Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lego Friends Controversy

Over the holidays, my friend, an anthropologist, showed me a copy of Businessweek with an article on a new Lego product line for little girls called Lego Friends:
Over the years, Lego has had five strategic initiatives aimed at girls. Some failed because they misapprehended gender differences in how kids play. Others, while modestly profitable, didn't integrate properly with Lego's core products. Now, after four years of research, design, and exhaustive testing, Lego believes it has a breakthrough. On ... Jan. 1 in the U.S., Lego will roll out Lego Friends, aimed at girls 5 and up.
I'd recommend reading the whole thing, because it has good observations about culture and child development, but if you don't have time, I will summarize and simplify the key points:
The Lego company almost went bankrupt last decade. To survive, they followed the time-honored business strategy of focusing on their core market. While Legos were traditionally meant to appeal equally to boys and girls, it was mainly boys who played with them. The company started deliberately designing Lego sets to appeal to boys, and marketing them to boys. This strategy helped make the company profitable, and now they want to start selling to girls again.
I was curious to learn more about this, so I started reading more about it to see what the reaction was. Many people in the core group of Lego fans do not like these sets, for various reasons that I will cover later. But it is clear that the new toys are not meant to appeal to people who already buy Legos. They are meant to expand the market, to get more people buying them, and the strategy seems to be working, as evidence by comments like these from the Lego message boards:
Just Bought my daughter the new LEGO Friends. ... I never even thought of buying my daugter LEGO's untill after this past Christmas when my daughter recieved lots of barbie items from "santa" but after the 2nd day, she was back to playing with her brother's Legos. She is thrilled with the "girl" LEGO's, so I asked her why she liked the Friend LEGO's and she said she liked the pretty colored bricks, but she mostly liked the fact that the Treehouse (3065) that she bought, has a kitty with it. ... She told me that for her birthday, which is not until October, all she wants is the new FRIENDS LEGO's. She loves the fact that she can build just like her brother, and her brother is thrilled because she won't be taking his LEGO's all the time, and I KNOW he won't be taking these.
I think LEGO has a real Hit with these new FRIENDS LEGO's, and I know that she will be getting these for Christmas and birthday's this year instead of BARBIE !!!
I had thought that this was the end of the issue. It looked like the free market had pushed a profit-maximizing company to deliver a product that people like, making everyone better off. Maybe the 'girl Legos' are not quite as good as the 'boy Legos', but they are certainly better than Barbie dolls in every possible way and the Legos are successfully winning market share from them. The issue would perhaps be worthy of a link and a quick comment, but not a full blog post.
But yesterday, sent me an email asking me to sign a petition protesting these new Legos. It seems that people are making a culture-war political issue about the new Legos, and this requires a response.
The short version of the rest of my blog post is that the feminists are making the perfect the enemy of the good. I agree that, in a perfect world, all Lego sets would be gender-neutral, marketed to both boys and girls, and feature an even mix of male and female figures. But this is not the world we live in, Lego does not have the power to create that world, and it makes no sense to attack them for an honest and well-researched effort to get more girls playing with their building toys.
One issue is that the new sets have a different style of person. The new girl 'Lego Friends' figures look more like dolls than bricks, and that upsets some people. It is true that they are more sexualized than the traditional minifigs, but it would be almost impossible to create a representation of the human form that is less sexualized than the traditional Lego person.
Here is some background from the Businessweek article:
To develop Lego Friends, Knudstorp relaunched the same extensive field research—more cultural anthropology than focus groups—that the company conducted in 2005 and 2006 to restore its brand. It recruited top product designers and sales strategists from within the company, had them join forces with outside consultants, and dispatched them in small teams to shadow girls and interview their families over a period of months in Germany, Korea, the U.K., and the U.S.
The research techniques and findings have been controversial at Lego from the moment it became clear that if the company were serious about appealing to girls, it would have to do something about its boxy minifigure, its 4-centimeter plastic man with swiveling legs, a yellow jug-head, and a painted-on face. "Let's be honest: Girls hate him," says Mads Nipper, the executive vice-president for products and markets.

One side note about that last quote. The people launching the petition complained about the executive using the word 'him' to refer to the minifig, citing that quote as proof of Lego's sexism. But in Germanic languages like Danish, 'him' is often used as a gender-neutral pronoun, and is even used to refer to things that are clearly female, like milk cows. This is just another example of cultural misunderstandings causing communication problems and bad feeling.

The petition writers, and some disgruntled Lego fans, say that Lego should just go back to selling the simple gender-neutral tubs of bricks that they used to. Lego never actually stopped selling these open-ended imagination-focused toys. You can still go to stores or to and buy a basic collection of bricks. They have always been an option, and they are getting better over time. For example, this safari building set is amazingly good from almost any perspective. For only $10, you get two Lego people, a man and a woman, and the bricks to build a wide variety of vehicles and animals. That is a lot of play and education for the money, a perfect gift for any girl or boy. It is everything that the petition-writers say Lego should be.

But selling these things exclusively is not a sustainable corporate strategy. $100 worth of sets like these is fuel for limitless building, and Legos are durable enough to be family heirlooms. While it may be ideal from a social, educational, and personal finance perspective for every family to spend no more on toys than $100 of Lego every three or four generations, it would mean that Lego would either go bankrupt or have to lay off a lot of people.

Lego has to keep selling new sets if they are to survive in their current form. They have to keep producing new things that people want to buy. Fortunately for them, people are natural novelty seekers. They can keep generating a new thing almost indefinitely, especially if they sell toys based on the latest movie or TV show.

The toy aisles are full of junky plastic vehicles, playsets, and action figures that are clearly marketed toward boys. Many of them are building block toys make by Lego's direct competition. If Lego failed to compete for this market segment, they would lose a lot of money.

By steering boys away from junk like this and toward their high quality building toys, Lego does a good thing. But an unfortunate side effect is that all of the 'boy Legos' seem to make the gender-neutral Legos less attractive for girls and their parents, as the Lego brand becomes associated with boy-centered stuff.

It would be a good thing both for society and the Lego company if 'Lego' was gender neutral, and people understood that some individual Lego sets were meant for boys, while other individual sets were meant for girls. Lego would be able to steal market share from Barbie and also from Transformers, improving the world in both cases.

To restore the gender neutral image of their overall brand, Lego must either stop making boy Legos or start making girl Legos. Making more gender neutral Legos is not enough for balance, and as this controversy shows, their existing gender neutral Legos are being ignored. They clearly cannot afford to abandon the boy market, so they make Lego Friends, a deliberately feminine product, to balance it out.

Lego critics say that selling masculine Lego sets is harmful to girls, and also that selling feminine Lego sets is harmful to girls. It is hard to see how both of these beliefs can be true at the same time. It actually does make sense that the proliferation of masculine Legos has harmed girls by making a good educational toy less attractive to them. Lego Friends is, in my view, a very good way to reverse this trend while making more money rather than less.

But there are people who think that nothing should have a stereotyped gender identity, and that it is wrong to sell anything that is meant for just one gender. I think that this is the belief driving the complaint about the new Legos. I actually do have some sympathy for this belief. Constraining the options and choices of individuals is typically a bad thing, and social norms can be powerful constraints.

But they are clearly choosing the wrong target for their activism. I have never seen a petition complaining about the existence of Barbie dolls and asking Mattel to stop selling them. As long as there are heavily gendered toys that sell well, Lego will be improving the world by successfully competing with them. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Child Development and Work

Last weekend, while I was visiting my parents for the holidays, my cousin and his wife and three boys came to visit us. The oldest is six. Like me, and his father, he is smart, and likes playing with Legos and reading books, but is not extraordinarily brilliant.

Over the holidays, I had restored two old cast iron machines, a food chopper and a meat grinder, from my grandmother's basement. I cleaned off some rust, disassembled them, cleaned off more rust, and then coated them in canola oil, until they could easily be assembled and disassembled by hand.

Somehow this came up in conversation, and my dad asked me to bring the machines out to show them. While they were out, I realized that they might be a fun thing for the six-year-old, my first cousin once removed, to play with.

I asked the boy, who was looking through some books, "Hey W__, would you like to put together a real machine?" His eyes lit up with excitement and he jumped up and followed me out to the shed, where we had been talking.

Each machine is six pieces when disassembled, although their construction is slightly different. I assembled the meat grinder while he watched, and then pointed him to the pieces of the food chopper. It was the case, feed screw, crank, chopper, and two assembly screws. He had it assembled in less then two minutes.

Then, of course, he wanted to chop something. I found a patch of green weeds for him to feed into it.  Then he started turning the crank, and the chopper worked well, producing something like coleslaw.

Then he started grabbing handfuls of grass and weeds to chop. I told him how to use the thing safely, never putting his hand near the feeder while the crank was turning, and let him keep going while I talked with family nearby.

When I went inside to get the camera to take pictures, and tell everyone what was going on, my mom commented "Maybe we should have set him up near the compost pile." He was still going when I went outside, so we picked up and moved the table the chopper was attached to. Then we tossed the chopped weeds into the compost pile and I used the pitchfork to go through the pile for fruits and vegetables to chop. 

Pretty soon I had a pile of banana peels, apple cores, avocado husks, pomegranate pith, lettuce and cabbage stalks, pepper cores, a corn cob, and a few rotting tomatoes on the table. He started to chop this pile up, industriously and methodically. He just kept going and going. He never got bored or tired or frustrated with the task.

It was hard work at times. Sometimes he had to use his whole body to move the handle. He would lean over it and use his weight to press it down, and then use his legs to lift it up, like a weightlifter doing squats. When even that did not work, because he had fed in too much at once, he reversed the handle, cleared some of the stuff out, and kept going. He had the attitude that he could handle this job, and that he would do whatever it took to do it right.

It was an incredible display of what I would call 'work ethic' if he was not having so much fun. He was clearly in a flow state. He did not stop until he had turned every fruit and vegetable in the compost pile into chunky salsa, and he was clearly disappointed when there was no more work to do.

He had done quite a bit of useful work. The compost pile will be much better as a result of the chopping. The task was physically strenuous and mentally challenging. Under minimal supervision and with relatively minor positive feedback, he had assembled a machine and dedicated himself to using it to do challenging and productive work. And when he was done, he disassembled the machine and helped me clean it.

The human brain is clearly wired for children to do things like this. If he lived in a primitive society, he would already be an economically productive member of the family or tribe. Much of his life would resemble this fun vacation. He would be surrounded by relatives, learning useful skills from them, and making them proud by applying those skills. He would have a measure of independence, and the pride that comes from doing useful things to the world.

Under the rules and structure of our modern society, he will have to sit through 12 years of schooling before he is considered capable of doing any kind of useful work. In order to live a decent life, he will require six more years of schooling. Even if he is a good student like I and his father were, he will hate much of this, or be bored by it. He will be constrained and powerless and isolated from his family for much of his childhood. In order to keep him happy, his parents will have to spend money on things that replicate the experience of learning in this fashion.

I am not nostalgic for any time in history. Life before rule of law, democracy, and property rights, and the technology and infrastructure that came from them, was nasty, brutish, and short. But that life, and not modern life, is what our brains are wired to function in. The more I learn about how the human brain functions, the more I realize just how bizarre and alien our modern world is, and what it costs us to live in it.

There have to be better ways of educating our children and organizing society, ones that maintain the benefits of our modern world while being more suited to the natural functioning of our brains. I do not know what they are, but I do know that, if things go well, our descendants will see our current society as   twisted and perverse. 

I suspect that, in this society, people will start working at a much younger age, and life will be a combination of work and education. "Child labor" had a horrible connotation nowadays, because of its history in the industrial age*, but I can guarantee that my little cousin enjoyed doing that labor far more than he will enjoy most of his time in school. If our work lives were structured the right way, and if people had the right attitude about things, then children of as young as eight could spend a couple hours a day working, doing useful things for real money. This would most likely be better for their development as human beings than the contrived and artificial development environment that they currently experience.

*I suspect that time working in a textile factory is no worse than time spent in some of our public schools, but that is a different topic.