Whether Pink Legos Are Just Building Stereotypes

Lego's new play sets, which are geared toward girls, include a beauty shop, cafe and pool. Critics say the toys are too focused on image and gender stereotypes. Others, including Lego, say they're simply what girls want to play with. Host Michel Martin and a diverse panel of moms explore gender-focused marketing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

And, today, we are talking about a topic that's very serious for a lot of parents: how their children play, and what they play with. Now, I think it's fair to say that many of us grew up with the idea, or at least we were given the idea that girls play dress-up or with dolls, while things like toy guns or cars or blocks were for boys.

Now the company that makes Legos is challenging that with sets of blocks made especially for girls. The new line is called Friends, and here's a clip from an ad promoting it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You drive by Olivia's house, past the vets with all the pets, to the newly built cafe. We're here. Let's all help out, make burgers, cakes. Bake the cupcakes, and we're open. Our first customer. It's perfect. Welcome to the world of Lego Friends. New Lego Friends. Each set sold separately.

MARTIN: Now, Legos says their research showed that parents and their daughters wanted toys like these, but some critics say these toys - with their shopping and primping Lego characters - are teaching girls all the wrong lessons.

Last week, I spoke with freelance writer Bailey Shoemaker Richards. She's a young woman who was so offended by these new toys, that she started an online petition against them, and here's what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

BAILEY SHOEMAKER RICHARDS: It's very focused on hanging out, on appearance, on beauty shops, and it's a very narrow and limiting sort of idea of what girlhood Lego experience should be.

MARTIN: Now, Bailey went on to say that she's already gotten 45,000 signatures on her online petition, and we also got a lot of comments after that conversation. Some applauded the company for bringing girls into the fold, but others felt that the new Legos focused too much on stereotypes of women.

So who better to talk about this than our moms panel? And I'm joined now by Sarah Maizes. She is the mom of three. That includes two girls, and she also has boy-girl twins who are eight years old. She writes a blog called Mommy Lite Online. Carrie Goldman is a mom of three girls. She also has a blog that's called Portrait of an Adoption. And Roopa Unnikrishnan is the mom of eight-and-a-half-year-old twins - you know, that half is very important - a boy and a girl, as am I.

And welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

SARAH MAIZES: Hey, Michel.

CARRIE GOLDMAN: Thank you.

ROOPA UNNIKRISHNAN: Hello.

MARTIN: Now, Sarah, do I have this right? You also used to work in the toy industry. Correct?

MAIZES: I did. I worked at Mattel, and I have worked on Barbie.

MARTIN: OK. And you've worked on Barbie. A Barbie person. Now, you told us that you think the people who say they're offended by Lego are being - and I'm quoting here - "ridiculous." And that you are standing up for your daughters' right to their girliness. Tell us what you mean by that.

MAIZES: There are few things that will make me really, you know, just get passionate and dig my heels in, and this is one of them. And I just feel like - I don't know if it's because I've read a lot lately in the news about parents who are encouraging gender-neutral children. They don't even reveal the gender of their children.

But having boys and girls, I can tell you that, innately, they have different play patterns. Their role models are different. What they want to play with is different. And to deny that, I think, is extracting from a child the ability to create an identity. And it just drives me insane when people dig their heels into the ground and say, you have to allow a girl the opportunity to play with gender-neutral toys. You have to allow them the opportunity to explore who they are, and I completely agree. But what if who they are is girly?

MARTIN: And so, in a way, you're saying, like, if people are saying - when you hear gender-neutral, what you really say - what you're really hearing is: be like a boy and play with what boys want, and boys are kind of the norm. Is that kind of it - fit into the boy context.

MAIZES: That's part of it. I'm hearing, be like a boy. I'm hearing, deny your sex. That's what I'm hearing, and that's what's frustrating.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Tell us how you really feel, Sarah. Maybe you'll come out of your shell later in the program.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Now, Carrie, your daughter's story made national headlines about a year ago.

GOLDMAN: International, actually.

MARTIN: International.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You were - because you wrote about this. She was teased for carrying a Star Wars water bottle to school by kids who told her that Star Wars was only for boys. But despite that, you have a beef with these new Lego products. Tell us how you feel about this.

GOLDMAN: Well, I'm obviously the counterpoint to Sarah. I'm one of the moms who believes that the stereotype and the marketing is offensive. And there's an important distinction, however. I don't have a problem with the pink blocks or with creating Legos that appeal to some of the interests that have not been represented so far in Legos. My problem is that their marketing it as those interests has to be the realm of the girls. And so what happens is you have girls who are being told you have to play with the beauty set, you have to play with the café, and then if you want to play with the engineering sets or this and that, you have to walk over to the regular, you know, the boys I hope to get them. And you create situations where kids who are pretty susceptible to marketing messages, they observe this and they listen and then you have boys who see girls, like my daughter and say, oh no, you can't, you know, you can't play with the Harry Potters or the Star Wars sets because those are the boys sex sets. And it can lead to bullying and other problems.

MAIZES: And it actually goes both ways because I've also seen boys express an interest in playing with some of these cafes or beauty parlors and now they're being taunted because they're being told that stuff is for girls, you're a sissy, so I think it's great to offer a full range of Lego products. I think it's great to offer beauty, you know, beauty products and whatnot, but just put them all in one place. Don't gender label them. Don't say these are for the girls, these are for the boys. You know, definitely put all different kinds of products out there and then let the kids choose.

MARTIN: Roopa, where are you on this?

UNNIKRISHNAN: I've sort of come right in the middle. No. I'd say that I'm a little sort of from Sarah in that I'd say that my vision is a little more integrated. I have to tell you, I'm one of those people who grew up rifles shooting in India, right? So it's not normal but it just felt normal to me in the sense of there was in a sense that's not what girls do in our household. And I suspect that part of this, what irks some of us about these pink, you know, headdress and that show up from toys is that it doesn't allow for integration.

What I'd love for Lego to do is to say OK, so we have this line for the girl who really does want to be, you know, to gravitate there. But there are the girls like mine, who would like to see more female Jedi characters in the, you know, the Star Wars pack, right? I think that's what the inherent need is. You know, they have this broader range of Wii games, for example, and they have now this series on TV called "Ninja Girl," and it irks me and irks my daughter, who is eight-and-a-half and who said that's really unfortunate that this character, the girl character, is just standing there screaming for help and has to pretend to be some sort of mysterious character and not let her in and ninja out. That's her technical, that's how she actually phrased it. And so this sort of sense of shame in being integrated into being a ninja is kind of what sort of permeates here.

MARTIN: So the whole thing, that boys are active, girls are passive...

UNNIKRISHNAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you feel it kind of reinforces this idea even if the girl is not. And if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about why it is that toys seem to still be marketed mainly for boys or for girls, and is that OK? Is that not OK? And what sparked our conversation was a conversation we had earlier about Legos, which just brought out a new line of blocks for girls, which sparked an online petition protesting it. And I'm joined by Roopa Unnikrishnan, that's who was speaking just now. She's a mom of eight-and-a-half-year-old twins. Carrie Goldman is a mom of three girls, and she's a blogger. And Sarah Maizes is also is a mom of three. She also has boy-girl twins and she also blogs.

Let's wring out a comment. You know, we asked listeners, you know, what do you think about this? I'll give you a comment from one of our listeners, Alex Hardberger(ph), who called our Comment line. And this is what he had to say.

ALEX HARDBERGER: Yes, there is a stereotype that is buying into so that Lego can sell more Legos and make more money. But it's not a stereotype they created and it's not their job to break it.

MARTIN: Well, Carrie, what about that? Why don't you weigh in on that?

GOLDMAN: Well, that's funny. Yes, I actually wrote an article called "Dear Lego, I Have A Girl." And he said, he commented, it's not a stereotype they created. And that's where I disagree. You know, if you spend years and years putting Legos in a boy aisle and in those sets are adventure toys and Star Wars toys and you leave girls out of a lot of your marketing and you had a stated marketing strategy that has said you're targeting boys, how can you turn around and say you haven't created the stereotype when now you realized oh, wait, you know, we're missing - as they put it - 50 percent of the population, we want to target them now. And you roll out, you know, the hair dryers and the beauty cafes. Well then, you have created the stereotype and now you're trying to profit from the stereotype.

MARTIN: Sarah, what do you think about that?

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)

MAIZES: I'm sorry. I have to say I feel like they haven't created the stereotype. There's a stereotype I believe - and I know I'm going to take so much heat for this - there's a stereotype that exists. There, for the most part, we are natural beings and I just can't help but feel like so much of this for a lot of us, I'm not saying for everyone, is programmed into our DNA certain role-playing. I mean having worked at a toy company like Mattel, and having sat in on focus groups and spoken with parents and spoken with children, and also seen my own kids - boys and girls - they're natural proclivity towards cars and my gross towards role-playing, it's so innate, we can't fight it.

I definitely agree that there is how much of the toy company is playing into it. On top of that, how much are the toy stores, where the toy companies actually sell into and fit onto the aisles play into it? It is a huge issue that extends way beyond the parent's pocketbook, way beyond the marketers at the toy companies. This is a huge conversation and it's not...

MARTIN: So you're saying like so what's so terrible?

MAIZES: Yeah. I'm...

MARTIN: So what's so terrible? It's not that their jobs are to change 2,000 years of social history.

MAIZES: Exactly. That's...

MARTIN: Hold on. Go ahead. Sarah, wait. Let Roopa...

MAIZES: I had coffee. I'm all strung up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK.

UNNIKRISHNAN: This is Roopa. And maybe, you know, Sarah, you threw the gauntlet down. Maybe I'll pick it up gently.

MAIZES: Good. Good.

UNNIKRISHNAN: But I think there are three ways to think about it. One is, you know, you see, you know, truly responsible TV making, you know, TV programming done by companies that actually go in and bring child psychologists and anthropologists and linguists into play, just to make sure that they are not underscoring the stereotypes that exist out there. Because to some extent a company like so this point too, a company like Lego has some amount of responsibility in trying to help the parent in bringing up children in a sort of more balanced environment, and the 2,000 years of stereotyping is an element.

MARTIN: Well...

UNNIKRISHNAN: And the third...

MARTIN: Well, OK. Let me - hold on. Hold on let me get in. Roopa, finish your thought, then I want to ask you something.

UNNIKRISHNAN: Yes. I think the third element though, which I think is in keeping with what that statement was, the point is, it is actually my job as a parent to actually make the decision so I do not, I will not be going out and buying that toy. And when the Legos, when the kids were younger I went out and very consciously found a company that built more neutral toys. It's called Zolo, and you can - it has nothing that sort of suggests that this is a boy's toy. So then, yeah, it is at the end it's up to the parents to drive and design their child's experience.

MARTIN: Let me ask Roopa. Hold me jump in...

GOLDMAN: Sarah? Sarah? This is Carrie. I just wanted to...

MARTIN: No. No. No. Let me just - let me get into this. Roopa, you have a business background, OK?

UNNIKRISHNAN: Yes.

MARTIN: So the question I have for you is why do you say that it is the Lego's responsibility to enforce any particular set of values other than the one that the marketplace will bear?

UNNIKRISHNAN: Right. Well, so, it is a question - you can look at it both ways. One is you have a responsibility. I mean I come from a couple of industries where they take their responsibilities really seriously - health care and sort of, you know, mutual funds where, you know, you really do want to make sure that your, the outcome is what your client needs and wants. So that's one. And if you're, if Lego is hearing that the client just needs girly girls well, there you go - that's a decision they made. But secondly, it's also about slicing and dicing what the sort of future looks like to some extent. And if, I'm not going to be spending my money on this.

MARTIN: OK.

UNNIKRISHNAN: And if they actually had decided that they don't want my demographics that's great.

MARTIN: OK.

UNNIKRISHNAN: But guess what? They don't have my demographic.

GOLDMAN: Who's going to spend money on this?

MARTIN: OK Carrie, when you think about...

MAIZES: I just wanted to say, Carrie...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Carrie, Carrie Goldman.

GOLDMAN: Yes. If you read the book from Lise Eliot, which is called the "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," you'll see that yes, Sarah, it's true, developmental psychologists have shown that toy choice among children does have some stereotypes. But studies have shown that boys do gravitate towards masculine toys and girls towards more feminine toys. But what her point is that it's not about nature or nurture, but how, as Peggy Orenstein wrote in an article recently, nurture becomes nature. And so if we just pander to these differences and we say yup, you're going to choose dolls, you're going to choose balls, and we let them do that we miss out on an opportunity in these early years, when their brains are so malleable, to actually, you know, contradict their natural tendencies and promote some cross-sex toys, plays friendships. And there's evidence that children who do play with these cross-sex toys actually do better down the road in leadership functions in the world.

MARTIN: Well hold. Carrie, before we let you go I just have to ask you. How did the Star Wars thing play out? What happened?

GOLDMAN: Oh, well, that's, yeah. Sure. The way it played out is that we had to have some major bullying-related interventions. I'm writing a book that's coming out in August by HarperCollins that's called "Bullied." And it's about how bullying has basically evolved in our culture and not a small part of it is an exploration of stereotypes and how gender stereotypes in particular leads to these types of activities.

MARTIN: OK. Well, come back and tell us about the book. But what happened with the Star Wars water bottle? Did - I understand that she actually got a lot of good Star Wars swag out of this because a lot of people were saying...

GOLDMAN: She did.

MARTIN: I don't think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't think so. What was the best thing that happen?

GOLDMAN: Well, she received - a lot of great things happened. You know, she got some light savers and she received all kinds of Jedi toys. And we made friends with, most importantly, with a lot of what are called geek girls. And those are girls who have interests in science, technology, math, gaming and they've been very verbal in their support of girls, like Katie, who are not necessarily mainstream.

MARTIN: OK. Well, come back and tell us about the book when that comes back and I hope that's a date. But finally, we only have a minute left so I want to hear from each of you on this question. Look, lots of men are nurses. Many women are soldiers and service members serving in uniform, you know, on the front lines. Do you envision a day when we'll see that reflected in toys? And I'll go around. Sarah, how about you?

MAIZES: This is Sarah.

MARTIN: Sarah?

MAIZES: Until there is a mass request for it from the consumer, I don't think we'll see as much of it reflected. And it's not that I wouldn't look for a gender-neutral toy. I have pushed gender-neutral toys on my children their whole lives. But all I can do, and this is sort of a response to Peggy Orenstein thing and about nurturing, is that all nurturing can do is inhibit or facilitate what's already a natural behavior.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Let's hear from everybody on this. So your boys are still grabbing Barbies and using them and pretending their pistols? So, and shooting people with their feet. OK, Roopa, very quickly.

UNNIKRISHNAN: Yeah. I'd love for there to be more, right? Because I have to go to the specialty, you know, Upper West Side store to get the European toy, which costs about 20 percent more than it would if I went to Toys "R" Us. So I would love there to be more and I think that would change the dynamic. Just accessibility.

MARTIN: OK. Carrie, final thought?

GOLDMAN: I think Sarah's right, that without a mass request we probably won't see it. But that's why we have the opportunity to educate people and try and, you know, persuade people to think with different ways.

MARTIN: All right. Carrie Goldman is a mom of three girls and she blogs. She was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Sarah Maizes is a mom of three, a 12-year-old daughter and also eight-year-old twins. She was with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. And Roopa Unnikrishnan is a mom of eight-and-a-half year old twins - a boy and a girl. She was with us from NPR's bureau in New York. Well, ladies, moms, thank you so much.

GOLDMAN: Thank you.

MAIZES: Thank you, Michel. Thanks everyone.

UNNIKRISHNAN: Thank you very much. Bye.

GOLDMAN: Thanks everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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