Accepted entry for the “Article” category.
Author: LettuceBrick (Nice Try)
Word Count: 1,424
Hidden in Plane Sight
Hello again, constant reader! It’s LettuceBrick, back with a smattering of seriousness.
Much has been made of both The Lego Group’s stated repudiation of violence in its products and its obvious, perhaps even aggressive, pushing into gray areas towards outright contravention of its standard of nonviolence. This article is an exploration of the gray areas – with a focus on non-licensed themes, more on that later – that have helped Lego to make a killing and, as a happy and surely unintentional side effect, have produced some rather kick-ass models.
As a preliminary, it seems a definition of those vexing gray areas is in order. To this end, I will, at my peril, ignore the dictionary and even common sense to focus instead on an implicit definition as proffered by TLG itself. Readers may prefer to consult a more authoritative… authority.
Since TLG’s actions speak louder than its words, I’ll eliminate those categories of violence which, since they have direct representations in sets, are obviously not off-limits. For starters, it seems that the remoteness of the violent actions involved matters. Thus, Western themes don’t seem to count because that violence happened a long time ago, Castle can’t possibly count because that violence happened an even longer time ago, and Star Wars really doesn’t count because, in addition to happening a long, long time ago, that violence happened somewhere far, far away.
Now, of course, other licensed themes contain violence as well. Here we arrive in another gray area. After all, pretty much all of these themes contain no more violence than is perfectly acceptable in mainstream entertainment, even for children. In a sense, Lego is following the lead of the license (though they did make the choice to acquire the license in the first place) and thus of the prevailing (apply all relevant disclaimers here) culture. Said licenses have of course been picked up less for any grand ideals they may or may not espouse than for the absolute shed-loads of cash that they can generate.
So perhaps it is only modern, real-world violence that is beyond the pale for TLG. But what then is modern violence, I hear you cry. (Ok, well, I don’t, but perhaps somebody else did.) Does the American Civil War count? Sure, they had trenches and Gatling guns, but have you seen the facial hair on those people? Not modern at all, hipsters notwithstanding. TLG seems to agree with the “mustache meter” as a measure of antiquity if their old Western theme is any indication. Those bluecoats do look an awful lot like Union soldiers.
So perhaps the First World War? Well, the (really quite lovely) large-scale models of the Sopwith Camel and Fokker Triplane would seem to argue against it, despite that war being the first really stark example of industrial killing. Then again, TLG has refrained from making any sets even remotely approaching the predominant horrors of that war: poison gas and trench warfare. Even if Lego decides to go all Rambo all of a sudden and announces something akin to a great battles theme, I doubt one of the sets would be “Gas at Second Ypres.” Even the Wonder Woman from that period shies away from such horrors in favor of a more innocuous aircraft. We thus seem to be approaching a definition of what flies and what does not: whether or not it flies.
This leaves the Second World War, which we approach via Indiana Jones (yes, yes, it’s a licensed theme). Here, we find several vehicles of a rather military flavor, especially the amphibious 4×4 that bears a resemblance to a Volkswagen Schwimmwagen and the monoplane which approximates a Messerschmidt Bf 109. Still, these vehicles are merely props in a character-driven story removed from the immediate context of the war they seem to fit into, not in a Blitzkrieg battle pack or something. Also, one of them flies and the other isn’t exactly a main battle tank.
Returning to the skies, and in particular the non-licensed atmosphere, we find an interesting phenomenon: that of the (garishly) camouflaged flying object. Many of these are very, very generic and so don’t really enter into this discussion. Here we come at last, long-suffering reader, to my main point: many flying Lego objects bear a striking resemblance to modern military vehicles.
Let’s start with the F-14 Tomcat, 20,000 kilos of pure killing machine and total crowd pleaser:
Photo credit: US Navy
Awe-inspiring to be sure, but perhaps not the sort of thing TLG is “supposed” to be reproducing in the brick. With that in mind, consider the following Creator set:
Photo credit: Brickset
Sure the intakes are wrong and the colors are bright, but the overall look is very Tomcat-esque.
Next up we have the Eurofighter Typhoon, Europe’s answer to there’s something flying and I want it gone:
Photo credit: Bundesheer
And here we have the excellent Sonic Boom:
Photo credit: Brickset
Okay, okay, the intakes are at the sides and not underneath and it has horizontal stabilizers. So maybe a Rafale? Or a Eurofale?
Lastly in the jet category, we have everybody’s favorite concurrent boondoggle, the effing-35:
Photo credit: US Airforce
And what follows is not at all, in any way, shape, form, fever dream, etc. an effing-35:
Photo credit: Brickset
I can tell because it has two seats, rearward visibility, and actually went on sale within the intended timeframe.
It’s not all about the jets though. TLG also has also offered some familiar-looking helicopters:
Clockwise from the upper left we have a slightly tenuous AW101, an S-61R, a CH-47, and a CH-53. These are even more on the nose than their pointy brethren above.
Finding corresponding real-world pictures and other examples is left as an exercise for the reader. (As a slight aside, scavenger hunt time! Find the Lego depiction, in red of all colors, of an armored personnel carrier.)
So it seems TLG has no issues with using the basic shape of a real-life military aircraft in sets, which leads to a few obvious questions. Some of the vehicles exist in civilian versions, which would suggest another gray area, but many others do not. So what are the criteria for depicting an aircraft in a set?
Is it perhaps the color that matters? The Sonic Boom for instance is draped in red and white, the colors of the Red Cross, Canada, and that paragon of peacefulness, Switzerland. The other jets could perhaps emulate aerobatic display team paint schemes, which though less menacing (pretty colors!) than haze gray remain directly tied to military forces.
Or perhaps it’s the application which matters, as suggested by the helicopters? Surely no one can object to volcano explorers or firefighters repurposing ostensibly military airframes, though the thought of cops rappelling from a large helicopter may be cause for rather more pause. Then again, if a military-capable jet is used by a large corporation as a purely aerobatic display aircraft à la Breitling Jet Team, would that be okay? Could we see an official Lego BJT L-39 Albatross?
The overall formula seems to be as follows: take the cool-looking flying thing, make it not gray, don’t attach any missiles, and you’re good to go.
In the end, it seems even Lego is not entirely immune from the realization that violence is just about the only thing that sells as well as the German pronunciation of what you get when you multiply two by three. (Anyone wanna see whether or not that’ll fly on MOCPages?)
So does it matter? Who knows? Does anyone care?
Lego certainly doesn’t seem to. Lego sales have not suffered from any colorful warplane backlash, though I doubt the yay-combat-aircraft-in-cute-colors market is what is really driving the profits. Nobody else seems to care either, with the wider world reserving its ire for Lego Friends and the increase in grrr-faced minifigs. The collective response from AFOLs seems to have been a collective shrug, though there are a few very helpful Brickset bricklists dedicated to military aircraft. As for the children (there, someone thought of them) I’d say they have plenty of more traumatizing things to be traumatized by.
So I’d say Lego has found a middle ground that works. They can capitalize on the sleekness and coolness of modern combat aircraft while at the same time camouflaging the vehicles’ origins. In short, they appropriate a motif that is very familiar while at the same time keeping it within a zone of colorful, garish gray.