I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.―Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World
As a society, we like things that fit in boxes. Like LEGO. My parents bought me a box of LEGO when I was little, maybe 5 or 6 years old. I’m pretty sure my mom picked it out for me. It was LEGO set 269. The set itself is a kitchen, complete with cupboards, a dining table with chairs, a coffee maker, two parents, a son and a daughter. The parents and son were not minifigures but larger creations made of LEGO bricks. I’ve come to find out these are referred to as maxifigures.
They were included in what LEGO marketed as “Homemaker” sets. I remember hating the design for the mom, with a dress made from four 2×1 slope bricks placed on top of two 4x1s. This is mostly because I desperately wanted to be a boy when I was little and hated dresses. The set also had one minifigure, the daughter. You could tell it was a girl by the hair piece with pigtails on either side of smooth black hair that easily resembled the normal hair mold for a boy. The face of the girl was no different than the face of a boy minifigure I stole from my older brother. It was my favorite LEGO piece. He had a red shirt and blue pants. Thus began my obsession with minifigures.
Research suggests that LEGO has tried to market to girls and failed five times prior to announcing the LEGO Friends line. The “Homemaker” sets (one of which is my kitchen set) were among those times. As a child, I didn’t particularly realize this set was geared toward girls; I played with it as much as I played with my brother’s “regular” box of LEGO and gray base plates with lined roads for cars. I liked both of them and didn’t see the need to differentiate the two. But I did know I was drawn to the boy minifigure more than any of the others, and I had a vague feeling that something wasn’t “quite right” about that.
Recently, I witnessed an interaction between a father and son at my local Target store. The son was spending a lot of time looking at LEGO Friends sets. They were displayed in their own aisle, to separate them from the “regular” LEGO. You know, the LEGO designed for boys. On the opposite side of the aisle, the shelves were crammed with all sorts of pink toys. The boy desperately wanted a LEGO Friends set, but his father kept berating him, that they were for girls, and he was a boy. He was quickly (and angrily) ushered out of the aisle.
Here’s the thing: I’m a girl who wants the boy LEGO. But I was lucky. My mom bought me baby dolls and dollhouses, but she also bought me robots and Micro Machines. I was 11 when I was first mistaken for a boy; my mom let me get my hair cut short and spiky (yes, my mom is the best). But it was difficult for people to understand. Hell, it was difficult for me to understand, I just knew I wasn’t comfortable in a dress and wanted to wear what boys wore. It was embarrassing every time someone mistakenly called me by a male pronoun, which might sound weird coming from someone who wanted to be a boy, but it was more about those who knew the truth. I was no boy. And I didn’t fit inside a box that could be labeled. There were no words to describe me. I felt out of place, but that was better than trying to be someone I wasn’t.
Try this: Go to Target’s online store and start typing “LEGO” in the search field and see what autofills. You’ll most likely find “legos for boys” and “legos for girls” as top search options. At the time of this writing, the top three LEGO products suggested for boys were Creator Mighty Dinosaurs, Marvel Spider-Man Bike Rescue, and City Sky Police. The top three LEGO products suggested for girls were Friends Mia Treehouse, Friends Heartlake Surf Shop, and Cinderella’s Dream Castle. The entire first page of “girl” results were either from the Friends line or Disney. The boy results had zero Friends and Disney. It was rounded out by the suggestion that maybe boys would just like the Classic Creative Medium Brick Box. Apparently, that’s not something that would garner a girl’s attention—it was not an option in the girl search. Remember, these are bricks. In a box. But apparently they have an inherent gender.
We seem to be stuck, as a society, with framing ideas in terms of the binary. I’m not immune to this. I spend my days modeling data into appropriate boxes. If a piece of data is placed in the wrong box, an error occurs. I code rules that catch these errors up front, before they become a problem, an inconvenience. In other words, I control what goes in boxes. It’s satisfying, perhaps because I can’t find a box to put myself in. I don’t really fit: I’m a woman who dresses in men’s clothing, performs a male-dominated job, and sports a fade for a haircut. By society’s standards, I’m an inconvenience.
While I applaud LEGO for engaging girls more, and adding in a little pink and purple to the mix of bricks, I think where we fail is in the marketing. We’re just creating more boxes for ourselves to work inside a binary system where everything can be neatly categorized. It’s great for data, but people are more than just ones and zeros. And that boy who wanted the pink LEGO? Well he’ll never get them, since his dad thinks those are for girls. And we wouldn’t want a boy playing with a toy made for a girl.
Of course, I loved the coffee maker (I guess I was destined to become a coffee snob).