Building a Better Future
When I was a little girl, my choice of toys was rather gender neutral. Of course, I had the requisite Barbie “girl” toys, but I also got to enjoy Matchbox and LEGO “boy” toys. Before the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, those were my favorites. As I got older, my interest in Barbie and Matchbox disappeared but to this very day, I still love LEGO. It’s something much more than nostalgia because I don’t reminisce when I put together a new set. It’s not just a toy, it’s a new experience. For me, putting together a LEGO set is my version of building a ship in a bottle. The more complex a set is the more pride I feel from completing it. Yeah, I’m a professional woman in my 30’s who loves playing with LEGO. My most recent vacation included a trip to LEGOland California where I basked in brick glory and purchased more LEGO sets than I probably should have. It was worth it.
My relationship with my hobby has changed and matured as I have. It’s no longer playing, it’s a project. When a project is finished, I don’t disassemble it and place it back in a box. I proudly display it on a shelf like a treasured artifact alongside family heirlooms and vacation mementos; proof of the history and adventure of living. Essentially, LEGO is a component of my personal identity. My personal identity has been shaped and molded by my experiences and over time my personal convictions about gender norms and feminism have become more pronounced. I have never been a fan of prescriptive gender roles and stereotypes. The marketing gender divide in the toy industry is probably where I got my first taste of them. LEGO has been personally congruent for three decades and when LEGO introduced their “Friends” line of “girl” products I had strong feelings about it.
LEGO products have been primarily marketed to boys throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. In January 2012, LEGO attempted to market to girls by creating the Friends line of sets and received sharp criticism from consumers. The Friends sets were largely pink and purple pastels, themed with stereotypically “female” interests (baking, hairstyling, caregiving, and homemaking), and essentially segregated LEGO products by gender. This gender segregation is nothing new. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency produced a two-part video series about LEGO and gender which highlighted marketing used to sell gender stereotypes to both girls and boys. Many “boy” sets have a focus on weaponry and violence. Such marketing reinforces gender segregation in play and has not always been LEGO’s marketing focus. From the 1940’s to 1980’s, LEGO advertising featured girls, boys, and parents building the same, gender-neutral sets cooperatively and creatively. The emphasis was on building and creativity, the hallmark features of LEGO, not shooting things or getting your hair done.
LEGO has promised to do better. In September 2013, LEGO released a female lab scientist minifigure (minifig for short), which was a small step in the right direction. Now, in June 2014, LEGO announced plans to release the Female Scientist Minifigure set, which features three female scientist minifigs and accompanying accessories signifying the professions of astronomy, chemistry, and paleontology. The minifigs are of classic LEGO design and avoid extreme gender stereotypes. One problem, however, is the homogeneous “yellow” skin tone of most minifigs. Historically, there have been variations in minifig skin tones but they are largely yellow. There has been criticism of the lack of varying skin tones in minifigs but it is largely overshadowed by the call for more gender diversity and equality. LEGO really shouldn’t forget the other forms of diversity.
LEGO in the non-brick realm of marketing has also been impacted by gendered marketing. The LEGO Movie was released in February 2014 and Chris McKay, the film’s director, admitted it does not pass the Bechdel Test. Promisingly, he stated a desire to do better by female characters in the upcoming sequel and expressed that filmmakers have a responsibility to examine the culture of gendered stereotypes and create films with characters with more depth than stereotypes.. This is progress but it is not the end of the tunnel. LEGO, and consumer culture in general, has a way to go to include better representations of women, gender non-conforming people, people of color, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities. However, these considerations help to build a better future.
LEGO Portrait of the Author
-Written by Victoria L. Wu, MS