Sexist Lego a success

In spite of the uproar, the Lego Friends range is selling well

 

Earlier this year, Lego released a “Lego Friends” series that would widen the plastic blocks’ appeal to girls. Pundits bemoaned the range’s perpetuation of stale gender stereotypes, questioning whether it was really necessary to replace the traditional boxy Lego figures with curvy teenage girls that hang out in beauty parlours and cafes. Despite the controversy, Lego’s sales have increased 24 per cent year-on-year and “Lego Friends” have proved a success.

This is unsurprising considering the amount of market research that went into the range. Lego spent four years analysing girls’ playing preferences. According to Businessweek, the company found that girls paid more attention to things like aesthetics, level of detail, and role-play (this last point justifies the “Ladyfig” innovation – girls see the figurines as avatars, and are therefore, allegedly, more likely to see themselves reflected in a less angular piece of plastic). Furthermore, they found that although girls enjoyed building as much as boys, they did so in different way; while males enjoyed the more “linear” process of copying what is on the box as quickly as possible, females preferred “stopping along the way” for story telling and rearranging pieces.

The study confirms that boys and girls, at least broadly, play differently. But I suspect that the range’s success is less tied with this than with the simple fact that Lego Friends have made it more socially acceptable for girls to ask for Legos. The truth is, the brand has always done its best to fit squarely in the boys’ aisle of Toy’R’Us – since 1966, the Lego has been selling gas stations, trains and cars. Its recent makeover (side note - makeovers happen to be one of Emma’s [a Lego Friend] favourite hobbies) has made it possible for the brand to compete alongside dolls and kitchen sets. The difference between the Star Wars series and Lego Friends is, basically, a matter of packaging. But at an age where – however artificially - gender divides are at their most blatant (everyone knows that six year old boys have cooties and are to be derided for it), neither boys nor girls want to be seen wandering down each other’s aisles. Lego can't be held to blame for effectively doubling its demographic, and it is unequivocally a good thing that little girls can enjoy building blocks without feeling like a silly boy.

Or maybe kids don't actually care about these things and it's adults that find it easier to narrow their options when choosing presents. 

In any case, it’s sad that even toys are a partisan affair.  

Lego Freddie Mercury Photograph: Ghetty Images
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.