Written in August 2011, this post talks about the violence and male dominance in new-at-the-time toy line called Heroica. Because the product line is discontinued, the links that existed in this post no longer work and were removed. Even without the links, the point of the post is still clear and represents a snapshot of LEGO’s general direction in developing “boys'” toys at that time.
Time once again for a rant about LEGO.
As I have said in previous posts, I don’t get the recent focus on violence nor the dominance of male characters in many of the toy lines the company develops in-house. But because there is some value in LEGO toys, especially once the carefully designed sets are deconstructed and true creativity is allowed to flourish, I have kept my name on LEGO’s email list. Regular communication from the company also keeps me informed of new toys to blog about, like the Heroica line of games.
Looking further into this new toy line, I was not surprised to discover that in the LEGO lexicon, “Heroica” means “violence and masculinity.”
All of the Heroica heroes are male, and while it is nice to see some reformed bad guys among them, it is disheartening to see them wielding weapons with such evident malice on the LEGO website. In the animations accompanying the character descriptions, The Knight looks as though he is goring his imaginary opponent with his sword while The Rogue repeatedly stabs at his.
The videos are worse, although no more violent than your average after-school hour on Teletoon I suppose. Here are a few still shots from the first clip in the series that tells the Heroica story.
The monsters are also a rather scary bunch, “crushing” anyone who opposes them and using “brute strength” to defend their turf. And then there are the werewolves whose claws and fangs can “easily shred through armor.”
What are boys learning from toys like this or the similarly male-dominated Ninjago?
Lesson One: saving the world/homeland is the job of boys and men.
Portraying the leader/saviour/rescuer almost exclusively as male perpetuates the “big wheel imperative,” a phrase coined by psychologist William Pollack in his book Real Boys. Pollack notes that boys raised with the idea that males are natural leaders or authority figures tend to feel subconscious stress as they get older, believing that they need to perform at their highest level at all times. The big wheel imperative also teaches boys to maintain a façade of control, even when things are not going as planned, while never giving into feelings of doubt or betraying the slightest hint of weakness. We see evidence of the latter point every time a boy “sucks it up” instead of crying when hurt or scared.
Lesson Two: boys like to fight. In Heroica and Ninjago LEGO presents violence not as a necessary evil, but as something enjoyable. And since women are not invited to help defend home and hearth, the association between violence and masculinity, seen in other areas of our culture, is reinforced. (For the record, there is a female character in Ninjago who likes to fight, but the video clips associated with the toys show her being kidnapped and left behind to mind the store when the boys leave, so it doesn’t appear that she makes much of a contribution.)
This seems a heavy load for me to dump on one company, and I am certainly not trying to pin the blame for gender stereotypes and their impact on LEGO alone. The themes I’m talking about here emerge across all of the pop culture aimed at boys from preschool through the primary grades. But unlike some other toy companies, LEGO is uniquely positioned to do something about it. It is one of the largest toy companies in the world, loved by children around the globe.
When I have written about LEGO in the past, people have commented that the company is under no obligation to promote gender balance, non-violence, etc. True enough. But LEGO has made itself a leader in other areas, and seems keen to tout its corporate responsibility bona fides on its website.
In an era when the chemicals used in toys are often in question, LEGO stands out as one of the safest toys in the world. The company has a lengthy description of its safety practices on its website, and also notes that it is part of ICTI CARE, an ethical manufacturing program. LEGO donates toys to SOS Children’s Villages and children confined to hospital. The company was also the first in the toy industry to join the UN’s Global Compact, which covers issues like human rights, labour standards, and environment.
Clearly the company has many progressive practices in place, so why the retrograde attitude toward gender and the increasing emphasis on violence?