I STILL PLAY WITH TOYS (Yes, Actual Toys): Plus! The Terrible Things I Did to My Childhood Barbies, the Girlification of Legos and the Value of Playing

This is probably a big reason I don’t have children of my own: I don’t want to have to share.

Nov 29, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Tiny tiny super nonthreatening zombie attack.

On our first date, I took the train to my now-husband’s student apartment in the grungy unscrubbed neighborhood of Allston, MA, at the time known for housing a large portion of those attending Boston University. I met him at his apartment because I guess I’m kinda trampy like that, but it turned out to be a much more intriguing introduction than anticipated when I saw that -- instead of the usual heaps of beer cans and garbage one finds in a twentysomething multi-bachelor apartment -- this fully-grown adult male had action figures displayed on nearly every horizontal surface. Virtually all of them were Star Wars related.  

“Are those... toys?” I asked, bewildered, as he led me into his room. 

“Yeah, I collect them,” he replied offhandedly, as though this was just a thing you do. He walked over to the television, where I saw that a game of Mario 64 (this was a long time ago, okay) was paused.

“IS THAT A NINTENDO?” I hadn’t touched a game console in almost a year. I could date this guy for a bit, I thought, just long enough to play Mario 64 all the way through. It’d be worth it.

Thus, we blew off our movie plans to play video games all night, and then eventually we got married. The end. 

Or not the end, because my love of toys and playing has never really ended -- WOMAN CHILD FOREVER, yo -- and if anything, under the tender ministrations of my unabashed toy-loving husband, it has become more pronounced. Most of our house is decorated with toys and video game paraphernalia; we even have Atari and Nintendo-themed art on the walls. 

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This is mostly a picture of my husband's shaved head, but behind that you can see a limited edition NES art print. 

Indeed, my home office, where I’m writing this now, is littered with toys of all sorts, from lo-fi Slinkys and Silly Putty and Play-Doh, to a model of the space shuttle Discovery and some meticulously detailed Mass Effect 3 figures. Having toys around keeps me thinking, keeps me imaginative, keeps me playful -- all necessary skills in my line of work. While I’m sure having a Hello Kitty snowglobe and a big Godzilla figure on my desk back in my office-working days probably meant people thought twice about considering me for any kind of serious promotion, keeping my work fun is absolutely non-negotiable so far as I’m concerned. I get that this doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s always been a risk I’m willing to take.

So I’m always looking at toys, and most recently, I have been revisiting the world of Lego, which were easily my favorite toys as a kid. 

(Oh, sure, I had Barbies like most girls my age, but weirdly they only really started to appeal to me once I was past the age when Barbies were socially acceptable -- I suspect in my private play, I was attempting to understand the mystifying social entanglements of my middle-school-aged peers by enacting them with dolls, like a weird form of self-directed therapy. And because by then I was too embarrassed to buy Barbie clothes at a store where somebody might see me, I took to fashioning new clothes for my old, crop-haired Barbies out of black electrical tape I found in the garage. Because it stuck to them? Essentially I designed a squad of Sapphic black-vinyl-clad dominatrix Barbie assassins who were constantly stalking my one Ken doll, who was always evil. It’s probably little wonder I turned out like this.)

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A Lego lady. Dig those orange pants.

But I digress: Lego. I have been going back to my toy roots, when I spent many solitary hours building the kind of doll house I preferred to play with (always some kind of renovated warehouse space with an open floor plan and a loft; my god I was an arty nerd even at 10) and devising elaborate stories of intellectual intrigue amongst an assemblage of creative characters, most of whom I made artists, writers, composers, and other intelligentsia types. (Yeah yeah, we've established that I was a total dork practically from birth.)

My childhood Lego love was mostly rooted in the fact that these toys did not, at the time, come complete with a story for their players to tell -- Lego toys required kids to imagine their own tales, to create their own inventions. I liked that there was no script, no established narrative; these toys didn’t just reproduce a scene from a movie, over and over again. More than that, they had no characters, and no expectations. The blocky Lego minifigures were really quite androgynous, with gender denoted mostly by the application of a certain type of hair.

But my recent Lego shopping excursions have led to some sobering revelations. For one, I recently wanted to buy a box of bricks -- just bricks, for building whatever. It’s the kind of open-play toy Lego has always done really well. But when I went looking for them at Target, I was a little surprised, as instead of finding just big boxes of bricks, I found PINK and BLUE boxes of bricks. Because there are girl Legos and boy Legos now.

To be fair, Lego has always tried to court the girl market; as far back as the 70s they were releasing “jewelry” toys with interchangeable pieces, ostensibly because girls aren’t interested in building anything they can’t wear. Indeed, even before the current girlcentric Lego “Friends” line, in the mid-90s Lego released another line of girl-aimed building toys called “Bellville,” which was of course all pink and princessy, because those are the things all girls like.

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The new "Friends" line, with its Bratz-like minifigure style.

But something about the gendering even of a freaking BOX OF BRICKS made me annoyed. The girl Lego box, which is of course pink, comes with a lady minifig with long flowing hair (FLOWING! None of my childhood minifigs had FLOWING hair), a white horsey figure, and a brush (though whether the brush is meant to be applied to the Lego lady’s flowing hair or the horse’s, I cannot say).  

The boy Lego box, on the other hand, is blue, and comes with a little dude minifig, who wears a hat and carries a wrench. Because... all the small dude-children like wrenches?

I complained to my husband: “Why do they have to be so gendered? Why can’t they just have LEGOS, why do there have to be boy-Legos and girl-Legos with such an obvious divide between them?” 

“Well,” replied my husband, who has an annoying habit of asking the exact wrong question at the most inconvenient moment. Looking at the box in my hands, he asked, “Why are you buying the girl one, then? Buy the boy one.” 

“BECAUSE I WANT THE HORSEY AND THE LADY WITH THE FLOWING HAIR. But that’s not the POINT!” I wailed.

My discomfort stems more from the assumption -- one that is already culturally omnipresent and is further reinforced by heavily gendered toy marketing -- that horseys only appeal to girls and wrenches only appeal to boys. If one box were red and the other green, for example, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it at all. Some kids (and toy-enjoying adults) like horseys. Some like wrenches. Some will be boys and some will be girls. And in the end, bricks are bricks.

I just bristled, I guess, at the suggestion that I must naturally prefer horseys because of my gender. 

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Typical Saturday night at my house.

I also felt kind of sad for the little girls who might like wrenches but who, thanks to Lego’s boy/girl color-coding, might be afraid to face the derision of their peers for choosing a “boy’s toy” -- or vice versa, as the little boys who appreciate horseys and long flowing hair may feel reluctant to select the pink box due to worries that they might be mocked for choosing something so icky and clearly girl-intended.  

As a former knotty-haired grubby-kneed tomboy myself, I was always coveting the toys of my boy playmates, like the massive Hot Wheels garage playset belonging to the son of family friends, or the towering Castle Greyskull plastic monstrosity owned by a boy neighbor. In fact, I struggled powerfully with my desire for all of these boys’ toys -- I was convinced it meant that there was something deeply wrong with me, that my lack of natural aptitude for girl things (behavior that is, after all, for the most part conditioned and learned and not intrinsic) indicated that I was somehow gender-broken.  

In fact, I was actively worrying about my struggles to fit gender expectations as far back as my memory can go. I felt guilt over my envy for the boys’ dozens of miniature Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and shame that I could never ask for them for myself, because doing so would mean openly rejecting my feminine development, and given that my boyishness already got me teased by peers and regularly mistaken for male by adult strangers (who for a certain period of my elementary school years were often calling me “son,” to my horror), I couldn’t bear to think of giving up hope of being normal just yet. So I kept to my gender-neutral Legos, and hoped for the best.

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My silly impossible tower.

While my time for idle storytelling today is more limited (and I write that shit DOWN now) I still find something extraordinarily soothing about the brick-building process. I expect it’s a bit like some folks feel about knitting, which I hate; there is a rhythm to it, a focus that is pleasant but not consuming, the building is relaxing without being boring, which is a problem I sometimes have. I bought the pink box of Legos and on an evening when I was feeling very down earlier this week, I built an inexplicable tower, and when I was done I felt so much better, because even in my depressed state, I saw that I could still make something beautiful happen.

And that is why I still love toys: because they open us up to the child-parts of ourselves, the parts that look past the mundane to see the magical and the bright hope of endless possibility. What were your favorites?