Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

I’m dreaming of a non pink and blue Christmas

I posted a shorter version of this article last year around this time. But, given the recent news of Lego’s “girl line,” I thought it was important to come back to this conversation.

It’s that time of year, when children everywhere start thinking about what they want for Christmas.  If you watch Saturday morning commercials or other advertisements directed toward children, you’ll see a very gendered approach to marketing toys. Even in toy stores, toys are clearly delineated into blue and pink sections. Want to guess what’s in each section? The pink/girl section is full of doll houses, babies and baby care products, Barbie’s and play cleaning products. The blue/boy section is full of cars and other forms of transportation, sports equipment, and action figures.

What about toys that both boys and girls like to play with, like Lego’s, Lincoln Logs, and other building and craft making equipment? For one thing, unfortunately, these toys are often in the boy aisle. What’s very interesting to me, as the mother of daughters, is that when I do see those products in the “girl” section, they are marketed in a distinctly different way. As an example, I found ads for Moon Sand, a moldable, buildable material. My daughters and the boys I know all like Moon Sand. But, here’s what’s weird about the way that it’s marketed, for boys it’s sold as a way to build new lands and create new things while for girls it’s sold as a way to pretend to be cooking, baking, and playing with dolls. What, girls don’t also like to create and build new things? Boys don’t like to bake and play with people figures?

And now we have Lego’s new girl range. In this article in Bloomberg Businessweek, it is clear that Lego’s has done exhaustive work trying to understand what has kept girls from playing with them before and what would make Lego’s more attractive to girls. As my friend, Michele, from Princess Free Zone made clear in her excellent post on this topic, perhaps girls don’t see Lego’s as attractive because since 2005, as stated in the Business Week article, the company has been aiming straight at boys.

Hmm….maybe girls don’t really have to have pastel colored blocks, curvier minifigures, and hair salons to build. Perhaps, just consider the idea, they just need to actually see ads featuring girls playing with these toys. Perhaps, girls simply have been shown very clearly one too many times that this product is “for boys.” Perhaps, girls have been so inundated with this idea that everything has to be gendered that they have bought it hook line and sinker.

Girls used to play with Lego’s without there having to be any discernible differences. As this Lego’s ad from the 80’s shows, the company promoted the product to both girls and boys as fun building sets. Listen, girls like to build! I recently interviewed 5 young women at a high school for technology, math, and science who were all in the robotics club and went to competitions with the robots that they had built. And here’s something else you need to know, none of the pieces were pastel colored. These girls loved building their robot because they like using their minds to solve problems and create things, just like the boys in their classes, and they didn’t need it to be color coded to enjoy it.

Lego's Ad from the 1980's

In this season, some of the most outrageous examples of gender stereotyping in toy marketing are evident. And they make me angry. When we restrict our children to narrow gendered interests and activities, we short change them. They aren’t allowed the fullest expression of their own true selves when they’re put in little pink and blue boxes. Let’s throw those boxes out, and let children experience the wide range of who they can be and who they can become.

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12 comments on “I’m dreaming of a non pink and blue Christmas

  1. Crystal Smith
    December 20, 2011

    Great post! I have been ranting about LEGO for a while. The gendered marketing from them and other toy companies is very disappointing. One potential upside to the “girls'” LEGO is the amount of chatter it has generated. If enough voices are raised in protest, maybe LEGO will finally start to understand how wrong their approach is for girls and for boys (the violent, aggressive tone of much of its marketing being just as harmful for boys as the pink stuff is for girls).

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      December 20, 2011

      Thanks, Crystal, and great point about raising awareness. Maybe this, combined with the change at Hamley’s, will wake some companies up.

  2. Catherine
    December 20, 2011

    I have to wonder if part of LEGO’s problem is also the very structured way they’ve marketed their toys lately to build certain things. Not as a free for all creative endeavor, but as following a set of instructions to build a specific vehicle, building, etc. Whatever happened to marketing like you see in the ad above, where the CHILD gets to invent something instead of just following the COMPANY’s directions?

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      December 20, 2011

      I totally agree, Catherine. Kids need the freedom to create, use their imagination, not be so structured. The state of free play in the U.S. is abysmal. Children have less free play time at school, participate in lots of structured extracurricular activities, and then we add these very structured play sets. Research tells us that free play that engages creativity and imagination helps children learn to problem solve, which is the foundation for developing strong thinking skills.

    • That Unique* Weblog
      December 21, 2011

      I agree. Once they got involved in the “It’s a set!” and then the “You can add more of these to the set you already have!” they started down the slippery slope of deciding to market to a “certain type” of kid – and besides age, gender is easiest. The big lego store in Manhattan has those bins of just plain old Legos that you can toss into a bucket. I think that might be the way to go for my son’s birthday.

      • Jennifer Shewmaker
        December 21, 2011

        I agree, I prefer the plain LEGO’s that allow you to build whatever you want to the sets that are so specific.

  3. Amy Jussel (@ShapingYouth)
    December 22, 2011

    It’s a function of marketing trumping creativity to where it actually DEVOLVES the purpose of developmental play. Toy manufacturers sell specialized ‘kits’ in order to make a buck off of each ‘scenario’ and theme to assemble, with ‘specifics’ as you mention. My only hope from anecdotal observation is that they usually get built about once ‘as shown’ then tossed into the slushpile of other Legos, hopefully cycling back into their original purpose as ‘just parts’ to build and create from scratch…

    My biggest concern even OVER the toxic stereotypes, narrowcasting and vapid values being imparted is the tamping down of imaginative play to where kids see a specific ‘piece’ as necessary to complete a vision versus producing their own indie variation…this has huge cultural ripples by grooming kids to be ‘assembly line’ thinkers vs entrepreneurial/start up ones.

    THAT is economic suicide for generations of the future…If your readers agree we need to reframe this convo and snap open the eyes of toy manufacturers, I’m sure you’ll be guiding them to join us in signing the “stop selling out girls” petition to Lego on Change.org! grumpf. Not merry about this silliness…it has long term repercussions far beyond pink think/gender typecasting of limitations on children. http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-lego-to-stop-selling-out-girls

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      December 22, 2011

      Exactly, Amy! Too many preplanned sets that restrict the imagination. We want more free play, more things that can be used together, less restrictions and certainly less gendered marketing and packaging. Come on, LEGO, step up.

  4. Serena Jones
    December 22, 2011

    How about mixing in the pink legos with the other colours? Who’s to say that boys can’t like pink, too?

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      December 23, 2011

      Yes! Everything doesn’t have to be for either boys or girls. Bring back the days of some gender neutral options.

  5. Nadine Wettlaufer
    December 28, 2011

    I have a lot of respect for the points you and other sibling feminists are making RE: the new “LEGO Friends” sets. I don’t think these sets are uniformly terrible (there is a science lab, for example, and there is supposedly the same amount of building required as in “non-girl” sets) but the label of “these sets are for girls” is terribly fraught. And the advertisments that I’ve seen so far for these sets is barf-worthy.

    I love LEGO. I also agree that a lot of people are also viewing “non-girly” LEGO through rose-coloured glasses and believing it is gender-neutral. Often it is not!

    For example:

    – we are trained to see “boys” toys as being inherently more neutral and universal than “girls” toys. So we often see “normal” LEGO as more neutral than it actually is.

    – as you point out, the toy market in mainstream Western society is extraordinarily gendered and dichotomized, and has been for years (though not uniformly so)

    – building toys are still gendered male in mainstream Western society. It’s nice that some people believe this has gone away, but there are many places where it has never gone away!

    – the LEGO people are called mini-figures (minifigs for short). This calls to mind the dilemma of dolls versus action figures. And LEGO is trapped by this paradigm too, and needs to work to transform it!

    – the ratio of male minifigs to female minifigs is extraordinarily disappointing in many lines, though there has been some recent improvement!

    – the colour coding thing is incredibly ridiculous. There needs to be more pink and purple in _all_ sets, just like there needs to be a better mix of males and females in all sets.

    – as you mention, why are so many sets aimed at boys, and about fighting and conflict?

    – And the RACE/ETHNICITY issues in LEGO are deeply embedded and often terribly sad and maddening! (even though there are occasional moments of improvement)

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 1, 2012

      Thanks for the comment, Nadine. Your specific points are so true. For me this issue isn’t about the fact that LEGO made a new line, it’s more about why they had to do it in the first place. The new Friends line could have some interesting components that both boys and girls could like and incorporate into play with other lines, but the gendered marketing is so heavy that boys and girls are being sent the clear message that certain products are for boys and others are for girls.

      I also love that you pointed out the need for more diversity in skin tones. My sister has a multicultural family, and she and her kids notice that there aren’t that many minifigures that look like they do. What’s interesting is that when she mentioned this on the LEGO Facebook wall she was verbally attacked by another parent who called her a “sick liberal”, all for wanting more female figures and more figures with different skin tones! I agree that LEGO has a great product and could diversify their line for both gender and race with just a few of the tweaks you mention. I hope they’ll listen to our feedback.

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