Thursday, February 13, 2014

Some Thoughts on the "Gender Neutrality" of Legos

I've been thinking about this whole "Lego for Girls" controversy for a long time, but I haven't said much about it. I felt a bit like I was being pulled in two directions on the issue, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why. But something finally clicked for me today, and now I want to say something about it.

This is the 1981 Lego ad that everyone is talking about. That little girl could have been me. Classic 1980s tomboy, building with Legos instead of playing with dolls. It's classic 1980s power-suit feminism. The kind of feminism that said, "Women are allowed to fill men's roles in a man's world... As long as they dress/act/behave like men." The message of that ad, to me, was that little girls can play with boy's toys, too... as long as they are tomboys.

I don't have a problem with tomboys. I was one myself. (Sortof - more on that later.) But what if your daughters want to embrace their femininity? To me, modern feminism is not about telling women that they are just like men. It's about telling women that what they are is just as good as what men are. It's a subtle difference, but an important distinction to make. We need to show our daughters that we don't just value classically masculine skills; that they don't need to fight their natural skills and abilities to be valued in our society.

I have always wanted to be a mother, ever since I was a little girl. When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a teacher. But I had one problem: I was smart. I was streamed into the gifted/enrichment program in fourth grade. Everyone expected more of me. I remember telling a classmate in middle school that I wanted to be a mother, and he said, "What a waste!" Not everyone was so explicit in their judgment of my ambitions, but I felt it on every side. Smart girls should do more.

So, I dreamed bigger. Went to college and majored in Communication, intending to go to law school after graduation. My advisor tried to talk me out of it. He encouraged me to pursue a Master's degree in Communication and go into higher education. I politely declined, and went to law school. I trudged through, barely survived my articling year, and then retired from law the day after I got my call to the bar. It's funny, because now, looking back, I think I would have made an excellent teacher or professor. Too bad I tried to do "more".

I loved Legos as a kid. I loved building with blocks. I loved sledding and climbing trees. But I wasn't very athletic. I didn't really do sports. And I secretly loved playing with dolls. Mostly, I loved brushing and styling their hair. I still do. Maybe I should have become a hairdresser. I didn't fit very well into either "gender" category. But that's okay. Most people I know don't. It's kinda more of a spectrum.

When I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I registered for Duplo before I even thought about cribs. I couldn't wait to play Legos with my kids! But they never really got into it. They chewed on the pieces when they were babies, but that was it. I was very sad. I tried very hard to raise liberated little girls, but they defied me and decided to love everything frilly pink fairy princess. I fought it for a long time. Tried to buy them gender-neutral clothing and toys. But it didn't work. They only wanted to wear dresses and play with dolls. Then I had a light bulb moment one day: Isn't the whole point of feminism that girls can be whatever they want to be? So, if my girls love frilly dresses, why not embrace that, and let them wear frilly dresses?

One day, I was at the Dollar Store with my girls, and I told them they could each pick out one thing as a treat. Valerie picked out a golf set. First, I did a double take - My girly-girl picked a golf set? But then I saw the reason: It was pink. That's when I got on the pink Lego train. Before the pink golf club, I looked at pink toys and said, "Why do they have to make it pink? Girls can play with a brown football! That's so sexist!" After the pink golf club, I looked at pink toys and said, "Yes! Finally a chemistry set that my pink-loving girls will play with! Score one for feminism!"

When we tell our children that they can or can't do something for no reason other than the sexual organs they were born with, that's sexism. When we tell our children that they can be/do/love whatever they want to, regardless of their sexual organs, that's feminism. So, if the message of pink Lego is, "No, sweetie, don't play with those, those are BOY Legos," then I completely disagree. But if the message is, "Oh, you like pink? Look, this cool toy is also available in your favorite color!" then count me in. (Why and how girls are groomed to like pink in our culture is a whole different sexism discussion for another day. But taken as a given that MY girls DO like pink, I'm not addressing it today.)

I do have some issues with the new Lego Friends line. My biggest complaint is that the Friends mini-figs are not standard mini-figs. I think they would have done better to just make more female mini-figs. But I am glad to see Lego branching out and trying to include all girls, not just tomboys. That it's okay to like pink. That it's okay to want to be a ballerina or a teacher. Yeah, they have a long way to go. Female reporters could have better news stories than the "World's Best Cake". But it's a start.

So, my daughter got Lego for her fifth birthday. Pink Lego. And she loves it. She plays with it every day. And, when I back off and let her do her thing, she plays differently than I did. Rather than building and rebuilding essentially the same thing over and over, tweaking the design after each tear-down (how I used to play), she keeps the same basic structure intact, and makes subtle changes, for aesthetic or play reasons. She keeps it, fully-assembled, on a shelf, like a shrine. There is no "wrong" way to play with Lego, and however she uses it, she is learning, and growing, and developing problem-solving skills, and improving her coordination and fine motor skills. And that will serve her well in the future, whether she becomes an artist or an actress or a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or a brick-layer or a hairdresser or a clown. Or a mother.


Andy said...

I agree that pink is just a color and it's great to have pink Legos. It's also great to have blue doll strollers. As you know, the second aspect of feminism is not just allowing girls to do and be whatever boys can do and be, It is also allowing our boys to play with pink Legos, haul around baby dolls, cry and talk about their feelings at the water cooler. When we value "feminine" traits to the point that boys and men aren't harassed for exhibiting them, that will be the true measure that the revolution has succeeded. Watch out John Wallace. Your mom and dad have plans for you!

Jule Ann Wakeman said...

Amen, Andy!