Ever since I stepped into the Lego gender war by openly admitting my love for the Friends line of products and embracing those elements in my own builds, I’ve been fascinated by the controversy these little bricks have engendered. I spend an inordinate amount of time reading articles about the pink ghetto and the unequal treatment of girls by toymakers. While I think there is some truth to some of the claims, I also think that much of it is overhyped.
Primarily because it is true that girls and boys play differently. They just do. And whether toys are “pink” or not isn’t going to change that. You can’t force all girls to play like boys and vice versa. All you can really do is allow kids to play with what interests them at a given moment. Maybe today it’s princesses. Tomorrow it might be trucks. Kids are fluid in their interests and unless the adults in their lives are making a big deal about, “You can’t/shouldn’t play with that,” most aren’t going to internalize anything about gender from their toys.
(I grew up having my Star Wars action figures traveling in the Barbie camper. And a whole bunch of other toy mash-up weirdness, none of which impacted my sense of self or gender identity one iota.)
But so many people are hell bent on pushing this pink ghetto thing that I think they’re beginning to skew not only how kids view themselves, but the “standards” to which we expect them to adhere.
One day, in my reading up on the Lego Friends argument, I came across a picture on the internet that apparently vent viral a few years ago. It was of a robot that a girl made out of a Friends set. Instead of building the Friends’ juice bar, she built a robot. While I personally think it’s cool, a lot of the articles surrounding this picture make this girl seem like the savior or spokesperson for girls everywhere. “Look, she built a robot! All girls should be this brave or cool! They should all shun the girly toys and make them into boyish things.”
What they should have said is, “Here’s a girl who used her creativity to think outside the box and build something she liked. All kids should use their creativity.” Instead the implication is that this is only cool because it’s a robot, traditionally a “boyish toy” and viewed as a pathway to geekdom and a future STEM career. This is apparently what all little girls should aspire to these days, otherwise they’re going to end up oppressed and working for a sexually harassing boss.
Here’s the thing, though. Not every girl aspires to build robots. Some do, sure, and good for them. But some aspire to build — gasp — juice bars. Or beauty salons. Or pony farms. What makes one girl super cool and the others somehow failures? Everyone has things they like and things they don’t like. People aspire to different things. I wanted to be a writer. My best friend wanted to be a hairdresser. Another wanted to work in computers. Guess what? We’re all valid people performing services needed by society.
If the girl who built the robot wants to go into a STEM field, then great. If she wants to pursue a lifetime of geeky hobbies involving wizards, robots, and science fiction, then have fun. But that doesn’t make the girl who wants to pursue a lifetime of cutting hair, running a juice bar, doing makeup on movie sets, or staying home with kids any less worthy of our praise and encouragement.
Sometimes I think we take this focus on the pink ghetto of toys too far. The message we’re sometimes sending out is, “It’s not okay to like anything girly.” (And that goes double for boys who might like to buy something off the “pink aisle.” “You can’t buy that, it’s for girls,” is just as damaging as, “You can’t buy that, it feeds into the oppression of women.”)
And if a girl does buy or receive anything girly, the only acceptable action is to somehow turn it into a geeky, boyish (or at least neutral) thing. If you play with it in girl mode, you’re going to doom yourself to a lifetime of working at Starbucks or cutting hair for a living. Neither of which, by the way, are bad ways to spend a life. The world needs its hair cut and its coffee. If those are things that make someone happy, then let them pursue them.
And you never know… The girl who builds the juice bar and the hair salon might not end up becoming anything to do with those buildings. She might grow up to be the one who designs the building, or works on the construction crew that builds it. She might be so enamored with Lego that she grows up to work for Lego, designing sets for future generations. Or, she becomes a world famous pastry chef whose creations are sold in juice bars around the world. You never know and if you shut down a kid’s interest in something because of your fear of the pink ghetto, for sure your kid will never have the chance to find out, either.
My point is that we shouldn’t celebrate just the kids who break barriers with their toys. Turning a “girl” toy into a “boy” toy is no more celebration-worthy than playing with the toy in a typical “girly” manner. Let kids be kids and let them play how they want. Not everyone wants to grow up to be a robot building geek, and they shouldn’t have to feel like they do in order to make their lives worthwhile.