Destroy All Monsters: Girls and LEGO
Major spoilers for The LEGO Movie follow. If you don't want to read about the ending, bookmark for later!
So girls can't play with LEGO? That's the takeaway from The LEGO Movie, a takeaway which I thought was just a piece of malignant subtext until the film's final moments, where The LEGO Movie went ahead and made it text. Everything is awesome, use your imagination - just don't let your sister play. Her imagination sucks.
The toy industry must be one of the most rigorously gender-separated subsets in popular culture, and it's hiding in plain sight. The messaging isn't even subtle; whole toy stores are bisected down the middle with an invisible Berlin Wall. It's the great toy store divide, across which no child shall pass (lest their passport be stamped either with "sissy" or "tomboy," respectively).
I'd have thought LEGO, at least, was an equal-opportunity plaything. It's bricks. It's bricks used to build real-world objects, and not-so-real-world objects, and whackadoo objects halfway between the real world and a methadone patient's hallucinations. One would think one could have a seat at that play table regardless of what one has between one's legs.
But I learn that in this regard, The LEGO Movie comes by its sexism honestly. Its parent company tried to buoy flagging female interest in the product line a couple of years ago by introducing Ladyfigs, a girl-specific LEGO product line that looked like traditional LEGO minifigs (thumb-sized representatives of humans, who make up the majority of The LEGO Movie's principal cast) crossed with the Bratz dolls.
It was all very girly, in that the Ladyfigs sets were concerned with homemaking, and fashion; and there was a lot of purple and pink.
Maybe some of this is natural. Children are inherently emulative, the younger you go; one could argue that there's such a strong divide between what toys boys will play with and what toys girls will play with because that strong divide still exists between what mommy does and what daddy does. And daughters want to be like mommy, and sons want to be like daddy, or so the theory goes.
It's shoestring circular logic, and it suggests that the toy world is at the very least a pernicious reinforcement system for existing cultural biases, but it's built into The LEGO Movie from the green studded baseboards up. The main character is a (LEGO) boy. His mentor character is a (LEGO) boy. The villain, the comic relief, and the other comic relief are all boys.
And at the climax of The LEGO Movie, we pull out of the animated, fantasy Legoscape in which the entire adventure has taken place, and find ourselves in a basement, with a real boy, who has a real Legoscape laid out before him. Meta-text win: this is clever.
So is the majority of The LEGO Movie. In the annals of successful movies made out of things that suggest no movie form of any kind, The LEGO Movie falls behind Pirates of the Caribbean, but not by much. The withdrawal into the real world at the story's climax fits nicely in line with the movie's remarkably developed conversation between Instruction (i.e. those booklets that came with the Lego sets that told you what to build) and Inspiration (i.e. the half-spaceship, half-manta ray with a Christmas tree sticking out of one wing, which you inevitably built with the set).
That conversation is important, because it tears apart the unsettling migration in the concept of LEGO that has taken place in my lifetime: the branded LEGO universe. When I was a kid, castles were made out of yellow bricks and populated by generic knights with yellow faces. Now, castles are made to look as much as possible like scale models of Helm's Deep, and the knights look like Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen.
Pre-existing universes have overtaken the LEGO universe. It's not that you can't build the alternate LEGO models on the back of the box; it's just that the manner in which LEGO is now being marketed tends to suggest that the purpose of the toy is to build the model, rather than build the concept. A moon base is a concept (and The LEGO Movie's obvious fondness for 1982-era LEGO spacemen warms my heart). The Death Star is no moon base. (It's a space station).
But here's The LEGO Movie, pulling all the bricks apart and suggesting that the mad shit you come up with off the top of your head is as valuable as, or even more valuable than, the regimented LEGO construction kits. It re-prioritizes building, and plays out its final moments in the real world to reinforce the point.
But the fact that it was a boy annoyed me. We're great at teaching boys that they can build; building has a, shall we say, in-built relatability to the male life experience? When my father was growing up, these sorts of teachings weren't even particularly subtle; he played with some horrifying thing called an Erector Set. And The LEGO Movie is replete with representatives of the next generation of erector-boys, as a couple dozen male (and a few female) Master Builders run riot across the Legoverse building whatever blessed thing they can think up.
When we first pop out into the real world and see wild-haired Finn staring down at the minifig of Emmett, The LEGO Movie's main character, my first thought was aw, it couldn't have been a girl instead? The role itself is gender-blind. It could have been cast either way - for the purposes of the story and the theme, it's only important that it's a kid, not whether or not the kid has an Erector Set.
And regardless of how much LEGO currently sells to which gender group, the audience for a Saturday afternoon animated movie is inevitably going to be a lot more gender-neutral. There was an opportunity here. It only seemed like a missed opportunity at first, and I was willing to let it go. But then, like a million sexist douchebags over a thousand years of history, The LEGO Movie kept talking.
The antagonism in the film's climax is between the kid and an adult - revealed to be Will Ferrell, playing the boy's father, as well as the villain in the Legoverse - who promptly comes down the stairs and censures his son for screwing around with his perfectly constructed Lego city by inventing nonsensical designs of his own.
So now, we have two male LEGO builders competing with one another on opposing sides of the philosophical divide of what LEGO is for. But clearly, either way, boys (and overgrown man-boys) build. Boys imagine; boys (ultimately) think outside the box and find value in creative play.
There are two female LEGO characters in The LEGO Movie. The female lead, Lucy, is a Trinity-inspired white rabbit for Emmett. Lucy - after starting out as a Master Builder of visually astonishing proficiency - spends the rest of the movie stranded between two love interests, Emmett and... ahem... Batman.
The other LEGO girl, Unikitty, is a walking piece of foreshadowing of the very last gag in the movie. She's the sort of lunatic sparkles-and-rainbows confection you presumably get when you let a girl do whatever she wants with LEGO: the union of a unicorn and a kitten.
To expand upon the point, the final joke in the movie has Finn's mother call down to the basement from upstairs - where she is, of course, making dinner - to ask if Finn's sister can come down and play. This scenario is greeted by Finn, his father, and all the citizens of LEGO Town with abject horror. We end the film on the arrival of girl-designed Frankenstein's monsters descending on Lego town, cooing in Teletubbyish voices.
OK. If LEGO is a boys' toy and this is a LEGO movie, what's the hubbub? Can't a movie be just for boys? (I didn't argue like this when they made The Barbie Movie. Though I probably should have.)
It's a reasonable argument - except for the bit about what the movie is saying, which would be tear-inducingly sweet if it weren't also so one-sided. The LEGO Movie deserves to be an equal-opportunity inspiration. But a movie that has been, in part, about the importance of stepping outside the rule set to use construction toys to explore creativity, concludes with a joke about how there are some rules that aren't made to be broken: like how girls really suck at LEGO.
Up until that moment, I was willing to concede that The LEGO Movie had some unfortunate subtext in its otherwise rather splendid text; but that coda lays all of the film's puerile cards on the table, and thus I am spared the burden of having to be nice about this. The LEGO Movie is needlessly, recklessly sexist. And it's the needlessness and recklessness that ultimately bothers me the most. The great toy store divide didn't need another brick in the wall.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.