Friday, January 27, 2012

Consuming Passions: Gothic Romance and the Brontë Sisters

A pair of tortured lovers, with pale faces and burning eyes, stand against the backdrop of a menacing natural world. Between them lie great chasms of difference, terrible secrets, and their own conflicted hearts. Surely that tall, dark, handsome man is a threat to the girl he loves; perhaps he will seduce her and destroy her honor, or her hopes of wealth and comfort, or her very life itself.  Perhaps she is afraid of him, and perhaps she is only afraid of her own desire.
If you describe this scene to any teenage girl today, she’ll probably identify those suffering lovers as Edward and Bella of the Twilight craze, and there’s a very good chance that an adult you ask will reply that it must be Bill Compton and Sookie Stackhouse of the Southern Vampire books or the True Blood television series.  The current fad for vampire romance has done a great deal to popularize this classic Gothic image, but neither Stephenie Meyer nor Charlaine Harris could have brought their characters into existence without the inspiration provided by earlier novelists like the Brontë sisters, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, those English North Country siblings who eked out a restricted middle class existence while their imaginations ran wild across the stormy heaths and moors of their homeland.  Much of today’s popular Gothic literature and film owes a great debt to the mysterious men and convention-defying women who populate the Brontës’ novels, and my talk today focuses on the traditions that the Brontës both followed and created in their immortal tales of passion, violence, and the forbidden zones of the human heart.
The Brontës themselves lived a very Gothic life, full of domestic tragedy and unrealized hopes and dreams. The Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria, produced six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, before tuberculosis first struck the family and caused the death of Mrs. Brontë. Maria and Elizabeth also died of tuberculosis when an outbreak of the disease occurred at the boarding school that they and their sisters Charlotte and Emily attended. Their father managed to bring the younger girls home in time to save their lives, but the dreaded disease continued to ravage the family. The only Brontë son, Branwell, was artistically talented and the family’s great hope, but he became addicted to alcohol and laudanum, which only served to mask the symptoms of illness until he, too, died of tuberculosis at the age of 31. Emily was the next to succumb, followed by Anne, and, last of all, Charlotte. Their father survived his entire family and lived to the age of 84, cared for at last by Charlotte’s husband, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been married to Charlotte for only a year before her death in 1855.  Throughout their lives, the sisters endured periods of time as both students and teachers at girls’ boarding schools, an environment that proved uncongenial to them at best. Literary success came too late for most of them; Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey were all published in 1847, but by 1848 Emily would be dead, with Anne following soon after in 1849.
If the inspiration of their own lives was not sufficient, the Brontë sisters had plenty of models to follow in the literary culture of the age. The Gothic had sprung to life as a genre when Horace Walpole published his wildly imaginative Castle of Otranto in 1765. Writers in the late eighteenth century and the Romantic Age ran with the new style, producing dozens of Gothic novels, and the genre became popular with women writers and readers, in particular. Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith were two of the most successful female authors to pen Gothic fiction; in fact, Radcliffe was one of the most successful and popular novelists of the entire eighteenth century, and her novels, first published throughout the 1790s, would have been readily available to the young Brontë sisters in the early decades of the 1800s. Less accessible to middle class ladies were texts like Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, published in 1796, because its scandalous content made it forbidden reading for polite members of the fair sex. These novels helped to establish the conventions of the Gothic genre, which included ruined buildings, secret passages and rooms, sublime landscapes, and the occurrence or appearance of the supernatural. The heroes and heroines of these novels were usually quite genteel, with the ladies in particular prone to fainting at the scenes of horror and distress which unfolded before them, while the villains were outrageously bad, demonic forces of pure evil who sought to manipulate, marry, or destroy the heroines, depending on whichever option yielded the most pleasure or profit to them. 
Many young ladies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries spent their leisure hours gripping the pages of these stories and delighting in their spine-tingling pleasures, including the young Jane Austen, who makes allusions to such tales in her 1817 novel, Northanger Abbey. Of course, Austen’s novel parodies the thrilling scenes of the Gothic, which might explain why Charlotte Brontë didn’t like her. Brontë had this to say about the novels of the illustrious Austen:
Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores....Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless woman), if this is heresy--I cannot help it.
Charlotte’s criticism underscores the extent to which she, and her sisters by extension, were in sympathy with the emotional turmoil that welled up in the pages of Gothic fiction. Rather than parody the genre, as Austen had done, the Brontë sisters harnessed it for their own ends.
Many traditional Gothic elements appear largely unaltered in the Brontë novels. The themes of persecution, romantic misery, claustrophobic social constraint, madness, and cruelty all come into play. The appearance of the supernatural opens Wuthering Heights, which starts with Lockwood’s encounter with the ghost of Cathy, and forms the emotional climax of Jane Eyre, when Jane “hears” Rochester calling out for her even though they are separated by many miles. In Villette, Lucy Snowe is terrified by the sight of a seemingly ghostly nun, although, in true Radcliffian fashion, the specter turns out to be a mere mortal in disguise. Even the deathbed of Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is surrounded by a sense of supernatural terror; one can almost imagine demonic figures cavorting before the dying drunkard’s eyes.
 The sisters also shared a strong appreciation for sublime Gothic landscapes; the moors of their Yorkshire home served as a perfect example to them of the “terror and awe” that the sublime strikes in its observers. Emily captured that terrible but compelling vision best in Wuthering Heights, where the sublime qualities of the natural world, full of storms, dangers, and rough, untamed strength, reflect the interior landscapes of her protagonists’ hearts.  We see that same sense of the natural world in Jane Eyre, as Jane passes through the wilderness in her flight from Thornfield Hall, and in the mysterious, apocalyptic storm that concludes Villette. The ideas of domestic space as a trap and of the family as the source of persecution, rather than a shelter from it, also come straight from the pages of the Gothic playbook, where father figures are more likely to be villains than protectors and suitors often transform themselves into tormentors once the heroines are entangled in their embraces.
The dark, brooding hero was another element that came from the Gothic tradition, although the type had only really been formed as such in the Gothic texts of the Romantic Age.  Called “Byronic” after George Gordon, Lord Byron, who presented some striking examples of the type in both print and his own personal life, the emotionally troubled, secretive hero was a far cry from the masculine paragons of polite eighteenth-century literature, like Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison. Instead, the new hero took his cues from another of Richardson’s characters, his wildly popular and seductively evil anti-hero, Lovelace, the admirer and antagonist of Richardson’s eponymous heroine in the blockbuster bestseller, Clarissa. Lovelace himself had been inspired in large part by Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, and the Gothic heroes of Byron, Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, and John Polidori, among others, all traced their lineage back to these potent literary fathers. The Brontë sisters must have been all too aware of the popularity of this new breed of hero, and they clearly felt his appeal themselves. Heathcliff, Rochester, and Arthur Huntingdon are all variations on the theme of the Byronic hero. Insidiously attractive, all three characters present a threat to the women who love them, with Heathcliff being the most intentionally destructive of the lot, and only Jane Eyre’s Rochester being really redeemable by his novel’s close. The allure of such heroes was the same combination of sexuality and menace that had made Lady Caroline Lamb describe Lord Byron himself as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
As much as the sisters borrowed from these established elements of the genre, they also revised earlier Gothic conventions, putting their own spin on the plots and characters that were the cornerstones of the genre. Brontë heroines resemble their forebears in their situations - friendless, without money or influence, subject to persecution from the very people who ought to defend them – but they differ in their responses to those situations. Gone are the fainting, meekly beautiful angels who dominate the traditional Gothic novel. Brontë women fight back against the world that seeks to control or destroy them; they take action with grim determination, sometimes for good and sometimes for their own selfish reasons.  Charlotte, in particular, rejects the traditional Gothic heroine in her preference for protagonists who are NOT beautiful; rather, the force of their personalities constitutes what charm they have. Moreover, these women are all too aware of the charms of the Byronic heroes who pursue them; their desire for the bad boy, even when they know it to be wrong, and even when they themselves deny that desire, fairly pulses throughout the pages of their novels.
These protagonists, so different from the proper ladies who normally populated women’s fiction at that time, made the Brontë novels different in a way that unsettled some reviewers. Those reviewers were unhappier still because the heroines’ sufferings and tortured courtships take place not in faraway continental castles but in alarmingly real country homes and schools, and the depiction of cruelty and violence in those hallowed institutions laid bare a far more uncomfortable kind of Gothic terror. Debate about the sex of the authors, given that the sisters wrote under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, colored some of the responses to their work. If it was questionable for a man to present such horrors, it was certainly scandalous for a woman to do so. Reviewers called The Tenant of Wildfell Hall “morbid” and “unhealthy,” the Rambler denounced Jane Eyre as “one of the coarsest books we have ever perused,” and conservative writer Eliza Rigby even condemned Jane Eyre as “anti-Christian” because of its heroine’s personality and attitude.  Of Wuthering Heights, the anonymous reviewer for Graham’s Lady’s Magazine wrote, “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors...” while the Atlas reviewer opined that “We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity.”
 In terms of Gothic fiction, English writers had been presenting equally if not more outrageous scenes of suffering and depravity since Horace Walpole first penned The Castle of Otranto, but the Brontë sisters had taken the foundations of Gothic fiction and stripped away the veneer of fantasy that made its messages coded rather than explicit. Once the full force of the genre’s implicit passion was unleashed, the whole enterprise seemed shocking and vulgar, although of course there had been critics who had pointed out the torrential undercurrents of the Gothic all along, usually in order to denounce such works as inappropriate reading material for young ladies, wives, and servants.
Despite the reviewers’ concerns, and precisely because of the elements that concerned them, the Brontë sisters’ novels held on to the public’s imagination, and they have yet to let go. Cathy and Jane Eyre, along with Heathcliff and Rochester, have been brought to life on both the big and small screens countless times.  In 1939, Merle Oberon played Cathy to Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff, while 1944 saw Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles take the lead roles in Jane Eyre. Daphne du Maurier used Jane Eyre as the template for her own tale of secrets and seduction, Rebecca, which, interestingly enough, saw Olivier again as the Byronic hero and Joan Fontaine as the heroine in its 1940 film adaptation. Val Lewton capitalized on the Gothic horror of Jane Eyre’s plot in his post-colonial film revision, I Walked with a Zombie, which was released in 1943, and in 1966 Jean Rhys offered a prequel to the events of Jane Eyre in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Like the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontë works have inspired endless modern sequels, prequels, and revisions from authors of varying skill and intent, the best and most interesting of which might be Sheila Kohler’s 2009 work, Becoming Jane Eyre: A Novel, which presents a fictionalized biography of the Brontë sisters. The most inventive of the lot might be Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, in which the characters of Jane Eyre literally come to life and leave the pages of their book.
But what of those pale lovers standing in the moonlight? The current passion for Gothic entertainment has taken the vampire lover and his human beloved as its central image, but the fangs are merely a modern marker for the differences that class, wealth, and gender presented in earlier centuries. That vampiric anti-hero is as much Heathcliff as Count Dracula, sometimes even a heady mix of Rochester and Austen’s Mr. Darcy.  Emily Brontë’s gypsy-like orphan might well have been a demon in human form, and it isn’t hard to imagine the puppy-strangling Heathcliff with fangs and a taste for blood. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, Gothic lovers Bella and Edward even proclaim Wuthering Heights to be their favorite novel, a revelation which sent Emily’s work soaring up onto the bestseller lists in 2009, according to the UK Guardian. I have no idea what to make of the impending release of Sherry Browning Erwin’s Jane Slayre, which recasts Charlotte’s heroine as a vampire hunter and Bertha Rochester as a werewolf, but if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can be a hit, then surely Jane Eyre is even more fertile territory for such treatment.  Television series like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Moonlight, Forever Knight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dark Shadows, and the Canadian show Blood Ties have all demonstrated our ongoing appetite for supernatural Gothic horror heavily influenced by the Brontë model, in which lonely, independent heroines fall for dangerous, wounded men. The consuming passion that pulsed through every page of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights has proved vampiric itself, enjoying deathless vigor even as its creators succumbed to the grave all too soon. If the mania for Gothic fiction today leads a new generation of young readers to discover the genius and raw power of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, then we can only be grateful for that, even if it comes with fangs attached.  For the “sleepers in that quiet earth,” the sisters themselves, all passions have ceased, but those of their creations will live forever. 

NB: This lecture was originally given at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library for the 2010 English Author Tea. Citations for quotations are not included because of the nature of the presentation, and I have not added them because they would only encourage plagiarists. Plagiarists should be warned that vampires come and eat people who steal other people's work!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me: Reflections on The Muppets

2011 might have been called the year of the Muppets. With the new movie, The Muppets, hitting theaters back around Thanksgiving, newspapers, magazines, and the internet were all in the throes of Muppet mania. After years on the cultural back burner, Muppets were suddenly in the spotlight again, and they turned up everywhere. For some of us, of course, they had never really gone away. Generation X grew up with The Muppet Show and the original Muppet movies. They formed as important a part of our generational consciousness as Star Wars, the Reagan Era, and the advent of video games. The Muppets had lived on in the years after Jim Henson’s death in 1990 in new films, television specials, and DVD releases, but their glory days had seemed to be over, especially as new generations of children grew up unfamiliar with characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear. In 2011 they came back, and people around the world enthusiastically welcomed their return.
I am, obviously, one of those people who was thrilled to see them come back. I grew up watching The Muppet Show, and some of my earliest introductions to popular culture came through those sketches. I’ll never forget seeing Alice Cooper for the first time, leaping around The Muppet Show stage in spandex while belting out “School’s Out.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t get all of the jokes, but I loved the Muppets just the same. Gonzo was always my favorite, mainly because I myself was so often targeted as a “weirdo” by other children at my school, and Gonzo wore his weirdness like a badge of honor. As I got older I found that I appreciated the Muppets even more; so much of their material sprang from rich veins of literary, musical, and comedic tradition. Densely allusive, perversely funny, and studded with brilliant one-liners, The Muppet Show and the movies that followed seemed tailor-made to appeal to my interests and tastes.
So I know why I love the Muppets, but why do other people love them? They certainly are strange characters, an eclectic assortment of frogs, pigs, bears, chickens, and unidentifiable things. They are not particularly heroic, they often seem utterly insane, and they are sometimes totally overwhelmed by the burdens of their imaginary lives. In an age that loves CGI, they are instances of a very old-fashioned magic, puppets brought to life by the hands and voices of mysterious, unseen performers. Partly we love them because human beings feel a deep attraction to that magic; our fascination with puppets goes back to very early civilizations. Partly they appeal to us because we see so many distinct personality types represented in their ranks; most people have a favorite Muppet, whether it be Kermit or Piggy, Fozzie or Gonzo, or even Animal or Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Most importantly, perhaps, we love the Muppets because they are also, improbably and irresistibly, embodiments of joy.
Joy is a powerful emotion, a spiritual experience. We have sought it and treasured it for thousands of years. Religious texts urge us to find joy in the divine, but we find it many places, in experiences both large and small. William Wordsworth speaks of joy when he says, “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” If you have seen a rainbow you might know exactly what he means. Joy is that leap of the heart, that springing of the soul, that pure delight that we often associate with children and the way in which they experience the world.
 The rainbow, which bursts forth suddenly, even miraculously, to bend its colors across the sky, is an appropriate symbol for joy. It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most enduring Muppet moments features a song about rainbows. At the beginning of The Muppet Movie, Kermit the Frog sings, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” The lyrics remind us of Dorothy’s yearning song in The Wizard of Oz, in which she longs to be “somewhere over the rainbow.” Both songs are really about our search for joy. Lovers, dreamers, singing frogs, and little girls from Kansas long to experience joy, as do we all. The source of joy might be different for everyone, but the heart’s leap remains the same.
The secret of the Muppets’ longevity is their ability to create that leap in the hearts of so many people. When my co-editor and I were working on Kermit Culture, our book about the Muppets, people we spoke to would get so excited while sharing their own love for the characters and films. Their eyes lit up and their hearts leaped as they talked about fond childhood memories and favorite moments. A child’s delight became theirs again, if only for a little while.
The Muppets bring people joy because they themselves are embodiments of it. They sing, they dance, they tell jokes, and they dream big dreams. They are not afraid to love each other or their own interests, even if they aren’t very good at whatever they try to do. Fozzie might be a terrible comedian, but he never stops trying. The Great Gonzo’s stunts inevitably end in disaster, but he’s always ready for another go. So often in life we let other people tell us where we ought to find our joy instead of laying claim to the place where we know it to be. We’re afraid of what the world will think if something different makes us happy. We’re even afraid to BE happy because a jaded, sophisticated world might laugh at childlike joy. The Muppets remind us that we shouldn’t care what other people think. It’s our rainbow connection to find for ourselves. At the end of The Muppet Movie they offer us some very important advice: “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.” In other words, find your joy and don’t let go.
The Muppets have other lessons to teach us, as well. As a community, they represent and celebrate the power of creativity. Being creations themselves, they inherently demonstrate the creativity of the puppeteers who made them and perform them, but they also become creators as they sing, dance, and pursue their dreams. From the boisterous rock n’ roll of the Electric Mayhem to the bizarre performance art of The Great Gonzo, their acts are examples of creativity unleashed, and creativity is another expression of joy. The Muppets embody imagination, not only in their diverse forms but in their wild and unpredictable acts. You never who or what might appear on stage; it might be Marvin Suggs and His Amazing Muppa-phone, Bobby Benson’s Baby Band, or even Wayne and Wanda.
 The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies also repeatedly show the Muppets as being aware of the larger, connected world. They often take an environmental stance because Jim Henson cared very much about environmental issues, as many of his other films and television shows reveal. Being mostly animals, the Muppets are of course advocates for the natural world; even Sam the Eagle, a staunch conservative, has to get behind the Endangered Species Act when he realizes that it protects American bald eagles like himself. One memorable segment of The Muppet Show features a group of forest animals singing the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth,” as a group of hunters invades their forest home. Later, Kermit’s signature song, “Bein’ Green,” became an anthem for environmental concerns and Kermit himself became a mascot for recycling. In order to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every Muppet, the Muppets also have to respect the swamps, forests, caves, and trees from which they come.
Beyond environmental issues, the Muppets are social activists. Jim Henson was himself a great proponent of social justice; it was no coincidence that one of his favorite songs was Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around,” which Belafonte performed at Henson’s memorial service. As Henson’s collective voice, the Muppets protest what they see as wrong in their world. Much of The Muppet Movie focuses on Kermit the Frog’s stand against Doc Hopper, who wants Kermit to promote a chain of frogs’ legs restaurants. Kermit refuses on ethical and environmentalist grounds, saying, “All I can see are millions of frogs on tiny crutches.” Kermit’s friends stand with him, even when the conflict becomes a showdown with a hired killer. They also stand together against greedy industrialists like Tex Richman in the newest movie, leading Fox Business Network to accuse the Muppets of being Communists. (Yes, they really did.) In a screed sure to warm the hearts of liberals everywhere, Fox commentator Eric Bolling blasted the 2011 Muppet movie as part of Hollywood’s liberal agenda to encourage an anti-corporate attitude in children. Apparently, children need to see more lovable, friendly corporate moguls in their entertainment. You know, just like we have in real life. Like everyone else who takes a stand against injustice, the Muppets obviously have their detractors, but they don’t let that stop them from doing what they feel is right. They want to make the world a better place for everyone, not just the Doc Hoppers and the Tex Richmans who already have so much.
          These are all reasons for people to find joy in the Muppets. They teach us the values of community, diversity, and creativity. They tell us to take a stand for the things we love. They remind us of the joy we felt as children, but they also urge us to hold on to that joy as adults. You never get too old to look for the rainbow connection. As Wordsworth says, “So was it when my life began;/ So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old; Or let me die!” Let us, the lovers and the dreamers, ever find joy, whether it be in rainbows, or revelations, or a strangely lovable band of frogs and pigs and bears. 
NB: This is a shorter, revised version of the original talk, intended for a more general audience.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I have been a Doctor Who fan since the early 1980s, long before Doctor Who was the new hotness. I can't tell you how excited I was to find these engraved police box tiles at the LEGO convention last weekend! Now all I need is a fig of the Doctor and a Companion. Allons-y! Geronimo!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Horror and Gothic film reviews on

This list is posted primarily for the benefit of students in my Gothic course this term. I am providing links to all of the horror and Gothic film reviews I have written up to this time. A few of these films are arguably Gothic (like A Streetcar Named Desire), but most clearly belong to the horror or Gothic genres. Starred items are those films which most clearly belong to the Gothic tradition. There are also some other posts related to the Gothic on this blog, including a discussion of Laird Cregar and photos demonstrating Gothic images with LEGO minifigures.

Nosferatu (1922)*
Dracula (1931)*
Frankenstein (1931)*
White Zombie (1932)*
Rebecca (1940)*
Cat People (1942)*
Bedlam (1946)*
The Raven (1963)
The Haunting (1963)*

Also relevant is this post about classic movies and Gothic romance.*

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Gendered Consumption, Girls, and LEGO Friends

Marion Ravenwood, a female fig from the Indiana Jones line.
The LEGO Friends line has barely hit American stores’ shelves, and already a media backlash against the new toys is working its way into an online frenzy. Every article and blog post I have read thus far takes LEGO to task for releasing a line of toys marketed directly and exclusively at girls, while at the same time decrying the toy company’s established penchant for making boys the sole focus of its mainstream offerings.

All of the critics thus far seem to be women, mostly mothers, and their wrath is roused by the stereotyped way in which the Friends line depicts girls. The pastel colors, the re-tooled figures, the playset versus construction focus, and the girlier activities and interests presented are all being roundly panned. There is, however, a certain Catch-22 element to these critiques. If LEGO only makes toys for boys, then they are sexist. If they make toys for girls, then they are still sexist, only it looks like the second option might be even worse in the critics’ eyes than just continuing to make the toys for boys. 

The media stream provokes some interesting questions. Can LEGO make a toy line that attracts girls AND boys equally? Will girls like the new Friends line, or will it fizzle just as Belville and Clikits did before? What has LEGO done to make itself so tremendously attractive to boys that it hasn’t been able to replicate for girls?

I might, in fact, be the single most-qualified person on the planet to talk about these issues. Seriously. I’m a 20 year AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO) and an active member of the adult LEGO hobby community, and I just happen to have a PhD in Feminist Criticism and Theory. I’m also a working scholar in the field of popular culture studies; I’ve even presented papers about LEGO at academic conferences. Oh, and I’m a woman AND a mother to a little girl. When it comes to talking about gender, girls, toy culture, and LEGO, I’ve got the bases pretty much covered. 

An female fig from the Castle line of the early 90s.
My own reaction to the new Friends line is tempered by these qualifications and the knowledge that comes with them. LEGO has tried to tap into the girl market before, and it has never been very successful. Previous girl-oriented lines died out fairly quickly, even as the core lines of toys for boys expanded and then boomed. I have seen LEGO try this kind of thing before. I think we have to give them credit for continuing to try to get it right, even if Friends isn’t the product we were hoping to get. If Friends also sinks into oblivion, there will be a few years of quiet and then LEGO will try again. After all, there are millions of girls out there who could be spending their birthday money on LEGO sets instead of Barbie dolls.

Speaking of Barbie, I don’t think we can make LEGO the villain when culture dictates the gender divides that rule our children’s lives and desires. Nobody stopped you from buying your daughter superhero action figures and LEGO sets, but perhaps you steered her toward more conventional girls’ toys because you wanted her to be popular, or heterosexual, or “cute” like the little girls our culture imagines as the standard. Do I think LEGO could do a better job developing toys meant for both boys and girls? Sure I do. I also know that they have made a lot of effort in that direction over the years. There are more female minifigs in sets now than ever before, and not just in the $100 sets. I wrote the company a letter back in 1994 asking them to put more female figs in their products, and they sent me a reply saying they were working on that, along with a goodie bag of fig hair and heads to make my own female figures. What does that say about their corporate culture? The company has a long history of engaging with and listening to its fans, especially in the adult community, but most of the critics on the internet don’t know that.

An Indian girl from the Wild West sets of the 90s.
I bought one of the new Friends sets as a trial purchase. My daughter and I have both examined it and its contents. My daughter thinks the new figure is nice, although she says it lacks the deeply ingrained appeal of the classic minifig. We bought the inventor set to get the least “girly” example of the line, and I admit that the overall bent of the product is much too gender conventional for my tastes. While I don’t mind the pastel bricks, I’d rather have a huge bin of them rather than just a few little bits for a playset (I liked the pink bulk tub LEGO produced a while back very much and bought a lot of them). I think both my daughter and I would have preferred a set with a traditional minifig and a more diverse palette, but I don’t think the new line is terrible. LEGO is trying to react to market demand, and the pink  aisle in the toy section shows exactly how that demand is perceived.

What would I, as an invested, female fan, like to see from LEGO when it comes to girls? Well, I’d like to see the whole line get out of the deep end of the blue aisle in stores. That sends a message to girls all by itself – “This is not for you!” The Friends line seems to be taking up residence in the pink aisle, near the Polly Pockets whom the new figures resemble. Breaking down the gender divide in the toy section is a herculean task, however. I don’t know that LEGO can do it alone. Playmobil might be a useful model, but Playmobil recently vanished altogether from our Target aisles, and they also are prone to the blue/pink divide in their toy lines. Is there no room at the inn for a gender-neutral toy line? I’d like to see more lines that both boys and girls can enjoy, preferably in neutral color packaging (how about green? Or yellow?). A zoo line would be neat. Fewer police and firemen and more shopkeepers would be great. The Café Corner line is gorgeous but far out of the price range to get girls INTO the hobby in the first place. I’d like to see more female figures in the less expensive sets, especially the licensed ones. The new Super Heroes line ought to be a good place for that, and LEGO ought to think about how accessible it makes figures like Wonder Woman in comparison to Superman and Batman. I’d like more animals, more colors, and more options to make a LEGO world that reflects my individual tastes beyond the expectations of gender. 

The appeal of LEGO is that you are supposed to be able to make the world you imagine. I want to imagine hair salons AND fire stations, veterinarians AND bank robbers. Maybe boys and girls would like that, too.