Lego’s been on my mind. Not that I’ve gone to see the movie, nor have I any desire to. But the attendant buzz has led to other cultural comment, which I’m always happy to absorb (as a journalist, sociologically minded person, and grad student looking for ways to avoid writing my thesis).
What I’ve seen and what has interested me about Lego revolves around two issues: gender and creativity. Both of these lapse into a nostalgic pattern, so that the way it was is better than the way it is, and that this wonderful thing has been broken by an increasingly shallow and/or destructive society. I kind of don’t disagree with that in principle, but it’s sometimes a little too easy to give in to such whinging, and I’m glad I have young kids in the house to give me a kick in the angst from time to time.
A few friends have shared this article on Facebook. I like it – I like the anger at and the rejection of gendered toys. I, too, get furious when I go shopping at Christmas or birthday times and am committed to one or another aisle depending on whom I’m shopping for. I’m sad that my daughter looks envious when her brother is given cars as presents, and I’m glad that she still picks them up and plays with them, although I know she knows they’re not really “hers.” I wonder in how many ways she imagines they are not “hers.” It’s a hard question to ask a seven-year-old.
As a media scholar, I marvel at the scoop the bloggers got: this ad is not exactly buried, so why didn’t one of the “traditional” journalistic organisations get hold of it? Why didn’t they track down the red-headed girl of 1981 and get her story? Such as it is, it’s a great story – not just for her reflections on the photo shoot of the past but also for her useful and candid reflections on the state of play now. And these from a non-parent.
Her (and the blogger’s) comments about the pre-fab nature of Lego lead to another, perhaps more universal complaint about current Lego. I’ve felt this for a while, now: in my lifetime, it’s gone from “space” Lego to “Star Wars” Lego, from “castle” Lego to “Harry Potter” Lego. You don’t get pieces that you can mess around with. It’s all branded already, and your job is to (with minimal instruction, because it’s not about imagination but replication) make a toy, which then looks exactly like what you saw in the movie. The last Lego set I bought for myself was a set of speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. I was grateful to have this cool thing that looked just like the cool thing I loved from the movie. But I also felt like it was something that ought to sit on my shelf, on display, once it was made. The pieces didn’t seem to mix well with what else was in my big box of Lego.
This problem was picked up by architect Tom Dyckhoff for BBC’s The Culture Show. He did a marvelous piece last week, looking at Lego’s influence on architecture. It could have been a little wooden, but his enthusiasm set the tone and his wardrobe choices (yellow shirts, a cobalt jacket) made him look a little like Lego come to life. Apt, as his focus was on the life of Lego. Artists, philosophers, and architects evoked its sensual joy: the feel of it in your hand, which, as an artist put it, stayed with you, so you remembered what it felt like and knew you could link this piece to that one again. (His project, by the way, was incredibly cool: dump a boat-load of white Lego on a table in a public square in Albania and watch people work with it.) An architect discussed how the building of brick on brick taught children about enlarging space.
This sensual pleasure came back to me this summer when my parents arrived from BC. They had a special treasure in their suitcase which I was anticipating. My eldest son, now five, had been poking about with other people’s Lego, and about a month before my parents arrived, some cleverclogs had brought a huge box of surplus Lego into his nursery. Kids could buy some as a fundraiser for charity: one pound got you six ounces of Lego, which you scooped from the bin and placed in a wee plastic baggie. Sensual pleasures writ small. We did this twice before nursery let out for the summer, and he was quite keen on what he had. Meanwhile, I had asked my parents to bring my old Lego from the box under my bed. It took up a lot of space, but it was light, so I figured it would be no hardship, and the timing was right.
Indeed it was. They brought out six vacuum-sealed bags from the suitcase the day they arrived at our flat. The kids were glad to see them but absolutely thrilled at this wealth of Lego. In the weeks that followed, before we got a big Ikea tub and stored it under the coffee table, it sat on our living room floor in a couple of cardboard boxes. As they rummaged through it – as I rummaged through it – I hit my Proustian madeleine. The sound of it: this particular Lego, these pieces, moving about in a cardboard box. This is exactly what it sounded like when I was a child. Looking for a particular piece, I would shove my hand through the same pieces I shoved my hand through 25 years ago. The same pieces that were not the piece I was looking for then were not the piece I was looking for now.
I’m glad the kids have my Lego to play with. I had lots of castle and pirate and space Lego, and perhaps the artists and architects of The Culture Show would scoff even at this. These sets have some pretty purpose-built pieces. It’s not just a cart of coloured bricks. But I used them to make a spaceship, not the Millennium Falcon. The one instruction book that was preserved in the collection was the mighty castle (generic, not Hogwarts) that my parents got me for Christmas when I was 10 years old. I still remember putting it together for the first time on the floor of the cottage we had rented from my mom’s co-worker, out in Harvie Heights in the deep foothills west of Calgary, our last Christmas before moving to BC. Our last serious cross-country skiing before moving to the Wet Coast.
It was an exceptional castle, with a portcullis that rose up and down using a string and pulley. My daughter and I put it together this autumn, and she learned the discipline of following the instructions and making something with all the spacial innovation the Lego designers intended. This, in fact, is a good thing. It does not stamp on her creativity but teaches her how these pieces can work together to make something complex. She now joins bricks and planks together, elevated on pillars of her own construction, as various bedrooms for the generic minifigs which she and her brother have dubbed Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Yoda. They take a flat red piece, stick on some grey bricks and pieces that look sort of like wings, put a slanted computer console bit in the “front,” and call it the Millennium Falcon. The creativity is syncretic, the imagination persists. Though they have given their play a branded focus, it is completely whole-cloth in its execution. And she and her brother do it together. So we seem to have dodged the complaints of both gender and creativity that infect current journalism surrounding the Lego movie. My children help me to remember that subversive and submissive are on a spectrum, and we can never quite predict what we are doing at a given moment.