn't the color, but the actual toys you find in the girls aisle and what they "teach." Unfortunately, the color gets tied to it. Like I said, the key is balance, which is up the parents, but more often than not, parents aren't in it alone and have to fight society trying to pigeonhole their child into something that's "for girls." Or boys, I should add. I am not at all into sports, never have been. I was actually 21 the last time a grown woman asked me "what the hell kind of man are you" because I didn't like sports.

But yeah, people do go crazy with this stuff on both ends of the spectrum. Like I said before, offer a balance, let the kid decide what they like.

The League said...

I do not envy those of you steering your kids through the maze of cultural messaging. And I get not wanting to teach one's daughters to become submissive princesses waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them. Or that Math is Hard, etc...

Its a mixed bag out there, culturally, to deal with all that messaging.

When I was a kid I got a mini-bake oven. I didn't give a @#$% that it had two girls on the box high-fiving or whatever. I saw a direct path for me to have cake whenever I felt like it, so long as I kept getting the little mixing packs. So i was baffled when people asked why I had a mini-bake oven. To me, it was totally obvious. To an adult, I might as well have put on a a Carmen Miranda outfit. But I didn't care because: cake.

As someone with no kids, I tip my hat to you guys sorting all this stuff out there.

Gerry said...

Lucky! I can't even imagine how much fatter I would have been if I'd had free access to make my own cake growing up. Yet another bundle of issues. No wonder I escape by reading comics.

Simon MacDonald said...

As the father of a 7 year old girl I'm glad that Lego has introduced "pink" Lego sets. I see them as being a gateway drug for my daughter to get her more interested into building things. She's been cursorily interested some of the Star Wars Lego sets I have but she really liked the horse jumping set we got her for Christmas.

She wants to get more Legos and I'll be happy to buy them for her and move into some of the more gender neutral sets as time goes on. We already have a big bucket of Lego but there was definitely a missing element to Lego's toy line.

Matt A. said...

I'm with Simon here - getting my daughter the pink Legos was the only way I could get her interested. Now we have the "boy" Lego sets, too. Lego definitely found a new way to take my money by introducing these.

The League said...

Given what I remember from your house growing up, I'm shocked there wasn't some gene already firing that drew her immediately to Lego.

RHPT said...

"When I was a kid I got a mini-bake oven. I didn't give a @#$% that it had two girls on the box high-fiving or whatever. I saw a direct path for me to have cake whenever I felt like it"

This is the best sentence you've written on this blog.

The League said...

I think when you're really passionate about something, you tell the truth, and that resonates with people.