After receiving a ridiculous amount of abuse from the darker corners of the Internet for simply proposing the idea in 2012, Anita Sarkeesian published her first video on sexism in video games last month. As it is the first in a many part series, I intend to give Sarkeesian the benefit of the doubt and wait for the remainder of the videos to be produced before posting my thoughts, though, as it stands, the first entry is problematic. However, she is nothing if not prolific and her series on the invidiousness of Legos has a separate set of problems worth expounding on.
Here are the two videos on Legos, so you can judge them for yourselves:
Sarkeesian opens by criticizing the rather unappealing Lego Friends sets aimed at preteen girls and contrasting them with those sets targeted towards boys (also known as Legos in the generic). While I agree with Sarkeesian that the Lego Friends collection looks godawful (though I doubt either of us is in the target demographic), I find myself disagreeing with Sarkeesian’s reasoning for why it exists. Boiled down, Sarkeesian blames Lego itself and in particular its marketers for their presumed-to-be retrograde attitudes on gender roles for the disparity between “boys’ Legos” and “girls’ Legos.” She notes that Legos were initially conceived of as a unisex toy for the whole family but that the design and marketing of Legos has shifted in an increasingly male-oriented direction. Parallel to this trend, she records the various stillborn attempts that Lego has made to appeal to female consumers in more explicitly gender-charged terms. Where Sarkeesian’s videos fail, though, is in their attempt to explain why these trends might occur. She makes no attempt to grapple with the possible motivations of Lego executives; the existence of a disparate outcome is sufficient evidence for malice and an insidious conspiracy against women. However, I think another explanation better accounts for Sarkeesians observations while also trying to consider Lego executives as rational actors.
On its face, Sarkeesian’s explanation is absurd. Why would a firm intentionally cut out 50% of its potential customers, especially one that began with the assumption that its product had universal appeal? Is the appeal of keeping women out of engineering so strong as to overwhelm a company’s profit motive and their initial design philosophy? I think part of the problem is the belief, in certain segments of the left, that human nature is a blank slate, molded for good or ill by powerful external forces. Thus, advertising does not appeal to innate desires but manufactures them, operating as the functional equivalent of mind control. Thus when one sees a correlation between marketing and revealed preferences of consumers, the obvious interpretation is that the advertisers are to blame (and then the task simply reduces to riffling about for a reason why the advertisers would do such a thing to the impressionable public).
Without that assumption, a different narrative arises. Perhaps Lego’s initially universal product did not have an equitable appeal across genders. For whatever reason (an greater affinity for abstract play? better innate spacial reasoning?), boys tended to play with Legos more than girls. The effect needed not be large either. Behavorial economists have discovered that people gain utility from engaging in identity affirming activities and this can magnify minor disparities in interest across genders as more and more potentially Lego-curious girls shy away from the product until the primary consumers are boys and a handful of identity oblivious girls. How can a firm maximize returns when market research reveals an unexpected gender gap of this magnitude? By rejiggering the product and advertising to better appeal to their primary consumers, while spinning off another brand that lacks the male taint and configuring it to appeal to the 50% of the public not buying their product.
This course of action perfectly reflects the evolution of Lego’s design and marketing as recounted by Sarkeesian, but she insists, based on no evidence but her own self-righteousness, that the causality flows in the other direction. Indeed, in a telling segment, Sarkeesian dismisses the “four years and millions of dollars” market research that motivated the Lego Friends collection because it came to the wrong conclusion, quoting another Lego-skeptic who wrote that facts merely “give the company an excuse for reproducing the same old gender stereotypes that we see throughout our culture” and amazingly contending that Lego’s research, if anything, proves just how powerful the mind control of Lego’s previous ad campaigns have been. Lego’s methods may work in practice, but they do not work in theory and that’s likely where Sarkeesian’s real problem with the company lies.