Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Legos and Princesses: Can Greed Solve Our Gender Problems?

Businessweek has a very thorough article on Lego's new girl-centered marketing scheme. The article goes over the history of the company, the findings from an early study that led them to target boys in an attempt to renew their brand (which was very successful), and the findings that are leading to the new tweaking for a girl-friendly segment. See, very young girls and boys play with Legos (the big, toddler-friendly ones) at about the same rate, but then they hit these phases and there is a sharp gender divide.
There’s now arguably a “Lego phase” for school-age boys that’s as consuming as the princess phase. But unlike tiaras and pink chiffon, Lego play develops spatial, mathematical, and fine motor skills, and lets kids build almost anything they can imagine, often leading to hours of quiet, independent play.
So, at around the same age (beginning at three or four) boys and girls become increasingly susceptible to the messages around them about how they should be playing.  The princess phase promotes beauty and consumerism--those dolls need to have a lot of pretty things. Even though the popular Disney princesses are tied to movie characters, many children are awash in princess paraphernalia without ever watching the films. So, while analyzing the films for the messages they send is important, it doesn't give us the whole pictures. Princess culture is pervasive on its own, and it's made up of clothes, make-up, and designer goods. Meanwhile, boys get the message to develop "spatial, mathematical, and fine motor skills" and get hours of "quiet, independent play."

That's a problem.

Lego also sees it as a problem, but not for the same reason I do. Lego sees it as a problem because they are a business, and they want to make money. If a house full of girls is a house without Legos, then they're chopping off segments of their consumer base, and that's bad (Dr. Pepper, you may want to take some notes).

This is not a new problem, and--according to the Businessweek article--"Lego has had five strategic initiatives aimed at girls." Most of them have failed, but their newest strategy is being heralded as a "breakthrough." In just a few days (Dec. 26 in the UK and Jan. 1 in the US), Lego will launch Lego Friends, a line marketed to girls 5 and up. 

To create this line, they've relied on in-depth anthropological research that suggests: 

Lego suffered from an aesthetic deficit. “The greatest concern for girls really was beauty,” says Hanne Groth, Lego’s market research manager. Beauty, on the face of it, is an unsurprising virtue for a girl-friendly toy, but based on the ways girls played, Groth says, it came, as “mastery” had for boys, to stand for fairly specific needs: harmony (a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order); friendlier colors; and a high level of detail.
“It was an education,” recalls Fenella Blaize Holden, an under-30 British designer, on the process of getting Lego Friends made. “No one could understand, why do we need more than one handbag? So I’d have to say, well, is one sword enough for the knights, or is it better to have a dagger, too? And then they’d come around.”
I was discouraged after reading that, hoping that Lego for girls wouldn't devolve into handbags and shoes. While it certainly appears there will be an element of that, I also found some hope in the description of the line:
Lego confirmed that girls favor role-play, but they also love to build—just not the same way as boys. Whereas boys tend to be “linear”—building rapidly, even against the clock, to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box—girls prefer “stops along the way,” and to begin storytelling and rearranging. Lego has bagged the pieces in Lego Friends boxes so that girls can begin playing various scenarios without finishing the whole model. Lego Friends also introduces six new Lego colors—including Easter-egg-like shades of azure and lavender. (Bright pink was already in the Lego palette.)
Building. Storytelling. Rearranging. These are qualities of play that sound productive to me. I don't know why they need to be in "Easter-egg-like shades" to get girls to play with them, but I--to some extent--share Lise Eliot's sentiments:
If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains.
If the need for "pretty" and pink are so heavily ingrained into girls' culture, it might offer an avenue toward expanding gendered stereotypes. After all, I don't have anything against pretty or pink (okay, I have a little something against pink, but I realize that it's a personal problem and I shouldn't vilify it); I just have a problem with those attributes being the only things acceptable. I also have a problem with the fact that these qualities are precursors for a life full of beauty obsession (with often unattainable goals) and a fear of looking too smart.

At the same time, this is still worlds away from the type of marketing and product creation I would like to see: truly gender-neutral toys that can be enjoyed by girls and boys--maybe even (gasp) as they play together.

Finally, Lego's move--which, remember, is based in the fact that they are a company and they want to make money--reminds me of Disney's marketing of Tangled. In this case, the drive for profit went the other way. Disney took their squarely situated girl marketing vehicle--the Princess flick--and re-tooled it so that it had more cross-gender appeal. They changed the name from Rapunzel to Tangled and added Flynn Rider, the "prince" character, with a pretty major role that isn't found in the original story.

Similarly, Disney shelved its plans for The Snow Queen because they didn't want to have too many films centered on female protagonists. This kind of thinking, of course, also works to further promote the gender disparity found on screen.

So, I'm torn.

I see that--in some ways--making Legos girl-friendly and princess films boy-friendly might offer some avenues toward a more gender-neutral way of looking at play in general.

At the same time, I can see these efforts furthering the divide. If girls' Legos become increasingly sparkly and pink and center more and more on the purses and pretty characters, are they really doing anything to break down the gender stereotypes, or are they just Barbie with pegs on their heads? If Disney stops creating female protagonists, will women constantly be relegated to sidekick roles--even in their own stories?

While I want to be hopeful, I'm pessimistic. And, ultimately, I don't plan on purchasing any pink Legos for my own daughter. I'll be spending my money on products that don't promote a gender binary--like these.

1 comment:

  1. I loved legos as a little girl and planned on getting them for my daughter (she has the toddler version now) I have done my best breaking 'gender barriers' but my daughter is on her way to three and hopefully won't follow trends to closely...