Gender Contamination: A clear term for a fuzzy but real idea

I love it when someone names and explains a truth I’ve been half-aware of for some time.  This just happened today with the Jill Avery’s term “Gender Contamination”.

This article explains:

“Gender contamination” is the loaded and fascinating term coined by HBS senior lecturer Jill J. Avery to describe just how uncomfortable women and (more often than not) men become when a product they use to symbolize their gender is extended to appeal to another gender. She first noticed this phenomenon while working at Gillette, where the company was careful to call its women’s line “Gillette for Women” in order to create separation between pink razors that smell like papayas and black manly-man razors that smell like manly-man things. This piece describes a couple of other examples stemming from the research, including the struggle to get men to drink diet sodas (black cans and avoidance of the word “diet” help) and how gents on Porsche message boards managed their insecurities when the car company came out with an SUV.

It’s a really cool idea.

I’ve observed one particular instance of Gender Contamination that I found interesting. This phenomenon is sort of a variation on the idea above.  It happened in 3 steps:

  1. A product started gender-neutral,
  2. It became dominated one gender (by accident or design) and
  3. now is being marketed explicitly to another gender.

I’m thinking of Lego. Legos used to be mean generic, gender-neutral building blocks. Then came themed kits, which was a key reason Lego is the second largest toymaker in the world.  By selling kits, instead of bulk blocks, Lego can differentiate and market an endless series of products.  This is especially important because Lego’s patents recently expired.

Here’s where the gender contamination idea comes in.  Lego’s history of gender-neutral themes did not continue with their kids.  A few kit themes are gender-neutral today (e.g. Lego City) but most are not. Lego has found huge commercial success in making kits themed and licensed around boy-friendly storyworlds (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Batman). Lego has churned out many original storyworlds around action and violence (e.g. Chima).

The sad result is many, even most, girls today don’t play with Legos after Duplo.  Lego became a boy’s toy.

Now, Lego’s trying to fix that.  They’ve recently launged a girl-targeted storyworld called Friends series.

Maybe it’s just because it’s new, or because I’m a guy, but to me, Friends feels …weird… even though I’m not opposed to Lego’s intent.  In fact I think it’s great that Lego is reaching out across gender boundaries, even if their motives are impure.

What’s wrong with Lego Friends?  It’s certainly got some clear weaknesses, as amazing game designer Erin Robinson explained so powerfully (here).

However, I feel something else uncomfortable about Lego Friends, and I can’t explain it. I wonder if Brand Contamination theory (or this minor variant of it) might be part of the key to articulating that other nagging feeling.

I’d love to hear Jill and Erin discuss how the idea of Gender Contamination explain the Mysterious Discomfort of Lego Friends.  Here’s hoping they’re inspired to explore it together.