Sunday, September 2, 2012

Engineering Pink

According to American Public Media’s Marketplace, LEGO profits are up nearly 25% this year. The reason for the jump? Girls. Well, sort of. More accurately: a new line of controversial LEGO products called “Friends,” replete with pretty little things adorned in plenty of pinks and purples. Why? Well, obviously, because “[t]hose are colors that girls like.” Cue the raised eyebrow.

I was driving home when I heard the Marketplace bit and arrived just as it was wrapping up. I parked, turned off the radio, and sat for a moment in my garage in a sort of intellectual limbo. I loved LEGOs as a kid. Castles, pirate ships, and makeshift fortresses frequently adorned our living room floor and consumed our kitchen table. Even today, I would probably (read: definitely) be perfectly content putting together a LEGO spaceship instead of reading for Fed Tax. Though, upon reflection, the LEGO sets were more often purchased for my brother (n.b. I invariably took over each project), LEGOs have never been “boy” toys to me.

Yet still, I genuinely could not decide how I felt about this bit of news.

On the one hand, I thought, “Aren’t I supposed to hate this? Isn’t it inherently sexist to reinforce the pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys stereotypes?” (And isn’t it practically blasphemous to deviate from the bold, predominantly primary colors of the original LEGO toys?) The feministing adult and LEGO-building seven-year-old in me were not pleased.

On the other hand, however, LEGOs are great, and how could I criticize efforts to increase their appeal to an arguably nontraditional audience? A session with LEGOs can be, essentially, an enjoyable elementary lesson in physics and structural engineering. Given the statistics about girls, math, and science, might embracing the stereotype be worth it? Might we even consider it a step in the right direction to “feminize” the apparently stereotypically masculine toy?
In any event, my questions warranted further investigation into this intriguing twist on a favorite childhood pastime.

Thence from the Internet came the bad news. Like much of the product line itself, the Friends logo is purple and pink, and a cute, bubbly, and playful heart floats above the little “i.” The line includes such LEGO packages as Andrea’s Bunny House (Bunny House? Really? Shouldn’t that be referred to as a “hutch?”) and the Butterfly Beauty Shop. Additionally, and, I think, most notably, the Friends character pieces aren’t the trademark boxy LEGO people. Instead, the little ladies are svelte, with thin arms, miniskirts, perfectly coifed hair, and a more than a hint of makeup. (According to a December 2011 LEGO press release, the new figurine was a response to “girls’ requests for a more realistic, relatable, and stylized figure.”) Alas, even the dogs have pink bows.

Farewell, high hopes.

Seeing that the new and evidently successful Friends line was far more stereotypically “feminine” than I’d imagined was disappointing at best. It is one thing to draw in an audience, but it is another entirely to provide such a limited and acutely stereotypical array of products for that audience. Some groups, such as SPARK, are pushing back and arguing for, among other things, production of additional LEGO sets depicting women in non-traditional roles (e.g., as politicians, firefighters, scientists, etc.). LEGO representatives met with members of SPARK in April 2012, but whether the Friends line will change significantly remains to be seen.

Perhaps indicative of what’s to come, however, is one of LEGO’s newer Friends sets, the Heartlake Flying Club. The Flying Club scene is centered around LEGO Friend Stephanie, who comes complete with a small seaplane, a map, a diploma, a life preserver, a bird, a crab, and a telescope. Stephanie herself, however, still seems ill-prepared for the flight, as she has only one outfit -- a white tank top with pink stars and a glittery pink miniskirt. Here, I think, it is clear there is room for improvement. In the meantime, however, at least we can be grateful they aren’t Bratz.


KSergent said...

Your blog reminded me of a similar controversy surrounding "Bic Pens for Her."

As a person who loves the color pink, I would not hesitate to buy a set of pink pens. However, I would most likely boycott the Bic product because I believe that labeling a product "for her" (as well as the the ridiculous claim that the thin barrel is designed to "fit a women's hands") perpetuates gender stereotypes regarding the color preferences of men and women.

One of the greatest harms may be to a little boy who wants the purple and pink pens or LEGOS but is convinced that the product is not for him because the LEGOS feature women on the label or the pens are labeled "for her."

Regarding the LEGOS, my first instinct is to allow the choice of a purple and pink LEGO set without the picture of the woman on the front. But then I am sure the LEGOS would be placed in the "girls" section of the toy store, which puts us back to square one.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jihan A. Kahssay said...

I agree that there is no general harm with letting girls play with and own pink things. Personally, I developed a love for all things pink as an adult (but only after having initially rejected pink as a "girly" color while I was a child).

As a child, I rejected pink because I felt that it subordinated me to the boys. I had two brothers, and I often played with them and all their guy friends. At times, however, they would exclude from their games because of my gender, and as a result I hated many "girly" things, and I especially hated pink things. I valued masculinity over femininity, and pink became the mark of all things not masculine. This attitude persisted through high school and part of college.

At some point in college, however, I found other ways to value myself without having to identify with men. Eventually, I came to appreciate feminine things, like the color pink, because they represented a feminine safe-space that excluded men. I stopped valuing masculinity over femininity, and I was angry that I ever did. My affection for the color pink as an adult was precisely because it has been labeled an exclusively girly and feminine color. It was my pink revolt against masculine occupation.

For me, reclaiming pink was a way to push men out, to create safe feminine spaces, and to define and value myself without comparing myself to men. I think there may be a way to reframe the way we think about pink things and "girly" things, even as we recognize the negative impacts that stereotyping can have on women and girls.

KB said...

I think this product line is such a missed opportunity. Why not make a line of LEGOs that features girls and women in all different arenas, just as SPARK suggested? This line could include Friends sets with pink and purple themes, which some girls might relate to more, and also many other themes that other girls might relate to more. I feel like this is not only desirable from a feminist perspective, but also an economic perspective. Wouldn’t such a line or series of lines appeal to a broader audience and thus increase sales?

I loved playing with LEGOs as a child. Admittedly, I was a tomboy so if I had seen LEGOs with girls in miniskirts at a beach house I probably would not have related to them or asked for them. However, if there had been a LEGO set that completed a sports stadium for a women’s athletic team, I probably would have begged my parents to buy it.

Mo said...

These are excellent points. KB, I felt the exact same way regarding the missed opportunity. One of the things that really bothered me (and continues to bother me) is that the Friends character pieces are so different. The soft lines on the figurines remind me more of toddlers’ toys than “real” LEGOs. And I don’t know about you, but when I was little, the larger toddler bricks were certainly inferior, in my eyes, to the “big kid” LEGOs. In the same way, I feel like the Friends LEGOs run the risk of being relegated to an inferior place in the kid-toy hierarchy. Such a bummer.

Incidentally, I stopped by Target a few days after my post and peeked down the toys aisles to see if they carried the Friends line. They did – RIGHT in the middle of the pinkest aisle. Nowhere near the “boys’” toys or the other LEGOs.

I left to go pick up a document organizer for school and found this great binder – perfect size, great design, etc., but I really struggled with whether I should buy it. Why? It was a “coupon binder,” and it was "made for her.” Seriously? Seriously.

MC said...

In an article published by, "When did girls start wearing pink?" Jeanne Maglaty explores the reason for today's team colors: pink for girls and blue for boys. In the 19th century boys wore long hair and dresses until age 6 or 7. The colors pink and blue did not become gendered until shortly before World War I. Ironically, pink was assigned to boys, and blue to the girls. It was decided Pink, and stronger color, was more suitable for the boy, while blue, a delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl. Today’s color assignment was established in the 1940s, as a result of the baby boomers preferences, as determined by manufacturers.