The little girl from the 1981 LEGO ad is all grown up and she’s got something to say #WomenInSTEM
This fascinating article delves into the modern world of toy marketing for children and the gender stereotypes that accompany it. Super interesting and definitely worth a read! Via women you should know.
By Lori Day – In mid-January, this article on The Huffington Post hit my Facebook newsfeed like a Justin Bieber deportation petition—it was everywhere. In it, HuffPost Family News Editor Jessica Samakow writes:
Pay attention, 2014 Mad Men: This little girl is holding a LEGO set. The LEGOs are not pink or “made for girls.” She isn’t even wearing pink. The copy is about “younger children” who “build for fun.” Not just “girls” who build. ALL KIDS. In an age when little girls and boys are treated as though they are two entirely different species by toy marketers, this 1981 ad for LEGO — one of our favorite images ever — issues an important reminder.
Something about this piece with the iconic 1981 ad tapped the zeitgeist and it became one of HuffPo’s more viral articles in recent memory, receiving over 60,000 shares. And along the way, the small world of Facebook led to a comment thread on my wall where someone, upon seeing the little red-haired girl holding her LEGOs, wrote, “Hey, I know her!” And now I do too, because that’s the serendipity of social media. Her name is Rachel Giordano, she is 37 years old, and she’s a practicing naturopathic doctor in Seattle, Washington. Giordano agreed to talk to me about her childhood and the ad, and to pose for a new Then & Now photo meme, which you see above in the lead image.
As I was planning my interview with Rachel Giordano, I saw this blog post by Achilles Effect, and knew immediately what Giordano should be holding in the new version of the photo. Enter the Heartlake City rolling beauty salon TV news van, one of the latest additions to the LEGO Friends line. Advertising copy lets us know what being a news anchor involves for minifig Emma:
“Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van! Find the cake and film it with the camera and then climb into the editing suite and get it ready for broadcast. Get Emma ready at the makeup table so she looks her best for the camera. Sit her at the news desk as Andrew films her talking about the cake story and then present the weather to the viewers.”
Cake? Seriously? And what-the-what is that when you look inside the news van? Where is the equipment? Is it behind the gigantic makeup vanity?
As Achilles Effect blogger Crystal Smith notes, “This toy had so much potential to inspire young girls who think journalism would be a cool career. Instead, they get the same message delivered just about everywhere else in the culture that surrounds them: look pretty and smile for the camera.”
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Here’s what Lori Day, Achilles Effect and all the other critics have wrong about LEGO Friends: it’s not a sinister plot to send all our daughters back to the 1950s. It’s simply an attempt to serve a particular segment of the market that happens to want different LEGO.
When a company comes out with a product that seems aimed at girls with pink or pastel colors, or featuring makeup and cooking, everyone jumps to the conclusion that the manufacturer is trying to enforce traditional stereotypes. Instead, those conclusions just expose the critics’ own sexism. No one is saying that girls can’t choose the Technic earthmoving equipment sets or the F1 race cars. LEGO is just saying that for those kids (and adults) who want other choices, they have provided them.
I’m a 51 year old mother and when I was a child I preferred toys like cap guns and LEGO. I now have a teenage son and teenage daughter and I’ve always allowed them to choose the toys that they feel drawn to. Sure, part of that is marketing and part of that is their own exploration of gender identity, but kids have to work through that on their own, ideally with neutral guidance from their parents. My daughter has gone through pink phases and also no-dresses phases. She has collected the Creator construction sets and now builds her own electronic Adafruit kits. She also likes makeup. Throughout all this she has been a fan of Hello Kitty. It would be equally wrong for me to steer her away from HK because it is feminine as it would be to steer her toward it for the same reason.
Choice is good. More choices does not mean that a manufacturer is passing judgment on what gender identities their customers should have. LEGO just wants to sell more LEGO, and some girls really do prefer pink and lime green and purple. Some boys do, too. So let’s get off our high horse and do some parenting rather than projecting our own biases and blaming everything on marketing. If your child wants the Heartlake News Van, maybe have a discussion on what being a journalist is, and if you’re being really honest, that TV news has everything to do with looks and presentation and stories about cakes, and very little to do with journalism. If your child doesn’t want the Friends set, guess what? This is a free country. Buy the LOTR Battle at Helm’s Deep that she really wants.