Stage 2: Conflict Play and Masking
LEGO sets experienced a shift in the late 1980s and early 1990s toward conflict-based, highly male-focused narratives which correspond to Baudrillard’s second stage.5 They no longer directly represented reality, but rather only appeared to represent it and instead began to “mask and denature” that reality (around the same time that LEGO made the move from relatively gender neutral themes to a supposedly more ‘male’ building perspective). Where previously, sets provided minifigures with vehicles and buildings, but no clearly defined narrative, now they began to have implicit or strongly suggested functions and roles, clearly and primarily targeted toward boys.
Early LEGO police sets often consisted of minifigures with cruisers or police stations and little in the way of a suggested narrative or objective—what role the accompanying police minifigures played in one’s town was completely open—but newer police sets frequently included semi-trailers filled with elaborate surveillance equipment, and introduced an oppositional, conflict-based “cops and robbers” element, featuring masked thieves wearing prison stripes. Both the LEGO City Police Command Center and the Mobile Police mentioned previously include these elements. Furthermore, a police officer in a LEGO set from the 1980s could easily represent an actual police officer interacting with community members, and the basic smiley faces did not necessarily depict a particular gender. In more recent sets like the Swamp Police Station (set #60069) from 2015, they are portrayed almost entirely as gendered (male minifigures have stubble, female minifigures have long eyelashes and lipstick) agents of control, primarily concerned with arresting striped-shirt-wearing rings of thieves, whether in a city, forest, or swamp, and bringing them to jail— apparently without ever seeing a courthouse.
This last point is relevant to Baudrillard. Previously, sets were not presented as being somehow representative of actual urban settings, but instead served as little slices of life in no way meant to be comprehensive. This paradoxically allowed them to be more representative of reality, because any particular build did not allege to depict any more than one small element of our reality. A police car does not preclude courthouses from existing, but they are in no way a necessary part of the world of these minifigures. But having convicts wearing prison stripes means there is necessarily a justice system. To have police chasing criminals wearing outfits associated with prison, but to represent none of the legal mechanisms that send those criminals to prison, renders the legal and penal system invisible, or at least makes it appear unimportant. (The only judge released so far, wearing a powdered wig in the English style, came in the collectible minifigure line and not an actual city set.) This is very much part of how Baudrillard claimed images appear to be realistic while actually distorting the way we perceive reality. The same can be said for the increasingly gendered nature of both minifigures and LEGO marketing.
This is not to claim that these police minifigures were not still open to the same range of interpretation as before. In fact, that is also part of Baudrillard’s second stage: representation of the real world as it actually exists is still possible, and this possibility makes it difficult for us to see the multitude of ways in which the narratives offered to us have broken with the real world. Because we can still use images or symbols, including LEGO builds, to represent reality as it actually exists, we may not notice that this seems to be happening with less frequency, and that official LEGO sets (and, presumably, MOCs made by recipients of those sets) are encouraging a view of the world in which some aspects of reality are emphasized while other parts of equal or greater importance are rendered absent or otherwise inconsequential.