Not Everything is Awesome – The Lego Movie and Marx, race, and gender

Last week my son and I went to see The Lego Movie – he’s only 18, so I have an excuse! 😉

It is an enjoyable film – we laughed through much of it, and the various references to other films and cultural elements are sophisticated and well done.  The central story – that creative play is better and more important than the uniformity of business – is elegantly told.  The film ends on a slightly mushy but emotional high that cheered the children and us.

And yet… and yet… this is a film that makes me uneasy.  Primarily this is because of the (ironic) self-referential criticism of capitalist uniformity being promoted – by a huge capitalist corporation.  The number of Lego mini-figures manufactured over the years alone apparently numbers several billion – and the number of plastic bricks they’ve made will no doubt exceed that several times over.  The amount of oil and other natural resources that have been used to create this much plastic is probably impossible to even quantify.  Lego bricks may be small, and the mini-figures rather cute, but the company behind them is neither: it is a global capitalist enterprise, and the bricks it sells are what creates money for them, through the classic form of creating surplus-value from their labour force.  It may be a great toy, and our household has contributed substantially to the profit of the Lego corporation over the years, but it is still a capitalist enterprise with all the problems that entails.  David Harvey shows how Marx explains the various ways in which capitalists excuse and explain what they do in order to make profits from their workforce, and then notes:

Capitalists may… be frugal and abstain, and they may also sometimes exhibit a benevolent attitude toward their workers… Marx’s point is that capitalists could not possibly sustain the whole system by appeals to virtue, morality or benevolence, that the individual behaviour of capitalists, varying from benevolence to vicious greed, is irrelevant to what capitalists must be in order to be capitalists, which is, quite simply, to procure surplus-value.  Furthermore, their role is defined… by “coercive laws of competition,” which push all capitalists to behave in similar fashion no matter whether they are good people or proverbial capitalist pigs. (A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso, 2010, p123)

To pretend that Lego is a “good” capitalist corporation (or even to pretend that it is not a capitalist corporation at all, but just a manufacturer of good quality toys) is to ignore the nature of what it seeks to do – make money for its owners, which it just so happens to do by making little plastic bricks.  The message of the film – that imagination and creative play should triumph over business uniformity – can legitimately be seen as capitalism making its excuses and justifications for the way in which the corporation operates (relying, for example, upon the global oil industry for their product), as Harvey explains using Marx.

Dipesh Chakrabarty also uses Marx to argue that there are two forms of capital’s engagement: the first he calls History 1, which is capital’s attempt to subsume everything into itself to form one dominant narrative of history.  It is counteracted by multiple forms of subversion and resistance that he calls History 2 (or Histories 2, or History 2s etc.), which History 1 is seeking constantly to incorporate into itself and therefore nullify.  To think that Lego is in some way promoting a form of History 2 (or its variants), as the film seeks to suggest, is to mistake the power, adaptability and inventiveness of capital as exemplified by History 1 (see Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000/2007).

The normative understandings of race and gender that the film uses help to show this.

Virtually all of the characters are the uniform yellow of the classical Lego mini-figures.  The only exception I can recall comes when Lando appears: a Star Wars character.  Yellow is used for pretty much all non-licensed Lego mini-figures, whereas licensed figures (e.g. in the Star Wars and Harry Potter sets) have a more ‘natural’ skin tone that is supposed to be similar to that of the ‘real’ characters.  This might suggest that the yellow faces are not really race-oriented, but to my mind, this simply makes the appearance of one single black character stand out all the more – there is no racial diversity in Lego’s world (unless there is a connection to an external source).  In terms of race there is no History 2 here. (For more on this, see e.g. the classic text by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, 1967.)

As for gender questions, there are two key elements I want to pick up on.  The first is the classic Lego pattern of pinks and pastels for many of the ‘girl characters’ such as Unikitty (one of the only named leading girls apart from Wyldstyle/Lucy – see below): when the leads move into these coloured areas, the ‘boy characters’ tend to react uncomfortably and seek to return to the stronger primary coloured areas: a classic portrayal of girls’ and boys’ Lego worlds as marketed by Lego for decades now.  Gender is ‘performed’ in classic style here (see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge: 1990).

Secondly, whilst there is a strong female lead character in Wyldstyle/Lucy, who is generally shown to be more competent than the supposed (anti-?) hero, Emmet, she generally plays second-fiddle to strong male leads, whether Vitruvius, Batman (her boyfriend, though she is shown to be gradually falling in love with Emmet as the film progresses), or Emmet himself.  Then, in the closing scenes, Batman quite literally hands her over to Emmet, saying he (Emmet) deserves her more: Wyldstyle/Lucy becomes piece of property, a trophy, passed on from one man to another.  Nothing is allowed to disrupt the heteronormative patriarchal patterns of society – there is certainly no female agency allowed to disrupt male domination.  As with race, History 1 provides the normative understanding in gender terms.

So The Lego Movie offers a form of engagement with creative play in rebellion against the dominance of big business – within strictly defined limits that do not threaten the interests of capital in any meaningful way.  “Everything is Awesome” as the corporate song in the film has it – but not if you seek any kind of History 2 in relation to race or gender diversity.  Doing so might lead to questioning the dominant structure of white, male society and from there it’s just a short step to questioning the dominance of capital itself – and we can’t be having that now, can we?

4 responses to “Not Everything is Awesome – The Lego Movie and Marx, race, and gender

  1. Thanks for this interesting blog post. Two immediate thoughts come to mind:
    a) Of course, I have not seen the movie (and not planning to, either) but the issues you have described here applies universally to many films (Hollywood, Indian, Tamil, etc.) showing how pervasive these capitalism-induced issues are.
    b) Using Chakrabarty here is useful (Of course, he talks about Histories 2s in relation to gender/race diversity but extending his theory to these issues seems useful). In re-thinking some of his arguments, I am beginning to think that capitalist corporations’ attempts to show as if they are ‘good’ capitalist corporations is for them to mask the work of History 1 in the guise/goodness of Histories 2s. I know, this reads like some sort of conspiracy theory. I think, using Harvey, you’re making a similar point. By appropriating Histories 2s (or some of it, at least), corporations are making capitalism to be an ontological entity that they have to conform to, but are now subverting/resisting ‘when they can.’ Rather deceitful, in many ways.

    • Exactly! Read Marx (or if you can’t face that on a Sunday morning, read Harvey’s chapter – it’s available free on his website, I think) and he describes exactly that. 🙂

  2. I seemed to have mistyped the comment on Chakrabarty. He *doesn’t* talk about Histories 2s pertaining to gender/race. Thanks, will look up Harvey’s chapter. Marx certainly makes for a good Sunday morning reading. 🙂

    • Well, I misread it as that, so two wrongs make a right…? Or something.
      Anyway, I knew what you meant, because I know he doesn’t really discuss these topics in any detail.