Pink Bricks, Ponies and Free Play

Our article on the politics of pink and pastel Lego for girls provoked furious debate on our Twitter and Facebook accounts last week.

Writer, philosopher and dad Damon Young, one of those who spoke to the Wheeler Centre for last week’s article, shares his thoughts on why pink bricks and ponies may be dodgy, but can be subverted by savvy parents for imaginative free play.

I’ve been playing with Lego for over thirty years. First, as a kid, now as a dad. Over the decades, Lego’s become more ‘boyish’: less smiling minifigures in space-suits, and more snarling villains, stubbled heroes and licensed film tie-ins. More guns, tanks, missiles, fast cars and so on.

Girls can play with all of this, of course – my daughter does. But they often don’t, because they’re taught that girls like pink, flowers, horses, fairies, nail salons, cafe chats and so on. Play is gendered very quickly.

From what I can tell, Lego was once gender-neutral, then ‘boyed’ itself to get market share. If boys like cops and robbers and Star Wars starfighters, then Lego would have them. Bam. Sales skyrocket.

Many girls responded to this typically: it’s not for us.

Having gained a foothold with the boy-branded toys, Lego can now brand with girl toys: hyper-feminised minifigures who like to chat with girlfriends at the cafe before hitting the beauty salon, for example. Not an alien or grave-robbing archaeologist in sight.

‘Knee-jerk sex divisions are dodgy’

Now, is this a problem? Yes, because more knee-jerk sex divisions are dodgy. They uphold traditional ideas about gender roles: girls talk and worry about beauty, while boys fight, die and save princesses. The problem is not necessarily the gender traits: as if one has more value than the other. The problem is that we grow up thinking that they’re ‘natural’; that our education, professional and domestic lives can be no other way. This is what so many toys do: they’re typically conservative, because they recognise and reinforce the easy market categories that already exist, such as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.

But this is not the end of the story. Together with the media, family life, schooling and employment, toys clearly help to shape our gender identities. But there is no evidence for a straightforward causal relationship between ‘X toy’ and ‘X personality’. Plenty of independent, smart, well-educated, strong women played with Barbie, My Little Pony or Cabbage Patch dolls – I’m married to one of them. She did not simply play out the Barbie fantasy: the dolls were taken from their Valley Girl fantasy-land and given new identities and plots. And regularly taken apart.

The magic of free play

Lego is perfect for this. Much of the magic with Lego happens, not with the off-the-shelf play – although it’s clearly good for concentration and motor skills – but with the later free play. All the bits go back into the bags and boxes, and are transformed into new characters, vehicles, buildings. My son’s space police starships and fire stations became a library, a museum, a house, a cafe, and a hundred other things with wheels, walls and sometimes guns.

My hope is that the girl-branded Lego can be used in this way. With good encouragement from parents, girls need not be stuck with traditional feminine characters and scenes. If pink bricks or ponies are first step, they are not necessarily the end of the road.

Parents can provide primary colour bricks alongside the pinks and purples. They can prompt children to remake their cafe or salon, rather than keeping them pristine on the shelf.

If a family genuinely cares about gender equity, and provides a home life of robust respect and reflection, Lego play – regardless of its colour – will reflect this.

If you’re a fan of imaginative free play for kids, you’ll love our Children’s Book Festival, held in conjunction with the State Library of Victoria.

The festival includes workshops, activities, book signings, face painting, petting zoo and more. guests Guests will include Graeme Base, Leigh Hobbs, Hazel Edwards, Andy Griffiths and Sally Rippin.

The Children’s Book Festival is held on the State Library lawns (with plenty of indoor activities, too) from 10am to 4pm on Sunday 25 March, this weekend.

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