Friday, January 9, 2015

The Trouble With Legos

I encountered a fine interview with Maritsa Patrinos at the blog of Dr. Rebecca Hains over a charming and arresting comic Patrinos published earlier in the week about how Lego didn't need to manufacture a separate girl-themed line of products, but rather integrate female characters as options within the individual sets. That this plain and common-sense approach might work perfectly is in fact almost as old as Lego itself, as a recently resurfaced note that came with early sets attests. This is not a company that has given no thought to the matter, or came to it only recently. Here's the part I want to focus on (emboldened text in the responses are all my doing):
REBECCA HAINS: Your LEGO Friends cartoon has clearly struck a chord with people, and as someone who does work in this area, it’s been really gratifying to me as a bystander to see your piece go viral—as of this writing, it’s been reached by 106,304 people from my facebook page alone. The traction it has gained is really impressive. Can you tell me what inspired you to create this cartoon?
MARITSA PATRINOS: Thank you! This past week has certainly been a surprise! I definitely don’t consider myself an expert on anything regarding gender roles or LEGO. I can only speak for myself, someone who started playing with LEGO as a girl in the 90’s (and still plays with them now… I just bought a minecraft set…). 
But I made this comic after I saw the short documentary Inside Lego. It was very informative, but the last stretch of it highlighted the “Friends” line and I was a little surprised. I had thought LEGO was a company that prided itself with being a unisex toy, so it seemed strange that now they would create a line targeted towards just girls. I actually don’t have a problem with the content—I know there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing with juice bars or shopping malls. I just don’t know if those things should be associated with gender. I thought about the girls who don’t like those things, and the boys who do like those things, and wondered if they felt alienated at all. 
I’m sure LEGO’s heart was in the right place and I’m sure they’ve done tons of research to pick their content. But when I saw the men in this documentary talk about how to connect with girls, it sounded a little like they were trying to decipher how to make contact with an alien species.
I am very much inclined to agree with that last sentence; as I have said before, the opposite sex lives in a foreign land (and that, by the way, goes both ways). Finding out what might please them, and in this case, get them (or their parents) to buy things is an even more delicate business, one that should give people more appreciation for the likes of Maksymilian Faktorowicz.

But Patrinos does not get to speak for all girls, and while her cartoon has garnered much attention, neither she nor Dr. Hains have presumably any actual market research backing their preferences, and, unlike Lego, they have no skin in the game. Hains' outlined prescription in her book, The Princess Problem, sounds like one part sensible critical thinking skills (people who want to sell you things don't always have your interests at heart) and two parts feminist indoctrination (must resist pink things).

The idea that girls might not make choices preferred by people such as Hains is ultimately very difficult to escape at the far end of the STEM pipeline. Anita Sarkeesian appears to have succeeded in bullying Intel into a renewed jab at the Sisyphean rock, as the New York Times reported they are about to spend $300 million on improving "diversity" within the company in the wake of the stupidly named GamerGate. I take this to mean ad campaigns to improve their public image, and a few efforts here and there to get more girls into STEM careers. It's enough to make one pine for the days of Cypress Semiconductor's T.J. Rogers, and his blunt letter to meddling nuns about the consequences of hiring on anything other than merit. It's important to remove structural impediments to women entering those careers, but it's also important to recognize that attempts to pink-ify the sciences in an effort to attract more women are also demeaning. If girl-Legos are broken and miss the point of Legos overall, then so are Intel's efforts.

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