Last Christmas, while preparing for a family gathering, I continued the long and arduous process of ensuring every child in my extended family is raised exactly the way I was: surrounded by an inexhaustible supply of Legos.
The children had aged a lot since I first began my endeavor to produce clones of myself. I had already upgraded them from the larger, colorful blocks to the more advanced models and it was getting time to take that next step into functional things with working mechanical parts. For the boys, this was easy: there was no shortage of complex machines with a variety of versatile pieces, marketed to look more action-packed and enticing than a backhoe has any right to be. For the girls, though, I was faced with a different problem entirely.
On one hand, I didn’t want to have the little girls open their presents and think I had accidentally given them something meant for their brother. It’s bad enough that I had forgotten all these children’s names and solely referred to them by their height and hair color; I didn’t want to make it look like I had forgotten their genders too. Not to mention if they just ended up trading the presents to a sibling, I would have failed in my attempt to create clones of myself.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to enforce gender roles on these small children. If you look at the Lego products that are marketed toward girls, they’re not very… Lego. They have a strong focus on characters and accessories, and any actual building is typically limited to very simple tables, countertops, and other elements of interior decorating. Something with building versatility or actual mechanical functions was completely out of the question - the closest you got was this “inventor workshop” that was ultiimately little more than a doll representing the concept of invention.
How do the chemical vials and microscope relate to her mechanical work? Who knows. The math on the chalkboard isn’t even actual math; it’s just “A+D = C”. It’s the concept of algebra. This might be more excusable if it wasn’t coming from Lego; while boys are marketed actual robotics kits, girls are effectively marketed a toy of a toy.
I was raised pretty gender-neutral. My parents got me Polly Pockets and stuff right alongisde my action figures, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about that implicit divide between “girl activities” and “boy activities”. I didn’t want to start pushing these kids into strict gender roles just by trying to get them a gift that was clearly for them, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
So, I consulted a Lego Store employee on the matter.
She suggested I get something gender neutral for the girls. While everything mechanical and functional was very explicitly marketed toward boys, she pointed out to me that their Creator line was much more neutral. It had the pieces to build colorful houses and animals and stuff. If the girls liked it, maybe they’d eventually move on to the more advanced things in spite of the masculine marketing. That’s what she did.
I wasn’t entirely happy with it, but it was the best I had. I went with some gender-neutral-yet-overly-childish-looking animal-building kits for the girls, and some running cars and machinery for the boys. The presents went over well; as usual I was totally the cool relative who made everyone else’s presents look lame. The experience was something that stuck with me, though. It was the first time I really came face-to-face with this curious absence not just in Lego’s product line, but in the market in general.
Lego makes no pink gears.
I mean, yeah, sure, girls don’t have to like pink things. They’re allowed to shop in the whole toy store, not just the Fabled Pink Aisle, and there are plenty of gray and black gears out there should they choose to play with them. But why is there this necessity to sideline femininity if you want to explore these things?
I read an interesting piece recently by a game writer who made the rather poignant statement that sexism comes at her from two directions: in the male-dominated technology field she was expected to pretend to be “one of the guys”, while in the female-dominated publishing field she was expected to be a “proper woman”. I think this highlights the important point: sexism does not favor men or women, but dichotomy - the real losers being the stereotype-breaking people whose interests don’t cleanly fall into either the male/female category. We don’t do much to recognize those who straddle the divide, and this means we get no pink gears.
This is pretty silly, though. There is nothing explicitly masculine about engineering or robotics. In fact, it has some very traditionally feminine elements that I think you could play up into a brilliant marketing angle. Machines can be delicate, intricate, and beautiful. An action-packed piece of boxart showing a fast car skidding across a muddy highway is just as representative of mechanical creation as an elaborate piece of clockwork.
In fact, watch, I’ll come up with a Lego product line right now:
On the low-price end, I went for a hummingbird. I figure it’d come with alt instructions to rebuild it into a dragonfly or butterfly or something, and basically be playing up this idea of turning circular motion from a crank into up-and-down motion to animate wing flapping. Maybe it could even make that conversion twice: a cable going up the stalk being pulled back and forth would be converted back into gear rotation, which would then power the wing flapping. It’d entail enough small parts that you could make some cool stuff with it.
On the mid-tier, I went for a kitten. I figure it’d be built around a pouncing function, its associated muscles rigged up with rubber bands. You could wind it up (maybe an excuse to use a worm screw?) and then hit its tail or something and it could probably clear at least three feet of air. Throw in some alt instructions for a turtle or something that can use the same spring principles for a wind up engine that makes it turtleflop across the ground.
For the highest priced bit, I’d go for a panther. Swap in green gears for pink to make it more special, have lots of sparkly green parts to accent the black. I’m envisioning this being motorized - large felines have a very iconic walk cycle, and I think the right parts could simulate it pretty well. Heck, depending how good its designer is maybe you could even have a secondary motor that will bend its midsection and shift its weight to the side so you can actually steer its movement. Alt instructions would probably be a dolphin or something; instead of a walk cycle it’d just be on wheels and animate its fin/tail movement.
You could market these things in an extremely feminine way. Like, go full Lisa Frank on the fucking box art. They’re pretty and they play up an angle to robotics and creation you don’t see in toys much. And not just that, but it goes all the way up - it’s not just some gateway drug to get girls to buy the trucks and racecars, but rather a whole line of robotics that plays up traditionally feminine elements. Girls could buy it without feeling like they’re sacrificing their femininity to experiment with these interests. Boys would uncomfortably buy it and defend its awesomeness to their friends. It would make so much money.
Companies are apparently afraid of money, though, since this hasn’t happened yet. Well, maybe the truth is a little more complicated than that.
I frequently refer to myself as an Overglorified Fanfiction Author because it’s funny. There’s a lot of humor in the fact that I’m best known for writing a story based off an eight-year-old video game, and calling it “fanfiction” highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the entire situation. When you get down to the specifics, however, the stuff I write isn’t fanfiction - it’s parody.
The distinction is an important one that a lot of people miss when they try to undertake similar projects. There are tons of people who try to do Elder Scrolls-inspired stories that very accurately or realistically chronicle their experiences in the game, yet such stories quickly fade out of existence without you ever hearing about them. Sometimes it’s even by people who really love the source material, but they’re simply not saying anything about it. You saw the same phenomenon in the Homestuck fandom at its apex: hundreds of people coming up with their own “Sburb Groups” of internet friends and chronicling their adventures into the Medium. They saw a formula that worked, and they struck out to imitate it.
I think this is sort of the same mentality that drives gendered marketing. People know it works - products that hit every stereotype of masculinity have an audience among men, and products that hit every stereotype of femininity have an audience among women. So, creators make fanfiction that tries to capitalize off these successes, showing reverent respect and homage toward the companies that have sold better than them.
And you rarely see that proper sense of parody toward these things. Like, you don’t see that drive that makes a creator simultaneously imitate and attack something. It’s baffling, because when this does happen it’s often wildly successful. Who would’ve thought to take the traditionally masculine concept of monsters and zombies and build a line of fashion dolls around it? Who would’ve thought to build a setting and adventure cartoon around traditionally feminine palettes and iconigraphy? These are ideas of parody - attacking the problems or monotony of a concept while simultaneously paying it homage, and it’s something that can generally only be created through a conscious effort to do just that.
People who just try to ignore gender stereotypes alltogether often fall into them anyway. Like a fantasy author who insists his story isn’t just Star Wars with dragons, people tell themselves that they’re not going to play their work into gendered stereotypes, but then do it anyway simply because they’ve come to view it as how things work. To make things worse, they don’t even call the resultant work “masculine” or “feminine” - they play into the stereotypes exactly but give it names like “serious”, or “pro-social”. In an attempt to be progressive with their language, they make an implicit statement that women are frivolous and men are antisocial.
It’s something I think you can only really circumvent through intentional parody. You need to find that middleground that sexism attacks and openly start dancing around in it. Mock the work of others; acknowledge the established rules and violate them anyway. You need to be a beacon or weirdness that spurs other people to stand along with you, until in time you have created a bastion where your unconventional tastes are Just Plain Okay.
You don’t defeat ideas by criticizing them. You defeat them by outcompeting them.
Far too few people recognize that criticism is a means to an end: you isolate the problems with something so that you can eventually render it powerless or irrelevant.
As I established at the beginning, Lego’s approach to gendered marketing left me without a satisfactory solution in my attempts to build a clone army. I’m probably not the only one who feels this way. There is an untapped money mine here while creators continue to pick away at the long-hollow ridges at each end of the gender spectrum.
This isn’t just something that affects big companies. If you’re a creator, stop making fanfiction and start making parody. Be honest with yourself - no matter how original you think your work is, you’re paying homage to something you like. Recognize this, and poke a little fun at it instead. Address your biggest criticism. Combine it with something else you like. Do something no one else would ever think of doing. Don’t think it will work? Well it’ll definitely work better than a straight-up rehash of something else.
The worst thing you can do is nothing new. Remember that the next time you make your gears gray.