So on recommendation from many people in our cohort, I went and saw the Lego Movie this past weekend. I really enjoyed the movie, but I couldn’t help but observe that the very idea of the Lego Movie itself represents a form of commodified imagination. Almost all of the other franchises referenced in the movie: Batman, The Avengers, Harry Potter, are represented as Lego sets you can buy commercially. And one can almost certainly correlate Lego’s continued success with its ever-increasing line of playsets, particularly as they have been able to leverage movie tie-ins and popular culture. This expansion has also moved into mediums beyond the toys themselves, into the popular Lego video game series and yes, even the Lego movie (which already has a sequel planned for May of next year).
In addition, with this commodification comes new cultural implications for play, particularly for young children. For the past few years, Lego, like many other toy companies, have been struggling with “capturing” the girls toy market. A recent resurfacing of a popular 1980s ad has been making the rounds online:
Notice the gender-neutral approach to body copy of the ad, the colors of the pieces, and even subtly suggested in the attire of the little girl represented. Why is this relevant? Well, one writer for a progressive women’s blog tracked down the original girl in the ad, Rachel Giordano, and asked her to recreate it for the modern age, with a modern Lego set “targeted” for girls:
The set pictured with Ms. Giordano, The Heartlake News Van, is described as follows:
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.
While I’m certainly not qualified to speak about feminism in any sort of depth, it seems to me that there is a clear gender binary inherent in this set; one that not only attempts to reinforce stereotypical gender roles, but also commodifies that binary in the Lego “set” itself. Ms. Giordano also seems to be uncomfortable with this particular “evolution” of the sets:
LEGOs [in 1981] were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.
I’d be interested in hearing from others who are more informed in this regard as to the “message” that is being conveyed, the critical approach could be beneficial here.
Does this mean that Lego has abandoned its own message professed in the movie: that master builders are the true “heros,” reappropriating collections into their own unique creations? I think even Lego as a company is at odds here: the main character, Emmet, undergoes a series of oscillations of character: from mere conformist, to amateur builder, to teaching others the value of following instructions, to appropriation and improvisation by the end of the movie. I feel that it is representative of the companies’ own feelings towards their product: as a catalyst for creativity, but also as a Business. I feel that it’s not all doom and gloom, however: these other recent ads from Lego show that there is still hope for imagination and wonder.