Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Building a Bridge for LEGO's Gender Divide

Having a son and a daughter, it's important to me that the children be able to play together. They choose their own toys, and I am always insistent that there are no toys boys can't play with and no toys girls can't play with... but I try to steer them toward toylines that actively encourage both genders.

LEGO is a great one, since it's something I can develop as an adult hobby too, and we can all share and build upon each other's sets. But LEGO genders its own sets. There are the pink and purple boxes which are specifically for girls and are sold in one aisle at the toy store. In the next aisle, everything else becomes, by default, for boys.

To be fair, our family probably falls within LEGO's market research predictions. We all like different things. I like buildings, making a world in miniature. My son likes vehicles and things he can make a story with. My daughter likes story as well, but—perhaps because she gets bored building the more complex sets—tends to focus more on character creation. Hence our minifig station:

(Yes, it's a warzone. Don't judge our artistic methods!)

When it comes to characters, like most five year old girls, my daughter is overly enamoured of Disney Princesses, so we have a good proportion of those sets. She also likes dragons, so we've picked up some of the Elves' sets, and a handful of Friends sets have made their way to us as well. These are the three LEGO lines targeting girls that come with the sculpted mini-dolls instead of the traditional yellow "Minifigs".

I have a few issues with the minidolls, not least that there are already so many skewed body images in the media aimed at young girls. The chunky minifigs are a reassuring break from that; the slender minidolls, not so much.

More practically, the only part of a minidoll that is compatible with a minifig is the hair, meaning interchanging parts between the two lines is minimal. And while the cartoonish minifigs come in a wide variety of expressions and clothes, the more 'realistic' (in an anime sort of way) minidolls are much more limited.

As an example, the below picture shows the full diversity of our minidolls (the one in the centre is male, for the record) alongside just four female minifig heads and torsos.

There is minimal variety of expression among the minidolls, and although the faces are more detailed, the features of each doll are almost identical with little regard for age, ethnicity or gender.

The traditional minifigs ignore ethnicity (though movie tie-ins use flesh tones—predominantly light ones, because Hollywood), but there's a lot of personality in their simple faces. They benefit from being featured in a wider range of LEGO products... in fact they have their own line of blind bag characters, so we have many more parts for them. The minidolls (minus hair) take up only a single drawer of our minifig station.

If I had to guess, I'd say my daughter prefers the minidolls' prettier look... but there's far more scope for creativity with the minifigs, so while she builds characters out of both, she spends more time on the latter. Below is a sample team of adventurers I found on her bedside table one day:

The unfortunate side effect of this is that the traditional minifig line is short of female characters because they've been diverted to the minidolls. I've had to make a conscious effort to collect female minifigs and parts, though this is something that's improved even in the short time we've been buying LEGO. When I started, it was hard to find a set for less than $20 with a female minifig. These days, most sets with multiple figures have at least one female character. (The gender ratio is much worse in the minidolls, where we only have two boys among our collection.)

The other thing that makes me twitchy about the gender division in these product lines is the prettiness aspect. Aside from the ludicrousness of every single animal having blue eyes and eyelashes, there are... a lot of flowers. Elsa's ice palace was supposed to have flowers blooming in the snow outside, but my daughter and I decided that was too silly and left them off. (I also tried to persuade my daughter that the ice cream dispenser was anachronistic, but she thought that was a stroke of genius and insisted it stay.) Moana's boat has flowers apparently growing on it. Piece count is a big factor in the set's cost, and I am a little tired of it being driven up by flowers.

Especially when it seems to be at the cost of more interesting details. On the left we have Moana's Ocean Voyage, a $39.99 set, 307 pieces. On the right, Ninjago's Tiger Widow Island, $49.99 and 450 pieces.

Obviously, the Ninjago set is a larger one, and the island is the focus rather than the boat, but it's here as an example of how cool a LEGO island can look. Moana's boat (even with the flowers) is pretty great, and I really like it, but the island is frankly rubbish. The problem is that Moana isn't getting her own movie tie in LEGO line with four or five sets exploring different movie scenes. She's part of LEGO's Disney Princess line up, she's only been allotted two sets, and it's clear they aren't banking on any more, because they have tried to shoehorn in as many story elements into those two sets as possible.

So along with Moana's boat, we have a tiny raft representing the battle with the Kakamora (most of which actually took place on a massive ship) and a highly scaled down version of Te Fiti's Island, where the climax of the film takes place. The island does have an action feature, but it's just a quick overly symmetrical build, which barely has room for Moana to stand on and none at all for Maui.

I did my own quick fix, replacing the Ninjago temple with Te Fiti to create a much larger and more exciting island for the end of Moana's journey.

I appreciate that there is a lot of marketing research behind this which I don't know about. Ninjago is a highly successful line with its own cartoon which probably sells better than the Disney Princess line, and honestly, Tiger Widow Island is also greatly scaled down from its cartoon counterpart.

Here's the thing though: Tiger Widow Island appeared in one episode of a LEGO cartoon series. Moana is A Freaking Disney Movie. How is there not a market for multiple Moana sets? If they had produced Moana sets with traditional minifigs and sold it alongside the Star Wars and Super-Hero sets (i.e. in the explicitly or implicitly "for boys" section), wouldn't Te Fiti's Island sell? Or Kakomora Attack? Or Tamatoa's Cave?

That brings up another problem. Tamatoa the crab was my daughter's favourite part of the Moana movie, and when we first saw Moana LEGO sets, she told me she wanted the one with the crab. I had to tell her that wasn't likely to ever exist, because the minidolls lines don't go in for villains (with the exception of a few Elves sets). They're more focused on parties and playing than dangerous circumstances. Fun rather than adventure.

Again, I'm no market researcher, but this seems to go against my own experiences of how little girls play: what's the good of being a princess if there isn't a witch out to kill you?

The minidolls are expanding into superhero territory this year, with the Super Hero Girls. I know little about that storyline, other than the heroes in question are at high school (which I have issues with, but that was DC's call, not LEGO's.)  The early sets do look like they're more action-oriented, but I don't know yet if we'll get into that theme and the characters... I'd rather see similar sets in Disney Princess or Elves.

As disappointing as it is to realise we're unlikely to get Prince Philip's battle with Dragon Maleficent in LEGO form, the flipside of this trend is the "boys" sets are almost exclusively focused on conflict.

Just about every Ninjago set we own is a battle between good guys and bad guys. For the record, both kids and even I love the Ninjago cartoon series which is very nicely done. Great characters and they have significantly expanded the lone female regular's role over the course of the show. But it's painfully clear the franchise is targeting boys not girls. The only set we have that isn't a battle scene is the Temple of Airjitzu, which is a huge, expensive village set, aimed at the adult collector. (It's beautiful, and the kids loved playing with it, but the age on the box is 14+.)

Don't get me wrong, my son loves battles. His favourite LEGO lines are Ninjago and Star Wars, and he likes to build his own fighting spaceships. But the other recurring theme in his creations is Secret Base. Like the one in the below picture which I am not allowed to take apart.

It has a control center, a small rocket-powered vehicle and a larger truck... but it also comes with a surprisingly well-stocked larder, and a dining table. The variety of food items is one of my son's favourite things in his LEGO play. Even soldiers have lunch breaks from saving the world.

You'd think the so-called 'City' sets would fulfil this roleplaying need, but they have a particular focus on the emergency services, especially the old 'cops and robbers' motif. Let's not forget the fun world of trash collection and roadside assistance.

OK, so there is also an annual City theme which generally features scientists exploring the Arctic, or under the sea, or volcanoes... (Before you ask, female scientists are included, but over among the minidolls in the girls' aisle, scientists remain in scandalously short supply.) The sets are cool-looking and you can create your own stories from these, however, the 'City' name is still failing to produce anything that looks remotely like the experiences my children associate with city life.

The Creator line (currently the closest thing in LEGO to gender neutral) does a better job of producing houses and shops. Our Christmas present to our son was the camper van / yacht, which has some really nifty living arrangements. I built LEGO versions of our own family, and they are currently living in the yacht and sailing to... well, destinations are limited, if we don't want to engage in battle.

On average, for boys, there isn't a lot of daily life roleplay available. Yet that is precisely what the Friends line is all about.

So on Christmas day, from his sister, our eight year old son received one of the amusement park sets in the Friends line. It had bumper cars, a cotton candy machine and a tumbler ride. The tumbler is a particularly nice build, since the gears are set up so that with each revolution of the arms, the car holding the riders would turn all the way around twice. And yes, standard minifigs can also ride.

When our son first unwrapped it, he baulked at the Friends packaging, but then he looked at the rest of the box and grew excited. He built it the day after Christmas (flowers and all), and from there decided that he wanted to buy the roller coaster set in the same line.

(For the record, you can buy a minifig fairground set at the LEGO store, but again, it's aimed at the adult collector. The Ninjago cartoon has also featured an amusement park in a few different episodes, but LEGO has yet to produce a set based there.)

As it happened, my son has been into saving and earning money lately, to the point that he had over $50 in his piggy bank. So we made a trip to Target, and he went looking in the unofficial girls' aisle for the roller coaster, hoping it would be on sale. It wasn't there, but the new Heartlake Summer Pool was.

My son also looked at the Star Wars sets, and the latest Ninjago sets, and even the sets for the upcoming Batman Movie, but at the end of the day, none of those could compete with waterslides, so he spent his savings on Andrea, Martina and their pool. Because both genders can appreciate aquariums, hot tubs, a diving board that actually bounces and smoothies at a poolside tiki bar.

(It's still covered in flowers, but we got two brand new watermelon pieces, so we're satisfied.)

As a toy, LEGO is pretty phenomenal, since your imagination really is the limit. But as it's currently marketed, there is a surprisingly hard line dividing playstyles between genders. The boys get the adventure, and the girls get the fun.

Obviously, just because LEGO doesn't make a set, that doesn't mean we can't build it ourselves... except we learn building techniques from the sets we buy. (Not to mention part acquisition!) We're all gradually getting better and more ambitious with our freebuilding, but we'll never rival a professional designer. The skills and materials come from LEGO itself, and if you're only buying for one gender, LEGO's put an invisible cap on what you can achieve.

As a family, we have always ignored the 'for boys / girls' recommendations, yet even for us, it took a while to realise the full range of LEGO available, because I started out with the intent of ignoring the minidoll sets. It's taken a conscious effort to buy sets that allow the kids to take their favourite characters through the story they want to tell. I suspect most of the children playing with LEGO are only getting half the experience.

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