LEGO Fusion: A new brick in the gender divide

LEGO’s new Fusion line may meld real & digital worlds, but it still divides our boys & girls.

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A LEGO ‘Universal Building Set’ ad from 1982, depicting a boy and girl playing together with the same LEGO. Crazy.

I had high hopes when I was alerted to ‘LEGO Fusion’. It was the word ‘fusion’, the combining of two distinct entities into one, that piqued my interest.

LEGO have rightly had a lot of flack for creating and marketing their product separately to boys and girls in recent years, especially given their history of previously being a universal toy. So would this new fusion line finally reunify the divided markets and be aimed at both?

The word fusion also brings to mind various scientific processes and ideas, most notably nuclear fusion. Could this be a line linked specifically to STEM fields, in which female inclusion and engagement remains an ongoing issue.

Don’t be silly.

Turns out the ‘fusion’ aspect is the connection of physical building with virtual construction, in the form of smartphone & tablet apps and associated physical sets. The virtual aspect appears to be inspired partly by The Sims and Civilisation – but mostly by Minecraft, the open world virtual brick building phenomenon. LEGO have stated that they wish they had invented Minecraft. In fact, it was created by a games designer from the Danish toymaker’s Nordic neighbour Sweden. Minecraft also has a large number of female enthusiasts (though evidence suggests they may often not admit to being female, given how women are often treated in online & gaming circles – but that’s another issue!).

So LEGO Fusion may not be the revolutionary science based line I imagined (I actually have no idea what that could be, but I was waiting to be dazzled), but still – it’s an innovation for the company to move its core product – bricks – into virtual space. Good for them. And it’s a concept clearly able to be enjoyed by boys and girls.

But then I saw this promotional video for it. It effectively conveys the blending of virtual and actual space, focusing on a child exploring the worlds that the line consists of.

First there’s Town Master, where you get to be a town planner/ruler. That’s followed by Battle Towers, a virtual war space where your constructed ‘Battle Tower’ has to fend off an enemy invasion. Then there’s Create & Race, where you build cars and race them. As ideas, they all look and sound pretty cool. But, there’s something important missing from the marketing hyperbole. Girls.

And then it happens.

Two girls are shown playing on the other side of the table from the boy. What are they doing – planning a town? Creating a battle tower? Engineering their own race car?

Nope.

The girls have their own app and set, within the gender ghetto of the LEGO Friends line. And what do the girls get to create in their fusion space? Their line is called Resort Designer, and they have to create… a dream beach resort.

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In LEGO Fusion, boys build towns and engineer machines, while girls get to build… a resort

So rather than fusion, we have division & limitation. Physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster Dr. Helen Czerski memorably responded on Twitter to the LEGO Fusion ad with “Ick”.

Dr. Czerski continued “Obviously, all girls are interested in is holiday resorts, while boys get on with building our cities.”

The whole reason advertising exists is that it works. If it can persuade us to part with our cash for a product, then it stands to reason that the reality it depicts is also convincing.

There’s nothing stopping you – or I – from countering these messages ourselves to our kids, but we’ll never be able to fend them off entirely. The seed will be planted, that will potentially grow into deep rooted conviction that may see a girl choosing very early on in life not to embark on a life in science, technology, engineering or manufacturing, and may lead to an adult male choosing not employ a woman in one of these fields, because from childhood, without even realising it, they have learned that these areas are inherently male.

I don’t think LEGO is evil, that it is trying to socially engineer a world where women are directed to a pastel coloured inconsequential cul-de-sac while the men take care of the important stuff. They’re just trying to sell their plastic bricks. But doing it by entrenching gender segregation, and limiting the life choices of our girls, is simply wrong. I can’t say it plainer than that.

Imagine, if instead of gender, LEGO based their marketing around race. Imagine if the Fusion ads showed white people (as they do) playing with the Town, Racing, and Battle lines – and then depicted stereotyped minorities in and using sets based on sports, hospitality, or a factory? Imagine if they produced market research that showed that this was what the minorities in question wanted. That they were just supplying demand. It would rightly be labelled as racism.

Oh god, I do hope I haven’t given them a new marketing angle to try out…

Back in the real world, my daughter will continue to play with her hand-me-down LEGO, that hails from the time when it was a universal toy. And maybe when LEGO pulls back on the gender based madness, we’ll hand over some real money for new LEGO.

As long as it remains backwards compatible with the concept of universal building.

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The sold out, universally acclaimed, LEGO Ideas Research Institute. Hopefully not the last you’ll see of it.

One set I would have parted cash with was their much heralded Female Scientist set.

In a bad month of gender news for LEGO, they also revealed that this set, which I didn’t even get a chance to buy, is in fact a limited edition.

Currently sold out, while LEGO have said they are going to release more stock, there is no indication that this means they will actually manufacture any more.

If you – like me – think this obviously popular set should be mass produced, then please sign this petition created by Melissa Atkins Wardy (Author of “Redefining Girly”, owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies).

Apparently, a new LEGO design must achieve sales of £106,000 to break even. At £15.99 a pop, this set needs to sell about 6,600 units – so the petition needs to reach at least that figure to show there’s a viable market for it (though the fact it achieved 10,000 public votes to get made in the first place should be enough!).

So please sign and share!

Is Father’s Day for all dads, or just the ones with jobs?

Our playgroups put on new kiddy crafts each week. When a specific celebration comes around, they will usually revolve around that. So this week it was making Father’s Day cards.

Unlike the mums who were helping/directing their children to create them, I just let my daughter do her thing – it seemed odd commissioning one from her.

A 'shirt & tie' Father's Day card is still a thing
A ‘shirt & tie’ Father’s Day card is still a thing

What was also odd were the actual cards they were supposed to end up with. Two playgroups opted for the same concept – the front of the card had been cut and folded down to look like a shirt collar, and there was a cutout tie to glue into place. The inference was clear (despite the fact I have only ever worn a shirt & tie for weddings and funerals): A father’s role in the family revolves around having a job. This is also the role that retailers like to cast us in.

Gendered marketing to children is an issue I take great interest in, unhappy as I am about commercial interests defining, from even before birth, what they think a boy or girl should be. But what about gendered marketing to adults? How does that affect us?

I adore my current role in life as one of the growing army of stay-at-home dads. It has come about mostly from my long-held desire to do this, with financial circumstances supporting that choice (ie. My wife earning more than me). Frankly, it’s been a blast.

Out & about doing baby & toddler things with my daughter, I’ve gotten to know some dads, but mostly mums – and the fact is that in terms of being a parent I have far more in common with the at-home mums I meet than most working dads.

The offering around Mother’s Day tends to be all about ‘giving mum a break’ – from cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc. Brunches and pampering packages abound. What about Father’s Day? Traditional gifts revolve around either ‘work’ related gifts like smart socks, shirts, and ties, or ‘play’, things that are thought to keep men sane during the 9 to 5 – booze, sports, and gadgets. But there’s no sense that fathers like me – stay-at-home dads – also need a break from their routine and responsibilities.

By packaging the days in this way, retailers are reinforcing the idea that being the homemaker is a mother’s role, while that of breadwinner is still the father’s. I think these marketing driven definitions contribute to the guilt that many mothers feel about wanting to return to work, and lessen the chances of men admitting they would dearly love to be stay-at-home dads. Society follows suit – while we have the term ‘working mother’, the male equivalent would be recognised as ‘father’.  I’m a ‘stay-at-home dad’, but for female counterparts ‘mum’ seems to suffice as a label.

I have generally felt ambivalent about Father’s Day since childhood, and I continue to do so as a father. Perhaps because my birthday is also only a few days away, and it seems greedy to have 2 ‘special’ days in one week. My cynical side also tends to judge Father’s Day as a way to package and sell more stuff, much like Halloween.

We have no out of the ordinary plans for the day – I will spend it with my wife and daughter, like most other ideal Sundays.

Then again, perhaps there is a purpose to ‘Father’s Day’? It has serendipitously coincided with the start of the 2014 Football World Cup. I could cynically take advantage of it to watch a couple of back-to-back games? Reverting to stereotype, I am a dad that likes watching football.

And having a break from my routine and responsibilities.

Father's Day, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad,
Another playgroup card. Clichéd perhaps, but…

#WeWantLeia? We’re getting her! Princess Leia IS coming to the Disney Store

“#WeWant Leia” by Yakface.com

After earlier stating they had “no plans for Leia products at Disney Store“, Disney have caved to #WeWantLeia pressure. Time.com writer Eliana Dockterman managed to pin down a spokeperson from the elusive House of Mouse, to get a clear commitment to including our favourite Alderaanian Princess in the Disney Store’s currently male only Star Wars line up. Disney spokeswoman Margita Thompson told Time:

“We’re excited to be rolling out new products in the coming months, including several items that will feature Princess Leia, one of the most iconic characters in the Star Wars galaxy.”

The article added:

‘Thompson also pointed out that there are Princess Leia-themed costumes and toys available on Amazon.com’

What, like these? Hopefully not an indication of the proposed Disney Store line…

Anyway, well done Natalie Wreyford! It all started with your tweet.

So it seems to be an about face – or at least an understanding – from the House of Mouse. The #WeWantLeia hashtag was proposed right here, with a comment from SuddenlyFeminist Dad. Perhaps the power of the force is insignificant next to the power of social media…

You want Princess Leia at the Disney Store? You may be waiting a while…

Disney Princesses. disney princess 1977, 1977 disney princess

A mini update to my earlier post about the lack of Leia in the Disney Store.

To recap:  Disney have owned Star Wars since 2012. But despite carrying a range of other Star Wars merchandise in the Disney Store, it doesnt sell any (hardly any) Princess Leia gear.

I wanted to know why, especially since my young daughter is into Star Wars and her favourite character is Princess Leia. Initial contact with Disney elicited a rather non-committal response, essentially ‘we have no information/plans regarding Princess Leia merchandise’.

Last week, the Disney Store UK informed me they had “escalated (my) query to the relevant departments”. Today, I received the latest response.

Thank you for taking the time to contact us, and for your patience while this was escalated to me.

No problem.

It is wonderful to hear your youngling is already such a huge Leia fan.

It IS wonderful my… hold on, my what? My ‘youngling’?

Interesting. It seems that the Disney Corporate Communications manual has been updated with Star Wars buzzwords – a youngling is a child undergoing Jedi training.

What’s also interesting is that ‘youngling’ is a gender neutral term. Star Wars is anything but gender neutral in the Disney Store – with it listed prominently in the ‘Boys’ tab, but nowhere to be seen in the ‘Girls’ one. The lack of Princess Leia product appears to be symptomatic of the Disney Store’s embedded gender segregation – Princesses are for girls, sci-fi & superheroes for boys.

At least the Jedi don’t divide their ‘younglings’ along gender lines. Anyway, moving on:

The current assortment of Star Wars product launched at Disney Store earlier this year is just the beginning of what is to come.

Well, that’s promising. So you’re going to sell Leia stuff right?

Disney Store designs products with all members of the family in mind, and we are looking forward to supporting the Star Wars Franchise for many years to come.

Great! Oh, hang on.

We know Disney “designs products with all members of the family in mind”. That doesn’t indicate whether they will design Star Wars products “with all members of the family in mind”.

Also, “we are looking forward to supporting the Star Wars Franchise for many years to come” doesn’t address whether they will add Leia to their Star Wars items on sale. No indication of when – or even if – they’ll get to Leia.

Once again, we thank you for taking the time to contact us, and if you have any further queries please do let us know.

Thank you too, I will.

May the force be with you,

Well, certainly makes a nice change from “Have a wonderful day!” 😉

#WeWantLeia

The Phantom Disney Princess

Disney Princesses. disney princess 1977, 1977 disney princess, Disney Princess Leia
“Disney Princess Leia” by bewareitbites

There’s a phantom menace lurking within Disney. She’s a princess who’s smart and confident, friendly and loyal, rebellious and brave. She’s a strong leader, from a realm far, far away. She’s a wonderful female role model for our children, but you won’t find any figures, costumes, tops, lunch boxes, or backpacks with her on at the Disney Store. Princess Leia became the property of the House of Mouse following their $4 Billion purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012. Unsurprisingly, given Disney are the masters of merchandise, Star Wars goods are abundant in the Disney Store. However, it’s also abundantly clear that as far as Disney is concerned, Star Wars is a boys only galaxy. The lack of Leia came to my attention earlier in the week, with this exchange on Twitter between Natalie Wreyford and the Disney Store:

So Disney, who paid $4 billion for the Star Wars brand, and who generate billions each year in selling fantasy princesses to little girls, are seemingly ignoring their brand new ‘space fantasy’ princess. What’s up with that? I asked Disney store customer services why they have no Princess Leia products for sale. First I tried the UK store, who politely pleaded ignorance:

“…we don’t have any information on Princess Leia products at this time”.

Not much help. So I went to the source, DisneyStore.comThis was their reply:

“I’m very sorry but the Princess Leia merchandise you are interested in purchasing is no longer available in DisneyStore.com. While we make every effort to anticipate the inventory requirements of our Guests, merchandise may sell out at different rates.  Regrettably, this is very difficult to forecast.  Due to the popularity of some character families, one item may sell out more quickly than another within the same character family.  Specific merchandise may be reordered and is then re-launched on our site as quickly as possible.  Some items may sell out due to varied reasons and may no longer be offered in our Store.  We apologize for any confusion or inconvenience this may cause.”

Felt like a lot of cut & pasted standard response copy there, but essentially they’re inferring that they used to have Princess Leia merchandise but they have run out. Well, it’s a case of Star Wars: The Phantom Merchandise then. While it’s possible there may have been the odd niche or specialist third party item, I don’t recall seeing any significant Leia goods on sale there. But, it’s also not true that nothing is currently available.

What’s in (Disney)store?

The Phantom Disney Princess Leia
“Vader’s Little Princess” by Jeffrey Brown

There’s a Princess Leia as Mona Lisa tee on sale. Oh wait that’s an adult tee. And it’s also sold out. Perhaps that’s the missing merchandise they’re referring to? Hang on, there is another Leia product on sale. Unfortunately we already own it, but fortunately it’s good, and in fact it was my daughter’s way into Star Wars – Jeffrey Brown’s ‘Vaders Little Princess‘. While obviously written from the skewed perspective of a father of sons (which Jeffrey is) it’s still a fun and witty introduction to Leia in the galaxy far, far away. My daughter frequently implores us to read it (and ‘Darth Vader and Son‘) to her. She particularly enjoys it when I read Vader’s dialogue into a saucepan – to give it that authentic metallic Vader feel.

Princess Leia 1977 Kenner figure, Disney Princesses. disney princess 1977, 1977 disney princess, Disney Princess Leia, Princess Leia 1977 Kenner figure, original princess leia action figure, 1977 Princess Leia , Princess Leia 1977 Palitoy figure,
A 1977 original Kenner/Palitoy Princess Leia figure. Our children deserve better than relying on these.

One day she discovered my old Star Wars toys (I was trying to put them in the loft), and has had them out to play ever since. No prizes for guessing who her favourite figure is. Hint – she has headphone hair. My daughter would love to have more versions of Princess Leia to play with than my tired looking 35 year old Star Wars action figure. I don’t understand why Disney are dropping the ball on this one. Are they really so blind to the idea that there’s a market for Princess Leia merchandise?

The Phantom Menace of Disney Princesses

It appears the main problem is that Disney are defining Star Wars as a boys brand – it is prominently featured under the ‘Boys’ tab in the Disney Store, and nowhere to be seen in the ‘Girls’ section. Perhaps they are worried that the inclusion of female characters will damage what they see as the brand’s gender clarity. But it could  also be a matter of vision. Maybe Disney really don’t see the potential in this stylish kick-ass galactic princess? The common wisdom is that Disney created their insanely popular Princess line.

Except they didn’t. We did.

As Peggy Orenstein tells it in ‘Cinderella Ate My Daughter‘, the idea of the Disney Princess line came to an exec when he noticed kids dressing up as (non-licensed) Disney princesses, and realised they weren’t making a cent from it. The rest is history, and our current Princess dominated reality. But the lesson here is that if Disney spot a potential buck to be made, they will respond with product. So perhaps, if we create enough chatter and feedback, they will do something about it. Tweet them at , email them at guest.services@disneystore.com or service@disneystore.co.uk, share photos of your little ones dressing up as Leia, or playing with Leia dolls – especially anything unlicensed that Disney won’t make a cent from. Because, like Woodward & Bernstein, Mickey Mouse will follow the money.

(FYI: If singing really is the key to being a good Disney Princess, then Leia has that covered :S)
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