Recently, I found myself in a LEGO store. The reasons for my going to the store are not that interesting—suffice it to say, I needed a gift and scented candles would not be appreciated.
This was my first time in such a store, though I had loved LEGOs as a child. I remembered them as a sort of high-tech Lincoln Logs—inoffensive, brightly colored building bricks, with an occasional person to keep things interesting. On their face, they seemed genderless.
My first move was to head to the "Friends" section, to check out the brand's latest, controversial line. Apparently LEGO felt there was room for them in the Barbie and Bratz market. The first set I saw, Stephanie's Cool Convertible, features a curvy little blonde doll, complete with a miniskirt and pink bow, who rides in a purple convertible. A little dog in the back seat has a slew of pink grooming products, as well as its own matching pink bow. Using the convertible, girls can take other LEGO Friends "to the beauty shop, to the beach or go on a road trip with the girls!"
The line has prompted cries from parents and children against gender-based marketing. It was easy to see why people were upset. There were several of the themed products available at the store, and as one eager employee explained, others available online. Much of the line revolved around dogs, which came with the sets—there's a puppy house, a pet patrol, and even a Heartlake Dog Show you can get. I also discovered on LEGO's website you can even select the category "Girls" which includes, bizarrely, "Mia's Puppy House," "Emma's Splash House," and, for some reason, Big Ben and a Volkswagon Van.
But the Friends line, while depressing, was scarcely surprising. It's nothing new that girls are supposed to need different toys, more sexualized dolls. Not having much to go on (I just knew LEGOs would be a hit), I went over to the other end of the room, the one with safe primary colors and there settled on a little fellow in a speed boat.
The speed boat was part of LEGO City line, which seemed to include a startling number of options, including a prisoner transport unit and a mobile police unit.
The boat, however, seemed perfect. It was white and red with a little motor and the accompanying man's only accessories were a hat, a life-vest and some drawn-on sunglasses. He had a giant yellow head and a block-like body—everything one wants in a little Lego man.
Having avoided the weird, LEGO-Barbies and settled on a guy in a boat, I didn't foresee any other problems. A little while later, I proudly got out the gift and presented it to a rather young LEGO expert.
"Oh yeah, one of those oil guys," he said as he put together the little man.
Oil, what? Sure enough, when I got a good look, there on his vest said "OIL." Next to the word was a little circle, half red, half green. They'd been covered up by the damn life preserver I realized. Luckily, if you're interested in what the gas company logo of the LEGO world looks like, you can see it clearly here, in the gas station set for two to five-year olds. (If you want to see an exact replica, just check out the 4:10 minute mark on this adorable video of a kid reviewing his LEGO Oil Tanker.)
Turns out, the LEGO series I'd opted for, LEGO City, often comes with the oil insignia, my LEGO expert explained to me. Really?
I'm not sure when the oil industry became so ubiquitous that one would assume that a person on a speed boat worked for an oil company. At least the Friends came with puppies, rather than the implication of oil-soaked wildlife. In some ways, the LEGO City line was more distressing. Between police units and oil-workers, it seemed intent to let kids know the order of things—who has power and who does not. People who work for oil companies drive speedboats, while police catch criminals who are guilty by looks alone. It's not exactly a pretty picture to contemplate. Toy-shopping, as many parents will tell you, can be a minefield.
Personally, I'm thinking that next time I'll try for the Lincoln Logs—assuming, at this point, they haven't been bought out by Halliburton.