Lego caused a huge uproar in January when it started selling its very girly Lego Friends sets. However, the Danish company just posted a 35 percent increase in profits for the first six months of 2012. Is this a setback in the fight against the sexualization of girls and in teaching girls that there’s a lot more to life than looking pretty in pink?
The creation of Lego Friends, after four years of ‘research,’ is a sad testament to the ongoing existence of gender stereotypes in our society. On the other hand, the world-wide support for Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot shows that girl power and grrl power are far from dead.
Lego Friends: Creativity Made, Safe, Pink and Pretty
Bursting with flowers, unicorns and hearts in pastels and including an outdoor bakery, a “butterfly beauty shop” and a “fashion design studio” — and with “Ladyfigs” who are complete with budding breasts and noticeably slimmer than the usual boxy Lego figures – the Lego Friends sets reinforce more gender stereotypes than I care to count.
Sure, there are plenty of toys from Barbies to Bratz that offer anatomically incorrect dolls and playsets focused on fashion and beauty. But Lego’s entry into the pink-saturated world of girl-centric toys was disappointing to many who had found pre-Lego Friends products perfectly fine toys for boys and girls. Nancy Gruver recalled how the basic primary-colored blocks stoked creativity in her daughters:
They built their own people from the basic red, green, blue and yellow pieces because those were all the colors there were and we didn’t have any people in our tub of pieces. This led to people with wheels for feet and people of all shapes and sizes.
Lego says they’re just giving girls what they want. The Los Angeles Times quotes Lego Chief Executive Jorgen Vig Knudstorp: “We’ve managed to make creative construction toys more relevant for girls – and we look forward to developing the product line further in the years ahead.”
Pussy Riot Rekindles Grrl Power
At the same time that Lego earned an extra $341.2 million on sales of Lego Friends, there’s been a resurgence of what you could call grrl power. Across the globe, people have joined to protest the two-year imprisonment of Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for performing a brief “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ Our Savior church in February.
… the Pussy Riot influence echoes the “riot grrrl” scene of the early 1990s, an underground feminist punk movement that originated in the US. Riot grrrl’s central message has been much debated, but can perhaps best be summed up as a mission to engender communities of supportive, creative women. Certainly, Pussy Riot’s abrasive, energetic sound has much in common with that of the original riot grrrls Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill – though Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna recently cautioned against too literal a reboot of the term. (“Who wants to restart something that’s 20 years old?” she told music website Pitchfork. “This could be a part of a lot of people starting their own f—- thing.”)
A music critic, Everett True, also sees Pussy Riot as “an opportunity to challenge the male-centric music industry.” It’s thanks to Pussy Riot that feminism has become an unavoidable part of the musical conversation and all the more in a year when “the NME pan[ed] Gaggle’s debut album on the grounds that its members were likely to be open about their menstrual cycles and own books by Germaine Greer.”
Pace Greer, menstruation is exactly a topic that no one’s supposed to talk about.
Toys like Lego Friends are insidious in promoting a creativity within a carefully limited, candy-colored space. The original Lego blocks stoked creativity because, while kids could copy the models on the boxes, they could also build pretty much whatever they wanted with a bunch of plastic bricks. Lego Friends tell children how to be creative with “Stephanie’s cool convertible” and at the “City Park Cafe.”
The creativity that Distras, My Sydney Riot and other women artists are talking about is strictly sui feminae. I mean, it takes real creativity (and guts) to put together a punk prayer performance like Pussy Riot’s, and on the altar of a showcase church under an authoritarian regime at that. Says Distras in the Guardian:
Pussy Riot is the little girl who goes to school and gets told she’s a worthless dyke because she’s more interested in books than boys. Pussy Riot is the little boy who goes to school and gets told to man up when he expresses his emotions.
I’m sure girls will see the Lego Friends ads and the colorful boxes in stores and parents will scoff at the sexist implications that I’ve described here and buy the sets.
But don’t be surprised if, one day in the next decade, some altered version of one of those LadyFigs shows up on a t-shirt worn by a rocker in the next wave of punk, exposing — exploding — the sexism that created those cute little plastic dolls.
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Photo by Tracheotomy Bob