Lego. Friend or Foe?

Definitely not an inhabitant of Heartlake City

My daughter and I are doing one of my least favourite things (root canal and changing utility providers, aside). Shopping for a birthday gift for a classmate, in a superstore toy shop. There is no time to buy online (birthday party is imminent). As we walk into the store the difference in our demeanour could not be more marked. She is a bouncy puppy of excitement, whereas I sport a hangdog expression, in anticipation of the next 25 minutes of bargaining, pestering, and compromise. With a growing sense of foreboding, I try to keep up as she hurtles towards the ‘girl section’.

Now before you remind me that most toy stores (including this behemoth) have stopped labelling their sections according to gender, I will remind you that most 2 and 3 year olds are not yet reading, but if you set them free and asked them to take you to the girl or boy section, they could do it without hesitation. If they are colour blind it may take them a little longer, but it is all about hue and context. This store’s girl section is painfully pink. Often sparkly and predominately plastic. Once the girl zone is found, my child revels in its row upon row of shocking, baby and hot pink products. If I were with my eldest daughter she would be disdainful; loudly and consciously rejecting the ironing boards, hoovers, baby dolls and Barbies. I am not with that daughter today. I am with my youngest who may declare her favourite colour is now red, but is still thrilled by the lure of such obvious stereotypical girl fare. The child we are shopping for is not obviously a ‘girly girl’. So I persuade my daughter to look elsewhere before we try and choose something. Bravely we venture blue ward.

As we wander, I reflect a little about past experiences of toy shopping. About how too often the product we want is in the ‘wrong’ aisle. The blue one. The section where (to my mind) you find toys that require imagination, ambition, learning and opportunity. In recent times this has led to us setting up our own girl friendly stall, After Alice Ltd. An online toy shop specialising in ‘thoughtful gifts for thinking girls’. On this day, After Alice is still just a twinkle in my eye and we have the following conversation about what toy we might choose.

Me: “How about this Lego set for Emma?
Daughter (just 5 years): “That one’s for boys.” She picks up a Lego Friends set featuring predictably a bakery/beauty salon/hairdressers/riding stables and shows it to me, smiling her approval.
Me (persisting with my first suggestion): “But this one’s great. You get to build your own vehicle and then you can pretend to be a firefighter.”
Daughter: “But the firefighter is a boy.
Me: “One of them is, but this other one is a girl.”
Daughter: “Maybe…

With that word, I know the case for this particular toy is over. ‘Maybe’ in our household is a powerful word. It is what you say, instead of the more explosive ‘No’ when you need a little extra time to distract, prevent a tantrum, galvanize your argument and build your case. At the tender age of 5 my daughter is already a skilled linguist and arch negotiator.

Being placed in this position (arguing for Lego City over Lego Friends) I wonder for the umpteenth time why certain toy companies specialising in small world themes (that should appeal to all), develop separate boy and girl products, rather than providing one all encompassing single line and letting the child decide what bits they want to play with. I know the answer is probably money. Why have a red doctors kit that every child in the household could enjoy? Sell a pink and blue one and at least certain sections of your customer base will feel the need to shell out twice, depending on the gender of the child they are buying for. As soon as a toy company release a girl only range, as a parent interested in gender neutral toys, I feel I am fighting an uphill battle. The advertising works annoyingly well, and I can only watch in exasperation as I see my image conscious 5 year old refusing to consider products that I feel she may well love, purely on the basis of appearance, spin and successful advertising strategy.

So these Vikings of the toy industry give the whole world to the boys (albeit in my opinion), and just a little cutesy pastel suburb to the girls (Heartlake City, bleurgh!). The boys get to zoom into space and dive down deep to where the sharks lurk, and pretty much everything in between. The girls? Let’s see. They can visit a cupcake parlour, pizzeria, a beauty salon, hair salon and take care of pets. They are allowed to be vets and to ride horses. At Jungle falls they even get a chance to rescue a baby tiger. In a crazy bold move for hobbies they can practice karate and magic. But they are contained in their pretty, pastel-coloured little ghetto. A world of private jets, swimming pools, days at the beach or stays at the luxury hotel.

To me it feels, very WAG. The kind of lifestyle afforded to a certain sort of woman with a certain sort of means. With pleasure and leisure time rather than ambitions and a career. I understand not every parent is like me, and that there won’t be much demand for a lawyer’s office, architect firm, art gallery, and orchestra in Heartlake city (and even if there were, would my children want to play with them?) But couldn’t it be a centre for excellence in marine biology? Or animal conservation? Rather than just designing clothes, couldn’t the inhabitants design cityscapes, hospitals, parks? What if they don’t want to be a vet, a riding stables employee or a pop star? What if their appetite in play stretches beyond owning a cake shop or pizzeria?

Every so often there will be a flash of brilliance and I think Lego and I can be best buddies all over again. Recently my 7 year old was bought the Lego Friends Stargazing set — big hit with my space mad daughter. When I see something like the female scientists range, I get excited about our Lego future. That is until I try and buy the set, realise it has sold out and my only hope is paying above the odds on E-bay to a savvy 14 year old entrepreneur capitalising on my desperate need to own some girl power Lego.

I am not a marketing graduate, but why do the folks in charge at Lego not have the following conversation. “Gee. That Female Scientist range flew off the shelves. Folks really liked that concept. There is clearly a strong market for that kind of product. We could have sold a lot more if we had made more. Okay what shall we do next? Tell you what, Heartlake city doesn’t have a tanning parlour yet, or a nail bar.”

Hello?! Am I missing something here?

So Lego still feels like that ‘friend’ who is an arch manipulator. Able to judge when I am at my lowest ebb and just about to walk away, and then I am thrown a bone. Something juicy that makes it easy to forget the misdemeanors for a while. But that is not a true good honest friendship. Having to pick so carefully through the offerings to get great play opportunities that don’t restrict girls to a tiny cutesy town (it really isn’t a city). It is the kind of place that if you were born there, you couldn’t wait to grow up and move somewhere else. Somewhere you could breathe and be.

In my childhood memory, Lego used to get it so right. Bright primary colours. Girls and boys in the adverts. Back in the 70s they were a beacon of inclusion and a great imagination toy. There were ‘girl ranges’ (in 1971 ‘Homemaker’ was launched), but I was unaware of this plastic homage to all things domestic and suburban. As a child, Lego represented a huge freedom to play, invent and experiment. It was a vast plastic bucket into which every shape and colour of brick had been dumped, ready to be selected and built into whatever . . . I also remember that this was one of the few games I could play with my 3 boy cousins. It was one of those great toys that kept us all happy despite the difference in gender and age, time after time after time.

As an adult I see things differently. It is now all about the latest movie tie-in. The sets seem so prescriptive, with the detailed instructions of what and how to build. In response, I find myself obsessing about not losing a particular wheel, or face or door, otherwise I will never be able to rebuild Indiana’s jeep, or Harry’s castle.

That is not to say that within these clearly defined parameters, fun cannot be had. Despite my objections, I spent some very industrious happy days constructing the Lego Heartlake vet surgery with my child one Christmas. It took us several days to entirely complete; it was a large project with lots of detail. We finished it right down to the little tropical fish tank in the reception and the horse stable out back. She played Vets for a while across that period, but tellingly has never returned to it since. It would certainly not occur to her to break it all up and make something entirely different.

Surely, this carefully orchestrated way of playing encourages a different mind-set to the Lego free-for-all I experienced when young. A purist player who struggles to mix his Lego or go off plan. We have several Lego devoted playmates. One has his extensive collection of themed Lego carefully compartmentalised in clear Tupperware boxes. The idea of releasing it all onto the floor and making something improvised and new, is not part of his play scheme. My daughter made the mistake of trying to join in with him once, the result was a very stressful and limited afternoon. She ended up just watching him recreate the models as he saw fit, and staying on the sidelines, offering the odd, timid comment. Most days his play with my child is flexible, fun and free. This was just the result of anal Lego anxiety!

And the price!? You really don’t want to get me started on the price. Oh alright then. I understand the value of a brand, but really, come on people. The value Lego place on being a beloved trusted brand is staggeringly over-inflated. We can all estimate the production cost of any one of those kits. There is a reason that Lego is the worldwide number one producer of tyres. How many times have you innocently picked up an appealing looking Lego box, and just had to give it a little shake to check it is not actually empty. Then you look at the cost and laugh out loud at the sheer audacity someone high up the toy food chain has had. Forget Crystal champagne and Hollister, there is another way to spend a vast amount of money on staggeringly little.

Yet still the appeal lingers, even for a disenchanted consumer like myself. My Lego roots run deep. Just this Christmas there was a lovely Lego set being sold in Hamleys — enabling you to make colourful British birds — robins, blue-tits, robins. Just delightful. What a great idea and a perfect gift choice. The price for this smallish box was almost £60!!!!! Sometimes I wonder if Lego could rival gold on a weight basis. I imagine a post-apocalyptic world with a roaring black-market trade and the currency? You guessed it, a certain almost indestructible little colourful block. Vying with the cockroaches for longevity. Hence you buying Lego by the kilo on certain e-commerce marketplaces. Like it is some kind of precious spice. This is a small colour plastic block, not a life saving vaccine. I am agog at the greed and guile of whoever it was that turned this simple play accessory into something so lucrative.

But with that enormous hike in hype and price, something simple and beautiful has most definitely been lost. I find it hard to purchase a full price Lego set without feeling a bit of a chump. And the odd unexpected donated box from a friend or relative with older children feels like a real windfall. Especially as it often arrives in a jumbled wonderful mess of a box, without instructions and limitations. The retail cost of it makes me tempted to take a holiday to that Cornish coast where following the sinking of a Lego-filled container a few years back, the stuff floats in on the tide, ready to be beach-combed by whoever is there. I calculate that if we stayed long enough and collected enough booty we could be quids in, even after the travel costs across the width of our country to get there.

So where am I going with this? In my darker moments I feel the urge to become a guerrilla ninja Lego activist. To sneak into children’s bedrooms, classrooms and playrooms across the country and defiantly dump all the carefully organised Lego sets I find into one big gender friendly vat. A multi-coloured mixing pot without borders where you can rummage and create and step on the damn stuff to your hearts content. Cupcakes mingling with storm trooper helmets, baby pink roofing tiles tangled in tank tread links. Brothers next to sisters next to cousins, all up to their elbows in a joyful chaotic rainbow plastic sea. Let’s liberate Lego. And our children’s play.