Origami Girl

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

In which I look at tropes vs Lego

Idea Image
Female scientists proposed set on Lego CUSOO. The original post is here.

It has been far too long since there was anything approaching a toy post on this blog.  You will start to forget that it is one of my key interests.

The truth is for a while I've not seen much Lego or Playmobil that is screaming for me to buy it. However, I went into the toy shop at the weekend with money ready to spend. Christmas presents in mind, maybe a small wee thing for me, toy time!

But when I went to the Lego section I couldn't see a single set with a girl figure in. I mean, I've complained about the sexism before, but this was amazingly bad. I've bought Wolverine and Deadpool and I'm not exclusively about the women-sets before you say it. However, it's simple wish: I like to get sets with women in. Doing cool things or doing normal things. But when I looked around, perhaps to get my sister a Christmas present, there weren't any. Nada.

A surfer, a robber, a knight, a life guard, an eagle-man, a roadworks guy, a policeman, a lighthouse keeper, duelling wizards, hobbits, racing car drivers, and several superheroes. All men.

So with this in mind I thought I'd respond to Anita Sarkeesian's latest in her tropes vs women video series. The Feminist Frequency video today was an interesting look at two tropes in women's gaming: The Ms. Female Character and the Smurfette Principle. I decided to do a little look today at how the first can beat the second - when it comes to Lego.

So the Smurfette principle is basically where you have a team of men, and one token female character. The Smurfette. Or the Toadette even. It's where women exist as a gesture, a platitude, but not real representation. The Ms. Female Character trope is where the creators offer a feminised version of the male protagonist. Think Amy from Sonic, or as Anita Sarkeesian suggests - the original Ms. Pacman. These characters usually look much like the male version except they have some standardised icon, like a bow or pink hair to show you they are a girl. Watch her video for the full explanation.

 Lego is one massive Smurfette principle. You have to hunt far and wide to find the single female minifig in a given series. You have to go to several shops in fact it turns out to buy a girl minifig for your sister.

My beloved Monster Fighters steampunk-esque Lego sets have one women fighter in a team of six (Ann Lee) and two female monsters (Zombie Bride and Vampire's Bride.). The imbalance is self-evident. However, the thing I love about Lego is that I can use the Ms. Female Character idea to mess with their system.

For example, here is a classic male minifigure:

And then I made this brand new secret agent.

I make the 'Ms. Waiter' into something awesome using the exact male template they sell.

I'd also like to introduce you to what I call the Cap-Problem. The Cap Problem is where you have a minifigure with no gender signifiers at all, an old-school Lego figure, but the assumption is that the figure is male because of the cap. Where there is no hair or outfit to tell by, the very lack of any signifier tells you it's a guy. Because people are male. Duh.  In order to make the figure female you have to add a made-up face or a pony tail. They are rather like the game heroes, handed out gender stereotypes in the form of big lips and eyelashes because they illustrate womanhood.

Got to be a Mr. Builder right?

Simplistic shapes change everything.
In my mind this could be the same person, just with a different hairstyle, or wearing make-up for work one day. They can be in gender neutral form, or various presentations of womanhood. But the gender signifiers change the original massively. 
I have bought into their own presentations and assumptions. For instance I didn't count the surfer set I nearly bought as having a woman, despite the fact that there were no male signifiers on the life guard or surfer. I end up thinking in that way, that man is a default setting. The aforementioned builder could be a gender neutral figure but I feel that the system I've grown up in says it is a male figure by its neutrality.
LEGO Surfer Rescue Set 60011 Packaging
I nearly bought this set, because of shark!

However, the truth is I often don't mind that Lego choose to represent women in over the top ways. I use these stereotypes of women in make up they provide to make way more interesting characters.To make female characters that don't otherwise exist in the universe, and to make more of them. I don't really think an arctic explorer would layer on the mascara (who knows) but I like making it clear that women are here. I've had this one set up exactly the same since I was a little girl.

I used the lipstick from a minifig at the beach in her bikini to make my lovely arctic explorer. I just really want to get the Yeti for my monster sets to go with her.

It's all rather silly really. Yet, one of the things I love is being able to take a female figure and let a few pieces of signifier populate a whole set of characters. Almost all of my female Monster Fighters team have make-up on, big massive lips and silly eyelashes. But I've used male body parts (shocking) and accessories to make them the awesome team I have now.

One female figure can be divided up into her made-up face, her long hair and perhaps even a skirt or boob outline. I can then make many new types of people, chucking all my stubble faces away in the box. Therefore of the other things I love about Lego is that in its nature I can subvert the gender stereotypes it produces.

This was a motobrike daredevil figure which I made into an engineer for my alt Firefly team.
It's not just about changing the male knight to a female knight - the Ms. Male Character starting point of nearly all the sets I buy. It's also about messing around with the characters, the stories and the genders. I have very much subscribed to gender binaries in my descriptions here but my imagination when I play with them gets a whole lot more creative.
t is that creativity I can apply which makes me love Lego the toy. Lego the company however seems to be confused about gender representation. I've written my conflicted thoughts on the Friends series over on Bad Reputation, but the best example of their internal issues for me is the description of Nya, from the Lego Ninjago series:

"Make no mistake - this girl is no damsel in distress. She proved that when she and Flame the fire dragon helped rescue Kai from Lord Garmadon.

Nya is fed up with the ninja's boy's club syndrome and is determined to show everyone that she can do anything they can do - only better. She trains hard to beat her brother's records and Sensi Wuu constantly reminds her that if she is patient her time will come". 

So how about it Lego? You recognise a problem enough to write it into her back story, but can you sort out the ninja's Smurfette syndrome and give Nya a hand?

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