As soon as I saw Lego Belville – the ’90s range designed for girls – I knew I didn’t want it. This in retrospect was a bit of a problem for Lego, because not only was I a girl (and so bang in the target market), I was also very keen on Lego. I’d built towns, castles, pirate forts. God damn it, I loved those little bricks.
I wasn’t resisting out of tomboy pride, either. My play repertoire involved a large cast of My Little Ponies, all various shades of sparkly pastels with glossy synthetic manes to be tended. Pinkness and girliness were in no way repugnant to tiny me. But I could tell when someone was taking the piss, and Belville was quite obviously not proper Lego.
There was barely any building involved, the colours were all wrong, the characters looked nothing like normal Lego figures, and the packaging – ugh! The horrible swirly Belville logo jostling against the blocky, certain Lego branding. Belville wasn’t a place I wanted to play in, it was a gender gulag, a reminder that my favourite toys weren’t really meant for me.
Belville is just one of Lego’s failed efforts to reach girls, catalogued in an excellent Bloomberg article on the company’s latest launch for the XX constituency. If you’ve read Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions Of Gender, then you’ll recognise the psychology at work. Children, exquisitely sensitive to the social word, are quick to recognise that the world is coded by gender – and quick to fall into line. Boys build, and girls (consistently schooled to be more empathic and relationship-minded beings) role play. Lego is a building toy, so girls who formerly played cheerfully with Duplo blocks will gradually drift away.
As children learn their gender grammar, they often also receive the strong, implicit lesson that girls are less important than boys. Female characters, for example, are shockingly rare in kids’ cartoons, though hopefully less so now than when I was growing up. (When this imbalance came into conflict with my own sense of importance, I’d often try to resolve it by designating characters as female just because I thought they should be. For a very long time, I was pretty convinced that both Dick Dastardly and Dogtanian were girls. It felt better that way.)
Kids learn to apply this boy preference for themselves: even as a girl, it’s obvious that the girl version of a supposedly unisex toy is a bit crap, and boys would almost never want to break character by playing with a girl toy. The only interaction most of my male schoolmates had with My Little Pony was singing the song about how she was “skinny and bony”. I don’t remember any opposing verses about how Transformers were shit. We knew they were cool, they just weren’t meant for us.
I can’t say, though, that I’m disappointed by the Lego Friends range. Yes, it’s frustrating to find that the same old stereotypes remain resonant, but at least the development of the toys seems to have been driven by a genuine effort to understand how girls play – rather than a nebulous suspicion that girls are different in a pinkish way.
Anyway, by the time these products are relevant to children, they’ve already had a brief lifetime of coaching for the part of “boy” or “girl”. Coaching from parents and other carers, coaching from the media, coaching from every passer-by who says “ah, typical boy/girl” and chucks them under the chin. The world isn’t built from Lego blocks. We can’t just break it down and start again, change the blueprint and remake it better. Instead, we have to work with the prefabricated parts we have, however flawed and frustrating they are.