Is LEGO Playing with Stereotypes?

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,”12 writes Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) in what has become one of the most influential books in feminist philosophy, The Second Sex. She goes on to explain that “representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.” If gender roles seem deeply entrenched, this is because they are—not by nature, but by society enforcing them since hundreds of years.

Many modern feminists follow Beauvoir’s general approach and support their arguments with findings from social psychology. There is strong evidence that two psychological effects that we are largely unaware of—even girls and women themselves—impede women’s progress in society. They are called implicit bias and stereotype threat.13 Implicit bias often rests on what psychologists call schemas: a simplified representation of a kind or type that unconsciously organizes our beliefs about that kind, and which guides our expectations and predictions. For instance, a child learns how dogs look and behave from a picture book and then applies this dog-schema to the real-life dogs she sees. If there is no contrary information, she will assume that dogs will behave similarly to her dog-schema. Similarly, if your son or daughter has been invited to a birthday party and you don’t know more about the birthday child than that she is a girl, you might buy a set from the LEGO Friends theme (or you might not, if you read to the end this chapter).

Using schemas is not always problematic. They are pulled out when certain stimuli require us to react quickly. When it comes to gender, however, schemas may become harmful. Experiments indicate that most people—even those who are sincerely committed to anti-discrimination—unconsciously and unintentionally hold negative biases against various groups including black people, women, and LGBT persons. In the case of gender, these biases manifest by associating certain skills or activities with the male or the female—and by evaluating the female more negatively with respect to certain skills. For instance, the same resume is rated more highly when it has a male (white) name on it than a female one. This happens in particular when the job requires stereotypically male qualities such as being assertive, having mathematical knowledge, or fulfilling a leadership position.14

In her book The Delusion of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine surveys a large number of studies from social science and neuroscience to illustrate the firm roots of implicit bias in the unconscious.15 Parents are no less prone to these effects. In an illustrative example, Fine describes a study in which mothers were asked to estimate how far and steep their babies can climb. Even though there was no difference in the crawling abilities of the babies, male babies were rated significantly better than female ones.16

When it comes to traditional male activities and skills, stereotype threat is a huge risk. Individuals are stereotyped as poor performers in a domain that is viewed as less suitable for them. The performance of persons subject to this sort of bias may seem to confirm this stereotype, because they adjust to expectations—or their performance is rated differently. For instance, in basketball, white men are often judged to be worse than their black counterparts even when they score the same number of points (this is one of the few occasions where white men face stereotype threat). In the case of girls, this stereotyping may be well hidden or even disguised as praise for ladylikeness.

The LEGO Friends are not an oppressed, miserable bunch. They have a lot of fun, and they run their own businesses. They also have close circles of female friends and some male spouses. Like popular “chick-lit” and fashion magazines for the modern woman, the Friends sets seem to celebrate female qualities and the differences between men and women. They claim that there is a particular female domain in life—and in play. But what they actually do is segregate the female world from the male world: the male world is where the things that really matter in society happen, and where the real knowledge and ability is found—like mathematics, construction, and leadership. As Charlotte so well described, the LEGO Friends girls are not the ones who go on adventures, fight dragons, or rescue people from fires.

In the themes that LEGO has introduced during the last two decades, stereotypical male activities and objects prevail. For instance, about twenty years ago, the Star Wars® license deal lead to the introduction of guns and combat machines into the world of LEGO. This is remarkable, because LEGO had always refused to produce any kind of military themes. Arguably, the Star Wars theme itself implies some form of violence and aggression that has been hitherto absent in classic LEGO. Aside from the Star Wars sets, the most popular characters are ninjas, firefighters, and knights.

Even though LEGO still refuses to do anything explicitly militarily related, their toys have become more gender stereotyped, because LEGO has changed the ways to play with their products. LEGO thus also strongly guides boys’ ideas on what is typically male. This discriminates against boys who are not interested in these activities (and who are, as it is often said in a derogatory tone, into the “girly” stuff). Boys who learn via playing with LEGO how boys and men should stereotypically behave miss out on exploring other ways to play and learn. For instance, psychologist Christia Spears Brown points out that playing with dolls teaches kids valuable skills like empathy.17 So, come to think of it, LEGO is not a boy’s friend either.

Still, for girls, there is another negative effect. Girls and women cannot bridge the gap by acting more “male.” If a woman acts confident and, even worse, is comfortable with power, she runs the risk of being called “cold,” “iron,” or “dramatic.” We speak of “tomboys” or “bitches.” Men and boys, on the other hand, are perceived as strong, confident, and assertive if they display the same qualities and attitudes. Hence, social psychology presents us with pretty hard evidence that people still have some simplistic biases lingering in the deep dungeons of their minds.

These unconscious effects are harder to criticize than explicit discrimination, because very often the people involved think that they make judgments on a neutral basis such as competence and performance alone. However, addressing the phenomena of implicit bias and stereotype threat may help us in pointing out that more is going on below the surface of our (allegedly) rational deliberation. It also shows that the social barriers for women have not vanished, but just have become more invisible—like the infamous glass ceiling in the workplace.18

If we, as adults, are victims of these effects, how could children, whose minds are highly prone to social learning, elude these biases? Children mimic the behaviors, attitudes, and habits of those around them. Between the ages of three and five, gender becomes very important to children, while before that time they show no gender preferences. When children see clearly divided aisles with gender cues like pink or blue toys, they pay careful attention and thus learn what is expected of them.19 Their brains are like sponges primed to absorb information from their surroundings, so that they can act like their role models (usually their parents). Brown and Fine argue that this applies especially to body language and the implicit attitudes we display. The proverb “do as I say, not as I do” could not be more inefficient then.

Let’s say a girl’s parents clothe her in girly colors, talk more about emotions to her than to her brother, and give her LEGO Friends to play with. The girls in the sets are pursuing what we have identified as classic female activities. The contrast is sharp when compared to the more recent LEGO themes, which, even if they are intended for both genders, are primarily marketed to boys. For instance, in LEGO’s catalogue the non-Friends themes are usually illustrated with boys. Would a little girl think that her parents and LEGO are wrong? Especially if almost of all of the people around her confirm what she sees?

So, there is some solid evidence that LEGO Friends is supporting and expressing implicit biases and stereotypes associated with gender, and that both boys and girls will take up these attitudes as they play. LEGO Friends is one small, but noticeable building block (or brick) in the construction of society that still has massive inbuilt stereotypes. It’s not merely a harmless children’s toy. Still, does this mean that LEGO should change their themes? Should we throw away our Friends?

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