Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Lego's "Girl Problem" Hasn't Changed, It's Multiplied.

Viral ad campaign by Lego didn't do much to comfort those put of by Lego Friends.

I got in a bit of a dust up on twitter this week, which caught me off guard, because not only was I not looking for a fight, I wasn't disagreeing. But some subjects are thorny, they invite misunderstanding and defensiveness. Gender roles is one of those subjects. Lego's "girl problem." The problem is an old one: Lego can't figure out how to sell to girls; 90% of their toys sales are to/for boys - and I bet that that number is low. It's a problem for Lego because they have saturated half their market and can't break into the other other half - until recently, and that's where the new girl problem starts. A couple years ago Lego released a pink-washed line of doll-house themed building sets called Lego Friends, and according to NPR, has tripled their sales to girls. The source of yesterday's misunderstanding, was that I hadn't realized the "girl problem" had morphed from a question of how to get girls to play with Legos to one of how to get girl to stop playing with pink toys. But to my mind the original "problem" remains. Three times almost nothing does not a market share make. My guess the sales of the pink-washed Lego Friends sets don't reflect numbers of girls playing with the toys now that they are pink, but rather they reflect the fact that aunts, uncles, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, and girls themselves feel comfortable buying a toy for a girl that looks unambiguously like a girl's toy and comes from one of the most respected toy companies in the world. To my thinking, any marketing scheme built around structured-narrative sets (ie sets that come with instructions intended to build a specific narratives of firemen, spacemen, housewives or veterinarians) are going to be gendered, but they are also going to continue to fail with the girls and "outlier" boys who aren't playing with them now.

[Skip to the very last paragraph to see my solution to Lego's "girl problem."]
I am not a specialist in gender studies. I won't pretend any special insight into the minds of girls or women. But Lego's original girl problem is one that I have been thinking about for well over a decade. And I believe solving it, helps solve the new problem of pink-washing girls. Whatever insight I might have on the subject comes from my professional background as a sculptor. I have worked with blocks exclusively for almost nineteen years years now. The first seven of those years were while I was doing my graduate and undergraduate work. For the last sixteen years I have played with blocks professionally, and exhibited publicly around the world. This means that when I was study art history and theory, I was thinking about blocks - and when I was at a dinner party with Norman Brosterman, we were seated together. This is not to claim that I am famous, or successful, or important, only that I am committed. So while what follows are my own ideas and experiences, I'm not just some dude talking out of his ass.
Portrait of the artists playing with blocks (2004)

Most people assume that I must have loved Lego as a boy. But when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s my friends and I were interested in building toys - not as toy subset - but as an activity. I can remember having Legos, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, etc - I was just never wild about playing with them. Instead my friends and I "kluged" our toys. "Making of" specials on TV exposed a generation of boys (I really don't remember any girls tearing down their dollhouses for parts) to the ways model makers had transformed WWII tank model parts into the machine kipple that crusted the Star Destroyers and other ships in Star Wars. No toy, or unused electronics, tool, or random bit of shaped plastic was off limits; the world became a building set. The only thing I don't remember building with was building sets - they always felt too limited - Lego included.

As things have worked out, I've played with Legos more as an adult then I ever did as a boy - as a baby sister in my twenties, as an uncle and as a friend to parents in my thirties. Again, the assumption is I like Lego; and I do. Now. And I like talking about Lego - or listen a lot. People want to tell me their thoughts and experiences with blocks, and usually that means Lego. Blocks are something I take very seriously, and enjoy thinking about. That is something that attracted me to working with blocks: everyone has experience with them, everyone has a handle on how to make things with them. So the fact that generations of girls are being left out of the game is deeply discouraging to me. Especially because I think the solution to the girl problem is something Lego knows how to do very well, because its the idea the company was founded on: abstract free-play.
Chris Burden, Tyne Bridge Kit, (2004) - Someday I'll get a collector to buy me one so I can build something other than a bridge with the parts.

As someone who plays with blocks for a living my interest in blocks goes beyond handling them. I read about discuss them am curious about their history, what scientists have to say about they ways we play with them - whatever, you name it. My own blocks are based on a nineteenth century pedagogical tool, used by one of the 20th centuries greatest architects, that I first learn about in primary school. I had the good fortune to spend second and third grades in Oak Park IL, at a school that was directly across from Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio. Wright's cultural cachet had waned in the post war years (Phillip Johnson called Wright "the greatest architect of the 19th Century"). The Home and Studio had fallen into disrepair and was even split into a boarding house for a while. But by the time I was in primary school there was a resurgence of interest the architect, the building had been taken over by a trust and was, during the years I studied across the street, being slowly and meticulously restored. This meant that the Home and Studio was one of our more frequent field trips, and architect was a subject I ended up being indoctrinated in.

Oak Park was described by Ernest Hemingway as a town of "wide lawns and narrow minds." That may have been true in his time. But a lot of changes marked the place he grew up by the time my mother, sisters and I moved there. The wealthy families that Hemingway had grown up among had moved further away from the city by the late 70. The town had become a liberal bastion, with a well earned reputation for high quality, racial integrated public schools.  - which is part of the reason we moved there. The large Victorian homes were still there (with their wide lawns), as were FLW's early Prairie School Style homes. That was the other reason we moved to Oak Park, my mom loves architecture and bought herself a rambling rundown 150 year old Victorian wood frame house. She got it cheap - like the Home and Studio they had gone out of fashion. And also like the Home and Studio, our house had been turned into a boarding house too.
Ernest Hemingway - pre-tough guy [and in a more gender-neutral era]

My mother's interest in Oak park's Victorian building stock was ahead of the curve, but not unique. I remember being marched around by my teachers in good weather, my classmates and I armed with mimeographed work sheets that listed the various attributes of Victorian architecture styles (I seem to remember the ones with the wrap-around porches were Queen Anne) and Prairie School features. We were expected to check off and learn to distinguish the different sorts of houses we lived among.

One of the things I can remember learning in those early years, is that Frank Lloyd Wright used wooden blocks as a design tool. The information probably stuck with me because I had gone to preschool and first grade at a Montessori school and one of the activities I remember being particularly fond of was playing with wood blocks (probably Unit Blocks or some such). The blocks Wright used were "Froebel Blocks" that were sections of a cube. I've written about my block's relationship to Froebel before elsewhere, but what's key is that they were also one of the first sets of children's blocks that were no representational; abstraction started out as child's play.
Froebel's Gift Number Four: a cube sectioned evenly into eight in order to create blocks that are a 1 x 2 x 4 proportion.

When Lego pulled out of a financial tailspin a few years ago by concentrating on franchise tie-in sets, they were accused of abandoning girls, but the truth is Lego has never had much success with girls. What they abandon in the 90s was  abstract free-play - like the sort Froebel originally set out to encourage and guide. Lego now sells structured-narratives: Star Wars sets, Bat Man sets, and now doll-house sets for girls. I first heard about Lego's girl problem in the 1990s, from a guy who had worked as a consultant with the company. I remember I told him I thought the answer was: color. He was quick to tell me that I was wrong, that the company had tried every shade of pink. But he had misunderstood me, that's not at all what I meant.

I can clearly remember why I wasn't a Lego guy growing up. The blocks came in a too few shapes and sizes to allow me to create fine detail - which I loved in toys. Additionally I remember that the colors were garish; simple primaries, I found boring. If that sounds like I was a little precious at the age of nine, I suppose that's because to some degree I was. I wasn't a shy or quite boy, but I spent a great deal of time alone. I lived in my head. I wasn't clumsy, but wasn't at all interested in playing sports. I wasn't a boy's boy any more than I am a Man's man. Like now, I cared a lot about the way things looked and felt in my hand, and really enjoyed spending time quietly making things. My father wasn't at all handy, didn't like building things, and I don't think knew what to do with his "artistic" son. He gave me an Erector Set and bought me balsa wood airplane sets -  both toys that had more to do with his prewar childhood than mine. Neither things I ever ended up playing with or using.

My mother meanwhile had gone to art school, knew how to sow her own dresses, was a great gardener, designed and built furniture, and had all the skills needed to refinish a Victorian boarding house. She was the one I went to when I wanted to make something. She taught me how to use a sewing machine, hammer nails, draw - the whole kit and kaboodle. Which is to say, I wasn't a conventionally masculine boy, but I wasn't spoon fed conventional ideas about men and women.

Here is the conventional wisdom on the difference in the ways boys and girls play with blocks: boys build towers, girls build walls. I remember hearing that when I was growing up, and I can't count the number of times someone has volunteered that gem of knowledge when they find out I work with blocks. It seems to date back to observations first published by Erik Erikson in 1951. The fresh new insight that Lego has used to justify their Lego Friends line on: "When boys build a construction set, they'll build a castle, let's say, and they'll play with the finished product on the outside" explains Garrick Johnson, a toy analyst for BMO Capitol Markets. "When girls build construction sets, they tend to play on the inside." Towers vs walls.
1981 Lego ad featuring free-play

When I think of the "girl problem" I don't think of a problem girls have - That's How Freudians psychoanalysts like Erikson would have posed it: envy. My own father was a psychologist and had a very different take on "sex difference." He described it as "gender anxiety." That girls don't experience a physical "lack" that leads to envy, but instead, just about the time that a girls and boys are entering puberty - a time when girls tend to develop faster both physically and mentally - is just about the time when most boys and girls first become aware that society values boys more girls. The anxiety is a shared one. The girls experience it because they don't feel inferior, and the boys feel it because they don't feel superior.

At issue shouldn't be evening the gender disparity in mini-figs (although that may please some people, it won't serve boys or girls). Neither should it be forcing Lego to retract toys because they are predominantly pink - Let the grandmothers and uncles have their go-tos, Girls are strong, they know how not to pay with toys that suck. We shouldn't be working to deny girls what they think they want, Lego should be pressed to offer girls and boys toys they don't know they want. Yet.
Lego's 2012 color palette

If I were working with Lego I would press them to test a toy my 9 year old self would have wanted to play with - informed by my adult experience.  playing Legos with my nephews and the children of my friends my eyes glaze over when I am asked to help assemble a set as per instructions. I ooh and ah with everyone else at a dinner party when a proud child shows off the perfectly assembled truck or spaceship, but in my heart I'm bummed. I like when kids misbehave; the moment when they get board of the picture on the box and smash the truck and spaceship to make a third thing from the parts. I am a kluger at heart, not a model maker, and I want to give my niece a toy that will encourage her to kluge.
A kit-bashed Tie Fighter via a commentator on io9; my niece, playing with colored wood blocks I made her.
Here is what I told the consultant who first told me about Lego's girl problem over a decade ago: sell sets of a single color with lots of different shapes, and many sizes - plenty of small pieces - no instructions. The numbers of colors Lego makes available is what's crucial; not a few primaries, or even an array of a few dozen, but hundreds of colors a variety of blues, reds, yellows, and greens, dozens of shades of each. Lego's pallette should rival Pantone, or Munsel. Collecting all the shapes in as many colors as possible becomes the aim, rather than all the spaceships or all the dollhouses. And the end result is truly rich, and gender bias-free, free-play. Lego is pretty much there, they have a huge variety of shapes, a good variety of hues, they just need to rationalize and expand their color palette by a magnitude.
The 1921 Munsel color system I studied in graduate school.


  1. I found this blog post after searching a quote i heard from a Lego guy in a documentary - about how Lego didn't think girls wanted to build/create...which really surprised me. I never considered them a boys toy or activity.

    I loved playing with legos as a girl; i play with them today with my sons. And I completely agree with you on color and block variety - more colors and interchangeable block types would be IDEAL. Show me the petition, i will sign it! I really dislike how the sets are sold today, who wants to follow the instructions and GOOD LUCK ever finding those pieces again once they end up in your giant lego bin. I feel like the super specific pieces stifle creativity and are really at odds with the whole idea of having interchangeable building blocks.

  2. Lego constructor and other games are very cool thing for children. It helps them to train their brain and develop imagination.

  3. Thanks for this piece. I'm an artist and elementary school art teacher and am very into legos and blocks! I did a series of paintings and sculptures based on Froebel gifts and Montessori manipulatives. At school, I have bins of assorted, second-hand legos and duplos (that shit is EXPENSIVE, for me and my mainly lower SES students, so I'm excited when I find second hand deals!). The kids love to "free style" build with them. But I'd like to say a bit in defense of kits, although I do find them limiting and problematic in the ways you describe (especially as childhood is less and less about free, imaginative play and more about consumption and achievement). Perhaps one appeal of kits is similar to how kids like those step-by-step how-to-draw books. Developmentally, kids of a certain age are really into/empowered by mastery of something. So they'll be really stoked about drawing a dog or whatever "just right." Some of them will continue to draw only that formulaic dog, but others will add the shapes and such to their drawing lexicon and "remix" them. Similarly, the Lego kit pieces and types of constructions can then be 'cannibalized' and adapted for creative/open-ended building. As a kid, I loved the competency I felt following kit instructions AND the creativity of "from scratch" building.