Brown launches national LEGO campaign
LadyFig dolls have come under controversy for supporting patriarchal gender values in children’s toys.
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LEGO’s new LadyFig dolls have drawn much controversy, and Professor of Education Lyn Mikel Brown has helped launch the campaign against them. The dolls have elicited much concern from activists and parents alike, who believe the mini-figures are perpetuating gender stereotypes and essentially selling out girls for a narrow conception of girlhood that is founded on an unrealistic and unhealthy Barbie ideal.
According to Brown, SPARK (Sexualization, Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge) a program she founded with Professor Deborah Tolman at Hunter College, is “a girl-fueled movement to eradicate the sexualization of girls and women.” SPARK is a coalition of nearly 70 organizations, many of which are small grassroots feminist groups. “One of our SPARK team bloggers wrote about LEGO’s plan to capture the girl market by launching a new ‘Friends’ line with thinner, taller, pinkified mini-figs engaged in the stereotypical scenes we’ve come to expect from dolls like Bratz and Barbie—lounging by the pool with drinks, singing in clubs, shopping and waiting tables,” Brown said.
SPARK, partnered with Powered By Girl (PBG), decided to support a protest of these LadyFigs on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, and eventually wrote a Change.org petition that collected over 50,000 signatures. The petition is not calling for a recall of these dolls, but rather for LEGO to not exclude girls from its original product. Brown said the petition should “take girls seriously as LEGO lovers and builders by including more female characters in their regular sets and more girls in their commercials and ads for their regular sets. We did not want girls relegated to the stereotypical ‘Friends’ line.”
Indeed, marketing of the original LEGO line is mostly to boys, featuring mostly boys in its advertising. Furthermore, the toy is most commonly found in the boys’ aisle of stores. One of the last advertising campaigns of the product directed at girls came about in 1981, when an advertisement depicted a girl playing with her LEGO creation, with a caption that read, “What it is is beautiful.” PBG posted on LEGO’s Facebook wall asking the company to “bring back beautiful,” and within hours LEGO’s page was flooded with feedback and the petition got 1,500 more signatures.
LEGO is now pursuing a marketing strategy directed at what they believe five-year old girls want. Executives argue that four years of market research has made them conclude that the LadyFigs are what girls actually want to play with. In response to this argument, Brown said, “Marketing research—the goal of which is to sell more of your product to your target audience—is not the same as scientific research, the goal of which is to understand the impact of such products on that audience. It’s no surprise that little girls told LEGO they wanted pastels and pink—that’s code in their world for ‘normal’ girlhood, thanks to aggressive and effective marketing. It didn’t surprise us that they said they wanted a LEGO product that offered more storylines and relationships. What surprised us is that LEGO didn’t have the creativity to find a nonsexist way to deliver this.”
As blogger Stephanie Cole wrote on SPARKmovement.org blog, “I can speak from personal experience and assure you, LEGO, that girls do like minifigs. They also like Star Wars and Harry Potter and they like being creative and making up stories that involve adventures and good and evil and things blowing up. But if you keep on excluding them from your marketing vision, soon they will start to believe that they would rather have hot tubs and little plastic boobs.”
Though the dolls themselves aren’t necessarily sexualized, according to Brown, “They sit within a highly sexualized environment in which, increasingly, toys for little girls become an introduction and gateway to a narrowly stereotyped and very sexy version of teen life. Such toys introduce and normalize appearance and body consciousness, self-objectification and a set of stereotyped activities to girls at an early age.”
Brown argued that this normalization is especially dangerous because “studies tell us that girls’ consumption of sexist and sexualized media is linked to depressive symptoms, eating disorders, lower self-esteem, an increase in relational aggression, lower grades and acceptance of traditional sex role stereotypes. This media also offers girls a version of consumer girl power that, ironically, creates a barrier to real power to affect social change.” Furthermore, “when toys increasingly perpetuate a version of gender that narrows girls’ options to a white, thin, rich, hetero-normative world in which self-improvement is equated with girl power, it perpetuates a binary that’s bad for girls and boys.”
The campaign has received media coverage from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, Mother Jones, and TV news shows like Fox & Friends and Dateline 20/20, which was not the kind of coverage LEGO was hoping to find of its new product. LEGO has agreed to meet with SPARK in March to address its concerns.
Although the product has been selling well, Brown said, “We’ve also heard from parents that girls are disappointed with the sets. Once they’re built, there’s only so many times you can hang with the girls at the café before you start thinking, what else is there to do out there?”