“Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff?”
Even a child can see something is wrong in our toy stores. The gender gap* that frustrates Riley in the above video does more than tell her which toys it socially appropriate for her to play with, it separates her from a whole realm of experience - masculinity. As Riley grows older and decides what sort of person she wants to be, she will encounter this gap again and again. While crossing the gender gap is not impossible, it is difficult and doing so risks stigma and ostracism, just ask the boy who dressed up as Daphne or the girl with the Star Wars water bottle. The gender gap is evident in nearly every aspect of our society, but one of the first and most striking examples is toy choice.
The LEGO Gender Gap: A Historical Perspective
Last month’s splashy introduction of the new LEGO** friends line has stirred up a lot of controversy. My goal with this article is to provide some historical perspective for the valid concerns raised in this heated debate. First, I will trace the history of the LEGO Group (TLG) and its various attempts to market products based on gender (of which, LEGO Friends is neither the first nor the most egregious.) Second, I will analyse the LEGO Friends sets and the arguments levelled against them with both empirical and anecdotal evidence. Finally, I will suggest courses of action for those who want to do something about reducing the gender gap in LEGO products, toy stores, and culture at large. My focus throughout will be on TLG’s marketing images and the human-like figures included in LEGO sets. Some are content to ignore these aspects to focus on the LEGO bricks in Friends, but these elements are the crux of the complaints leveled against LEGO Friends so we have to talk about them if we are interested in having an honest debate about this issue.
1932-1977: The Brick Era
The LEGO Group started as a family business with the motto “only the best is good enough.” The company produced primarily wooden toys for the first two decades of its existence. It wasn’t until 1958 that the iconic LEGO brick was patented as we know it today. LEGO bricks were originally marketed as toys for both boys and girls. The 60s saw the introduction of new elements to the LEGO system like wheels, windows and hinges. Marketing images*** from this era tend to feature boys and girls equally.
In the 70s we encounter the first LEGO theme marketed specifically at girls: Homemaker. The sets aren’t very different from the rest of the products offered at that time (there’s some bricks and you build stuff), but the pictures of smiling girls (sorry boys!) playing with the sets clearly mark them as "girls only." Homemaker sets are clearly meant to be furniture for dolls. Dolls are probably the oldest toy in existence, so finding ways to integrate the LEGO experience into this existing model of play was a shrewd business strategy for TLG. The desire to integrate dolls and LEGO will be a recurring theme. At this point I want to address an argument that could be used to defend TLG's stereotypical marketing. The idea that only girls play with dolls doubtlessly existed before the LEGO Homemaker sets, so one can argue that TLG is just being smart by marketing these sets to girls. Here's the problem with that argument, as free actors we are all responsible for the consequences of our actions as individuals or corporations So even if we didn't start it, when we perpetuate a stereotype, we are responsible for spreading it. So whatever the business rationale, and however slight the marketing bias TLG is responsible for the clear message sent by the LEGO Homemaker sets: the house is the domain of the feminine.
The 70s also saw TLG experimenting with different types of human-like figures. The first figures (sometimes called maxifigs to contrast with their later mini brethren) were built from regular LEGO bricks and new head pieces. These appeared in a line of sets with the uninspired name “LEGO Building Sets with People.” These line as a whole was marketed at both boys and girls, but some sets were more targeted. Co-existing for a brief period with the maxifig was a proto-minifigure. Then in 1978 the minifigure (minifig) first appeared as we know it today, and after an awkward period of co-existence with the maxifigs became the standard for tiny plastic people. The minifig is now as iconic as the LEGO brick and equally important in defining the LEGO brand, over the years has tried to introduce other types of figures, but none of them have the staying power of the minifig.
1978-1988: The Golden Era
For a decade LEGO minifigs existed in a gender neutral utopia. One can argue that the hairstyles are slightly gendered, but keep in mind that unisex hairstyles were all the rage at the time. When people talk about wanting to get back to the “good old days” of LEGO, this is generally the decade they are referring to. The LEGO Town, Space, and Castle sets from this time are classics. In the LEGO fan community there are even some fervent Neoclassicists.
In response to the LEGO Friends launch a lot of people have been passing around this image from 1981 as a call for a return to a simpler time (don’t miss the other two images from the same ad campaign.) The clever juxtaposition of this poster-girl with the line “the greatest concern for girls really was beauty” from the Businessweek article is apt and richly ironic. Some of that irony is unintentional though and only becomes clear when you consider what else TLG was doing when this ad ran in 1981. Not only were the “LEGO building sets with people” still promoting gendered play but LEGO had yet another “girls only” theme and a couple “boys only” themes as well.
The short-lived Scala Jewelry theme is a major deviation from the core LEGO product line. There is virtually no building in these sets, they are completely superficial - a triumph of style over substance. Contrast this with Technic, which is all substance and no style. These complicated sets (originally called Expert builder sets) are clearly for boys. Boys also seem to have taken over LEGO trains. It’s great that TLG provides a range of products for builders of all skill levels, but why is it that the products for girls are always on the low-skill side of the spectrum and the high-skill side always reserved for boys?
1989-2003: Gender Ahoy!
1989 marked the introduction of the Pirates themes which gave minifigs more facial options than the standard smiley face for the first time ever. While faces in later years would add variety (freckles, glasses, scars) while remaining gender neutral, this first batch of faces was highly gendered. The masculine figs sported copious facial hair and the lone feminine pirate had lipstick and a curved shirt that implied a busty chest. This pioneering pirate was the first in a long line of token females in otherwise male-dominated action-centric themes.
|1989: m/f = 13.5|
To chart the genderization of the minifg from 1989 to the present, I tallied**** the identifiably feminine and masculine minifigs across all sets for certain key years. The following graphs represent masculine minifigs in blue, feminine minifigs in red, and gender neutral minifigs in gray. I have also calculated the masculine to feminine ratio (m/f ratio) for each year (rounded to two decimal places). Ideally this should be 1, indicating that there are equal number of masculine and feminine figures. In 1989 it is pretty far from that ideal at 13.5.
|1992: m/f = 8.6|
Paradisa is an anomaly in many respects. A subtheme of town, this island resort theme is the only “girls only” theme that uses standard minifigs. Of all the themes I investigated it is the one with a m/f ratio closest to 1. It is relatively well respected by LEGO fans and I personally have fond memories of it. What’s good about using standard minifigs is that unlike many other "girls only" themes, Paradisa feels like part of LEGOLAND. The pastel color scheme is excusable because tropical resorts are one place pink architecture actually exists in the real world. Paradisa isn’t without its problems though.
|Paradisa (all years): m/f = .64|
The building experience in Paradisa is simplified compared to other LEGO sets released the same year. Compare the Sand Dollar Cafe with Wolf Pack Tower. The m/f ratio may be close to one, but the percentage of neutral figs is incredibly low, so playing with Paradisa reinforces the either/or of gender roles. Also, most of the figures clearly depicted as having jobs in Paradisa are masculine. In Paradisa, men are butlers, chefs, ice cream men, and life guards. Women mostly relax, surf, and go horseback riding. Overall, Paradisa isn’t perfect, but considering the "girls only" themes that followed, it’s no wonder fans are petitioning for its return.
|1994: m/f = 4.36|
|Belville (all years): m/f = .04|
At best, Belville was a wonderful source of accessories and unique colors for LEGO maniacs, highly articulated figures for Brickfilmers (click here for some shameless self promotion), and surrealist tableaus for the art admirer in all of us. At worst, it was schlock that pandered to girls and cordoned them off in a separate universe from LEGOLAND and a terrible dilution of the LEGO brand (every Belville piece has LEGO printed on it like any other.) I have no doubt that there are some people who love Belville (I’ve met a few), and I am not trying to rain on their parade; I believe everyone should love what they love and no one else should try to make them feel bad about it. That being said, no one can deny the message that Belville sends to children about gender - certain things are for girls only. Namely: fairy tales, equestrianism, the color pink, vanity, and being a homemaker. Boys shouldn’t want these things and the girls that don’t are lesser for it.
|1997: m/f = 3.67|
|1999: m/f = 2.16|
|Jack Stone (all years): m/f = 5.67|
|Scala Dolls (all years): m/f =.22|
In addition to recycling the name Scala for a new product line, TLG also recycled the idea of LEGO jewelry with Clikits in 2003. These pieces are barely compatible with regular LEGO bricks (some people might not even think to try.) The line also contained some Bratz-esque characters. 2003 was the year right before LEGO almost went bankrupt, so there are many products released that year that deviate significantly from the core LEGO brand. Given that landscape, Clikits is less of an anomaly, but it still shows TLG’s clear tendencies when marketing products to girls.
2004-2011 - Lean Green Fighting Machine
|2004: m/f = 3.9|
I, like many LEGO fans, am very grateful for what Knudstorp did to save and revitalize the company. The post-2004 era has seen a flourishing of LEGO themes and sets aimed at advanced builders which cause us adult LEGO fans to salivate inappropriately. The LEGO minifig has been injected with more personality and variety than ever before, so those of us who love these little people are in heaven. However, part of TLG’s new strategy also involved abandoning efforts the girl market and focusing exclusively on boys.
Abandoning schlock like Belville and Clikits is not a bad thing, but the push toward conflict and hyper-masculinity in classic themes (and a whole host of new ones) made LEGOLAND inhospitable for femininity. Here are a couple more telling quotes from the Daily Mail article: “As always with Lego, this [action-oriented theme] was developed at every stage... with the help of focus groups, mostly comprising boys aged between six and 12.” and “In this new world focused on profit, the company sees no shame in admitting that, like it or not, what most excites little boys is conflict."
|2007: m/f = 8|
|2011: m/4 = 1.74|
|Collectible Minifigs (to date): m/f = 1.6|
Several weeks before the first wave of LEGO Friends sets were available in US retail stores, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover story that presented an in-depth look at TLG’s thought process in creating the sets. This was a very deliberate move on the part of TLG. Because of the company’s miraculous turnaround in the last decade, there is more mainstream attention on everything they do. The general public wasn’t paying attention to TLG when Belville launched in 1994, not in the way they are now. This cover story does two things for TLG: it gets their version of the story out there first (“four years of marketing reserach show this is what girls want”) and it makes a bold statement about the LEGO brand (“like it or not, the minidoll is LEGO now.”)
This move implies that they foresaw the backlash this line would inspire and hoped to mitigate it. The article portrays TLG sympathetically, as a company that wants to help girls build important skills and is trying to figure the most effective way to reach them. This idea is echoed in TLG’s official press release responding to the controversy. To a certain degree, this maneuver has been successful on TLG’s part. I have seen plenty of people point to the quote about “four years of marketing research” to dismiss the arguments that LEGO Friends perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes. But the attempt to integrate the minidoll into the LEGO brand is ultimately doomed.
In many ways, LEGO Friends is an improvement over the previous “girls only” themes. For some additional perspective on this, I reached out to Olivia Donahue, a teenage LEGO fan who has spoken eloquently at Brickworld Chicago on several occasions about the problems of TLG’s previous “girl-friendly” products and what sort of products she would design for girls if she worked for TLG. Below I have interwoven her thoughts (in quotation marks and italics) with some of my own.
“For a long time, TLG had the idea that girl = pink and pink = girl. (Which isn't necessarily true.) Instead, LEGO has moved to another color that is still recognizable as girly but not as stereotypical: PURPLE... This is nice, as TLG has finally realized that girls just like fun color in general, nor necessarily PINK.” Look here to see the official shade of lavender that represents LEGO Friends. Teal is also a major color in the Friends palette. The palette also includes a good deal of traditional LEGO colors like white, red, brown and tan. It's not a pink monstrosity like Belville.
Even more so than Paradisa, LEGO Friends has a building experience that is on par with other currently available LEGO sets (mostly City and Castle, as the action themes use more complex techniques.) Olivia also pointed out something corollary that I completely overlooked. “They are appropriately priced for the desperate mommies in Target trying to find their daughters a gift, especially considering that the other LEGO sets that have about the same number of pieces are about the same price.” Belville and Scala sets had some of the worst price per piece ratios ever.
The minidolls may be sexified and problematic (more on that below), but they are an improvement compared to the oversized Belville characters. “At first, I was a bit bothered by the fact that the minifigs were doll-like, but after seeing that they are near the same (if not exactly the same) height as regular figs, I find myself surprised that I actually like them. I still don't like that LEGO is separating girls from the rest of the line by doing this, but, nonetheless, I like them.” If nothing else, at least the hairpieces are compatible with those of minifigs.
The interests/occupations of the female characters are just a little bit broader than previous lines. While Andrea and Emma have clear predecessors from Belville, Olivia the inventor, Sophie the Veterinarian, and Stephanie the farmer/pastry chef(?) broaden the range of possible careers just a little bit (and none of them are a princess!) “Little girls can now play with certain people that have a role in their little town... the girls do good things, like taking care of puppies, which is always nice for young people to see.”
“Overall, I am very pleased with the Friends line. LEGO has incorporated details, vehicles, animals, cutesy things, and interiors, all while presenting them with fun colors, a nice price point, and lovable characters. I think they have really outdone themselves.” That’s a ringing endorsement from someone with a thorough understanding of the market that LEGO is trying to reach. Knowing the history of LEGO’s “girls only” themes it is clear that Friends is a improvement and I think that it will sell spectacularly for all the reasons Olivia lists.
Olivia’s single nagging concern about Friends is really about the LEGO product line as a whole. “Where do the girls go from here? There isn't a lot of intense-ish building to keep the girls interested in the line... Hopefully they will create something for older, more casual girl builders that has a more reasonable price point than the Green Grocer line of sets... What LEGO really needs is an appealing set that someone can pick up at Target for $20-50.” Many people have praised Friends as a way to broaden the LEGO fanbase and bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise play with LEGO. Will Friends really act as a gateway to the rest of the LEGO product line for those builders, or like Belville will it just create a separate, less building-intensive universe? TLG’s recent separation of the LEGO club magazine serves as a clue to their perspective on the issue, but the biggest barrier to those builders crossing over is the minidoll.
You'd think TLG would have learned from all its many failed attempts to create non-minifig figures***** that anything that isn’t the minifig is doomed to fail. Compared to the minifig, the minidoll is lacking in two key respects: articulation and compatibility. The classic minifg has 7 points of articulation (8 if you count the hairpiece’s ability to move rotate independently of the head) whereas the minidoll only has 4 points (5 with the hair.) Minidolls can’t rotate their hands (which limits the ability to accurately pose accessories) or move their legs independently (which prevents them from being posed in active positions like running, they can only sit, stand or bend over.) The value of the LEGO system is the ability to connect all the different pieces to each other. The only compatibility between minidolls and minifigs is the hairpieces and accessories (think about the message that sends.) Unlike minifig legs and torsos, which easily connect to standard LEGO bricks so you can build any type of legs you want, The leg to torso connection on the minidoll is not compatible with any standard LEGO connection (though there are some connections possible, they are of dubious utility.) Additionally, the minidolls do not have LEGO connections on the back of their legs like minifigs do, making it impossible to securely attach to vehicles in seated positions. When my 4 year old nephew went to play with Stephanie’s Pet Patrol after picking it out from the store he asked his mother “why can’t she sit down?” Thus the minidoll is “separate but equal” to the minifig, by which I mean separate and demonstrably inferior.
|Friends (initial wave): m/f = .06|
To be fair, I want to fully acknowledge the one area where the minidoll has a slight advantage over the minifig: racial diversity. Though darker skin tones were introduced to minifig in 2003 with Lando Calrissian, there has yet to be an identifiably feminine, dark-skinned minifig. Andrea (and Sarah) are therefore trailblazers. Friends is also the first instance of a LEGOLAND scale theme that integrates realistic flesh colors and is not connected to an external franchise (movies, comics, sports, etc.). This is a topic I'd like to discuss at length another time, but I hope this is the start of a trend that leads to a more ethnically diverse range of minifigures.
When I have shown the minidolls to my friends, co-workers, and family members the response has been pretty consistent. “That’s not LEGO,” is a common refrain. My sister’s first impression was, “why are there Barbies in the LEGO catalog? I thought it was some weird cross-promotional thing.” This is why TLG is trying to promote the minidoll as heavily as possible, they are trying to make it a recognized part of the LEGO brand. The conundrum is excellently summed up by legobucket’s comment on this Brother’s Brick review of the Friends sets. “I would take the mini-dolls and drop them into my 3 little step-sisters LEGO bucket and they would probably say ‘That’s not LEGO!”’, to which I would say ‘it is now!’”
Much of the resistance to the LEGO Friends theme can be viewed through this lens, a disagreement between consumers and TLG about what the LEGO brand represents. The average consumer is probably as clueless as Michael K Williams’ character in Community about the slow changes that transformed LEGO from the toy it was 30 or 40 years ago to the toy is today. What this controversy makes crystal clear is that consumers still expect the best of LEGO and hold it to a higher standard than other toys, even if TLG no longer does.
TLG certainly has its hands full trying to correct the misinformation spreading about LEGO Friends, (and we should all help in that effort, because honest discourse is foundation of an enlightened society) but I think that TLG fundamentally misunderstands the argument against LEGO Friends in the following statement from that press release. “We want to correct any misinterpretation that LEGO Friends is our only offering for girls. This is by no means the case. We know that many girls love to build and play with the wide variety of LEGO products already available.” This is probably a response to the clever slogan that many opponents of Friends have rallied behind, "LEGO for girls already exist - it's called LEGO." The critique of Friends (as I understand it) is not that it is being presented as the only LEGO product line for girls, but that TLG is so clearly marketing LEGO Friends only to girls. Rather than creating themes that appeal to both boys and girls and marketing them to both boys and girls, TLG is creating products for boys and products for girls. The fact that the focus groups for LEGO friends consisted of girls and women and the focus groups for lines like Power Miners and Atlantis consisted primarily of young boys proves that TLG fundamentally believes that boys and girls have entirely separate needs and desires. This is a harmful belief that we as a culture need to rid ourselves of.
I fully acknowledge that adult men and women have empirical demonstrable differences in the ways they process information, express emotion, and act in society. And while some of these differences are attributable to very minor differences the biology of male and female brains (nature), most of them are due to the very different ways we as a society raise boys and girls (nurture). We are all complicit in exaggerating these differences by perpetuating stereotypes. Those of us with greater influence over our children (parents, educators, and multi-national toy corporations) need to be especially mindful of the consequences of our actions in this regard. It is easy (an profitable) to rely on existing stereotypes, but those of us who still believe that “only the best is good enough,” know that resisting them is worth the extra effort.
If you are at all concerned about the gender gap in any aspect of our society, you must read Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot. She systematically eviscerates many commonly-held beliefs about the extent and origin of gender differences. The tagline I would use for the book is “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.” If you want to fight the girls=pink trend in marketing and media aimed at girls, you should check out Pink Stinks, a UK charity that attempts to counter this trend by promoting media literacy, self-esteem, positive body image and female role models for kids.
If you are concerned specifically about the gender gap in LEGO products and you like peitions, you can add your name to the nearly 50,00 asking TLG, “to back to advertising and offering all LEGO to boys and girls,” but considering the false information in the e-mail promotion that led to a majority of those signatures (I watched that evening as the signatures went from around 3,000 to 30,000), I doubt TLG will lend much credence to the petition. A better way to petition TLG is to use the platform they developed specifically to solicit new product ideas. TLG will review for development any idea that receives 10,000 votes on Cuusoo. Maybe you want to see a Bionicle-esque line with female protagonists, maybe you want a retro-futuristic space exploartion theme with a female protagonist, maybe you want TLG to pursue a My Little Pony licensed theme, maybe you have your own ideas about LEGO sets that would appeal to both boys and girls. All of us should be on Cuusoo supporting great projects like these and using our creativity to make new ones.
If you want to use LEGO to help encourage interest in STEM for a girl in your life, check out LEGO Mindstorms and First LEGO League. If you want to use LEGO to encourage cooperation and socialization for a boy in your life, try turning building a LEGO town into a community activity that explores power dynamics and ethics. Heck, those are both great activities for both girls and boys!
If you are part of The Lego Group, here are the things I think you should be working toward in whatever way you can. Some of these may be unrealistic, but I’m an idealist:
- Ditch the minidoll - it dillutes the LEGO brand and it won’t last
- Stop marketing based on gender. Ditch the separate LEGO Club Magazines immediately and start including a balanced group of children in all your focus groups. Balance out the "Build Together" ad campaign with some commercials celebrating female builders.
- Move toward a m/f ratio of 1 for all figures (minifig or otherwise) across all themes and keep gender neutral figures a significant percentage of your offerings.
- Put more pink/purple/lavender bricks in action-oriented themes and Technic sets
- Batten down the hatches for when the general public catches wind of the LEGO DUPLO Disney Princess sets scheduled for release later this year.
- Hire Olivia Donahue as a consultant ;)
A final plea to all of you who have made it this far: challenge norms. Be unflinching in your love for things you not expected to love. Bronies are a remarkable example of what is possible in this regard. Adult fans of LEGO challenge norms every day by using a children’s toy to create works of art. When I went purchased two LEGO Friends sets for the purposes of research for this article the clerk smirked and asked me “and who are you shopping for today?” I responded, “myself.”
Thanks for reading! I welcome comments, critiques, conversation, and copy edits ;)
*For the purpose of this article I define gender to be a set of socially constructed roles (i.e. masculine and feminine) that are correlated with biological sex (i.e. male and female), but entirely separable (as evidenced by tomboys, sissies and others with complex gender identities.) When I use the term gender gap I am not simply referring to pay inequality as the term is often used, but any separation between the masculine and feminine domains.
**LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this article. LEGO is a portmanteau of the Danish words leg and godt which mean “play well.” I refer to the company that produces LEGO bricks as The LEGO Group (TLG) throughout to distinguish between the company, its products, and the overall brand. I use LEGOLAND to mean the fictional universe that LEGO minifigures inhabit, not the real-world theme parks of the same name.
***My apologies to peeron.com and Brickset for any server strain I have caused by my extensive linking to their image catalogs. They are great resources for the aspiring LEGO researcher. You can support peeron by clicking this link before making a purchase on Amazon. If Brickset has something similar, I couldn’t find it.
****Methodology: I used Brickset to count the number of minifigs with identifiably masculine or feminine traits appearing across all sets released in a given year. Due to TLG keeping sets on the market for 1-2 years, this is not a perfect reflection of diversity presented to the consumer each year, but it is a good approximation. In the year-wide totals I have not included any of the other human-like figures that TLG has produced (Belville, 4 Juniors, Galidor, DUPLO etc.) or most non-human minifigs (skeletons, robots, aliens etc.)
In all cases I have given TLG the benefit of the doubt and classified as neutral all minifigs lacking overtly genderized characteristics, even if TLG's marketing materials (or popular culture) classify the character as male or female. For instance the Han Solo and Kai minifigs I classified as neutral despite the fact the most children will think of them as masculine. Here are the traits I looked for: Masculine: facial hair (printed directly on the face or as a detachable beard) and (occasionally) an exposed chest with well-defined abs. I did not count chin lines or cheek bones as masculine. Feminine: lipstick, eye shadow, exaggerated eyelashes, (occasionally) curves on clothing that imply breasts, or actual cleavage. If you're interested, my raw numbers are available here.
***** EDIT 1/18/12 It has been pointed out that I did not acknowledge the success of DUPLO figures and the BIONICLE and HERO FACTORY action figures. DUPLO has always done a good job of representing males and females equally (as well as different ages and ethnic groups) so there's not much to say about it other than "good work TLG!" In BIONICLE the primary thing being built is the figures so they don't serve the same purposes as minifig, Scala dolls etc. The building style is so different, it is basically a completely separate system, despite being compatible.
EDIT 1/21/12 - I have fixed typos and modified a few words to make my claims about licensed sets for external franchises more accurate. Thanks to everyone who has helped me improve the article.