LEGO: The Building Blocks of Our Society?
In nostalgic conversations about childhood, one of the only toys almost everyone agrees on is LEGO. Appealing to a common creative node in our brains, since the 1950s boys and girls have embraced the brightly coloured gender-neutral building blocks. Well, until about the turn of the century anyway when LEGO suddenly became “for boys only”.
Of course, it wasn’t sudden if you were paying attention to the LEGO shelves in the big corporate toy stores. Slowly the service station and farm sets made way for yet another Star Wars set. Then Bionicle, Pirates of the Carribean and Harry Potter started taking up the lion’s share of space. Plain old regular LEGO even found itself making way for surprisingly violent non-franchise lines such as Ninjago, Dino, Alien Conquest, Kingdoms, Racers, and even City which is like more traditional LEGO sets but an extreme version populated exclusively with cops and firemen.
Young Boys’ Club
Just take a look at the screen capture (below) of the LEGO website and see how “boy-centric” LEGO has become. You have to scroll down just to see “Bricks and More” (which is the completely underwhelming name for “starter sets”).
Now, of course there are plenty of girls out there who would love to play with Pharaoh’s Quest, DC Universe Superheroes, or Technic, but there’s plenty more suburban moms fully-indoctrinated into stereotypical gender roles who would never buy them these sets.
So what at first seemed like the pointless and backwards move on LEGO’s part, there might actually be a need for the new “girl-centric” Friends line. There’s absolutley no way merchandisers were going to ever be able to get stores to give up Star Wars shelf space for boring old basic sets. LEGO needed to make a splash. They needed to produce something for the media to get excited about; for people to get angry and blog about. Something blatantly, sexistly pink.
Unfortunately, it seems like instead of bringing girls and boys together they’ve seemingly segregated them by creating a more Bratz-like alternative to the iconic Minifigs. They’re making it easy for the suburbanites by saying “This is not Little Johnny’s LEGO, this is something completely different.”
Not that kids ultimately abide these toy segregations, I remember seeing Han Solo having tea in a Littlest Pet Shop somewhere.
But it’s still unfortunate LEGO has wedged a separator-tool in between the “boy” and “girl” bricks because when we had a chance to see them in action at the mall a few weeks ago, they’re actually far better than the franchise-oriented sets they’ve been producing for the last decade or so.
As much as it pains me to say it but—with a return to a more basic style of set—Friends is better geared towards the open-ended creativity that always made LEGO great. It’s something that’s been missing from the franchise sets. The problem with Star Wars LEGO or the DC sets is by their very nature you can only build things from those franchises.
A couple of years ago I tried to play with my (pretty vast) collection of Star Wars LEGO and soon became bored. I didn’t want to make Star Wars vehicles, I wanted to just create something. I couldn’t. By the very nature of the pieces everything ended up Star Wars.
I remembered that as a kid, before there even were Star Wars sets, it was so much more fun trying to make an X-wing out of regular old LEGO. Maybe it was yellow and blue and the X-foils didn’t collapse, but it was a rewarding creative experience.
Watching the kids play with Friends at the tables, I could tell those bricks had the same creative potential. Though whatever you made was going to be a gaudy pastel shade, you could build anything you wanted—a hair salon or an armored riot-control vehicle.
Let the Pieces Fall Where they May
What is sad is that boys are going to be the ones losing out here. They’re going to be stuck with their restrictive, uncreative Ninjago sets while girls are learning to make connections with their minds. Hopefully those suburban moms and dads will be able to suppress their homophobia long enough to let Little Johnny play with his sister’s new Friends.
Some of Jakob’s student work from graphic design school, circa 2003.