As much as I love LEGO®, I have some problems with my son’s Ninjago sets. And the videos and books that go with it. Here are some of my issues, in no particular order:
1. None of the Ninja are Japanese. The boys are all white. And, ok, my son is studying Aikido, it’s ok for white folk to learn something from a different culture. But surely the teacher is Japanese? Nope. The teacher (at least they got the word for teacher, “sensei,” right) is named Wu, which is a Chinese name. And he has a very stereotyped Fu Man Chu appearance. So, for all that this would be a great time to teach respect for different cultures, Ninjago is actually teaching stereotypes and that it’s ok for white people to co-opt other cultures and use them for their own ends.
2. The bad guy, Lord Garmadon, is black. He doesn’t look African at least, he looks sort of Asian and sort of demonic. But what kind of message does that give? The bad guy is black, the bad guy is demonic, blacks are demonic? Not the message I’d like to deliver with my son’s toys.
3. The bad guy’s son, Lloyd Garmadon, is blond and white. What? Not only does that make no sense racially (after all, Lloyd’s dad is black and his uncle is Chinese) it delivers the message that white people are inherently good. Which is so very not true. And that only white people can be good. Also so very not true.
4. There are no women. Once you’re subverting traditional ninja culture, which was male, why not put in a few kick-ass girls? Or show Lloyd’s mom? There is one girl, the sister of one of the Ninjago boys, who eventually becomes a Samurai (again with the subverting of the culture of the other, with the whitening of something foreign and exotic). I’d like there to be more gender equality in these toys. Girls can kick butt. And boys can be nurturing and caring.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think LEGO® as a whole is a great tool for boys and girls alike. I just don’t like the directions they go to market and sell their products. Or not all of them, anyway. Why not show both girls and boys building and playing and fighting and getting along? The more these messages are perpetrated, the more kids internalize them. People say, well, I’m just going along with the dominant culture. But by going along we are also continuing it. If we don’t challenge it then we say it’s ok the way it is. And that’s not really ok with me.