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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Lego for Girls

December 19th, 2011 at 22:23

So, LEGO is going to start including girls. Or, rather, they’re going to try to make up for lost time (market) by pitching directly to girls and their toy preferences, in a separate line, LEGO Friends, from the standard boy sets.

Which is, you know, what they have been doing all along with Belville, a rather grim dystopia of pink cottages, ponies and jodphurs. Only now they’re going to do it in lavender and aqua! There’s a great critical article about the problematic nature of this line at the Mary Sue.

I have mixed feelings. From the Business Week article, it does look like Lego are working hard to look at what girls want and need out of toys, rather than just spraying pink on ponies and hurling it at them, machine-gun fashion. But while I agree that yes, my six year old would probably prefer to play with the LEGO Friends mini-figs that look like real girls instead of little yellow barrels with faces, I’m also concerned that as with Belville, this new line will be an excuse not to be as inclusive as they could be in the standard Lego sets.

Anyone who gets me started on the topic is well acquainted with my rant about how something like Harry Potter, a property that appeals equally to boys and girls, becomes horribly boy-heavy once it turns to Lego, and you have to buy hugely expensive sets to have girls like Ginny, Hermione and Luna included at all. This happens across the board – female characters are massively outnumbered by male in almost every Lego set going, and there are whole lines that feature no female characters at all, or one female character for every 8 or so men.

The Castle theme, I believe, has one damsel (which I’ve never seen on a toy shelf) and a whole bunch of male knights, guards, peasant farmers, etc. Because medieval history, totally for boys, am I right? (Even Merlin does better with female characters.) And yes, there are some very cute female characters (like Cleopatra!) in the current range of minifigs you can buy as Lego lucky dip, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to buy those for my daughter because again, so many more male characters than female, and I could spend a fortune trying to get her that damned Cleopatra. It’s not like she needs more boy minifigs.

My daughter, up until now, has dealt with this lissue by taking actual bricks with faces on and building them outrageous crinoline frocks which can be swapped between heads. I also bought her a bunch of not-Lego (some other brand) which is capable of producing fairy tale/princess type Lego (Girl’s Dream) which isn’t utterly revolting, though sadly the bricks don’t fit together as nicely as the “real” brand. On the other hand, they have sets with MORE THAN ONE GIRL IN THEM. The pink, though. Oh, the pink.

Our girls should have toy options other than ‘everything is pink’ and ‘all the characters are boys.’

The lack of female minifigs doesn’t just say that Lego doesn’t care about whether girls buy it or not. It also says that Lego thinks that boys should mostly play with boy characters. Which would come as news to a certain 8 year old boy I know, who was so annoyed that his enormous Atlantis Lego set came with only one female character that he made her the captain, to make up for it. And okay, maybe he’s not typical 8 year old boy, I accept that. (But oh, wouldn’t the world be a better place if he was?)

Toy makers have a responsibility. They do. And one of the most interesting pieces of child psychology in that article, which leapt out at me, is that according to their studies, girls (mostly) play in 1st person, and boys in 3rd person. Which suggests to me that you could have a better balance of male and female characters without it affecting the boys’ game play at all, or threatening their masculinity, or any of that jazz. You could chuck in a few more female submariners, knights, Star Wars characters, witches, ninjas, and so on. If boys don’t need specific idealised avatars in their play (as this article suggests the Lego psychologists believe) then surely it would be a good thing to encourage them to play with a variety of characters.

The girl characters don’t have to have pink princess dresses, or fairy wings. Lego has actually designed some great female adventure characters (Raeli has a female archaeologist that I bought for myself, before she was born). There just aren’t enough of them.

I worry about this new girl Lego line, not because they’re giving young girls a redesigned minifig with handbags and breast curves, but because it’s an excuse to make the LOOK ITS FOR BOYS Lego lines even more male heavy, and that not only makes the girls who like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Medieval Castles, Atlantis, Cities or just plain building shit with bricks feel completely excluded, but also works as yet another societal tool programming boys to believe that girls aren’t people.

But it’s not all doom and gloom out there. The new DC Super Heroes line of Lego has just been launched, to tie in with the upcoming Lego Batman 2 game. The first wave includes a set with Wonder Woman (packaged with Superman and Lex Luthor) and one with Catwoman (packaged with Batman). Yes, you heard me right. Lego with Wonder Woman, and Catwoman, and you don’t have to buy a set with 12 other (male) characters in order to get access to them.

I would have respected this whole “LEGO cares about girls” spiel a hell of a lot more if the interview in the Business Week article had mentioned that, as well as providing a new line with aqua bricks and yellow handbags and cocktail glasses in trendy swimming pools, they were also releasing freaking Wonder Woman Lego in traditional yellow blocky minifig shape.

Um yes, and the moral of the story is? My daughter is so getting Lego for her birthday. But not the kind with handbags.

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8 Responses to “Lego for Girls”

  1. Anne Lyle Says:

    I have to say that Playmobil is no better – amongst the pirate sets I own, there is precisely one female figure. Which may be historically accurate, but jolly toy pirates are a long long way, factually speaking, from the vicious cut-throats of history. And girls’ Playmobil is all princesses and unicorns, which wouldn’t have appealed to my childhood self very much either!

    I had “girls’” Lego when I was young – it was a set that built into a realistic house with a tiled roof (very fiddly to build!). I don’t know if it was marketed at girls – the fact that it was a domestic building was the only nod to gender stereotypes. As for the Lego people, they weren’t introduced until 1974, by which time I was getting a bit old for them…

  2. tansyrr Says:

    We’ve always had Mega Bloks for the girls when they were younger – which have great sets, castles, pirate ships etc, and a good mix of gendered characters. Even if you buy a set which is a bit boy heavy, like the pirate ship, it’s easy enough to get hold of more figures to girl it up a bit.

    If you look at Lego Duplo, aimed at the younger kids, the gender balance is much, much better. And funnily enough, the Lego people have noted that the girls often drift away from their product between Duplo and Lego – but is it that they don’t want to build things any more? Or is it that they no longer recognise it as a product for them?

    The big question is, are Lego sets so lacking in female characters because the female customers are less interested in building after the age of 4? Or do the girls lose interest because the sets are so obviously pitched at boys, excluding them? It’s a vicious cycle, I’m sure, and there’s no future in putting out toys no one wants to buy. But I do strongly believe that it’s a problematic thing to encourage boys only to play with male-identified toys, rather than a mix of characters.

  3. tansyrr Says:

    Also, there were lots of female pirates in history! And you’re absolutely right, ‘realism’ is never an excuse for sexism in toy design, because realism isn’t relevant to any other aspect of designing a toy!

  4. mollydot Says:

    I’ve been poking around at some of the sets of basic blocks aimed at younger kids. They’re no longer just the bright primary colours of my childhood – there’s ones now with orange, two shades of green, two shades of blue, one or two shades of grey, and the odd brown, yet no pink or purple. The “bright primary colours” thing can no longer be used as an excuse. I think they’re afraid the generic sets will get girl cooties.

  5. tansyrr Says:

    Hi Mollydot

    In Australia, the box of basic bricks is the only Lego product which is equally pitched at boys and girls – and you guessed it, there’s a blue box and a pink box. My daughter has two of the pink boxes, one from us and one from a friend, and while I normally support her pretence that she’s so not into pink (long story), in this case there was no way I was going to buy her the blue one, because the pink one was the only one that came with female faces. (it also came with pink and purple blocks which she loved because, purple)

    Again, there’s that horrible choice – all boy characters OR pink everywhere. And if the Lego psychologist is correct that girls have a greater need for avatars they can identify with, in toy play, then it actually makes what Lego have done over the last couple of decades even worse.

    Lego have been making their Duplo range more gender balanced for a long time, and they are surprised that the girl market drops off once they are faced with Cities and Castles that don’t have a place for their gender? (the city one bugs me a lot – it’s a concept that should have equal appeal to boys and girls, but not when it’s peopled with all-male police, ambulance officers, construction workers and chefs.

    No wonder there are boys who grow up to be teenagers without any empathy for girls!

  6. Dragonfallen 5 Says:

    The most expensive thing I saved money for as a child was this set:
    http://guide.lugnet.com/set/6081
    Part of its appeal was the damsel figure – who, given my Narnia leanings, spent most of her life playing Susan with a longbow. On the other hand, I never found a satisfactory way to fit her on a Lego horse without just switching in pants. Grrr.

    Back when I was playing with Lego, they introduced the Paradisa line. I couldn’t understand why they had a separate brand when these could have been Legoland Town sets. They seemed full of oddly shaped parts which would discourage experimentation, too.
    http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Paradisa

    The Lego Friends figures disturb me, because they imply that all those thousands (probably millions) of generic minifigs – with a set of legs, a torso and a cylindrical yellow head – are male. I fully agree that “It’s an excuse to make the LOOK ITS FOR BOYS Lego lines even more male heavy”.

    I’d been blissfully aware that even the box of bricks now comes in pink and blue flavours. This must also be old news to you, but while searching out set numbers for this comment, I came across this set description:
    http://agents.lego.com/en-US/Products/Agents/8633.aspx
    http://www.brickset.com/detail/?Set=8633-1
    Lego, your license to induce nostalgia for my childhood has been REVOKED.

  7. wraithofwonder Says:

    Growing up I had a great many legos and I can relate with your boy who made the female Atlantis character a captain. I chose a female mechanic from one of my earliest Lego town sets to be the leader of all of Legoland. She wasn’t just in charge of my cities, but also of the massive fleet of starships, including at least four Deep Freeze Defenders, and she always managed to survive every battle and defeat every foe. I never gave her a name, she was simply “the mechanic”, but she was “it”. I still have her somewhere safe and I’m a man in my 20s.

    Now with that said, you people are cynical pricks. My cousins adore these and I had spent hundreds on previous efforts buying practically everything else over the course of years in a desperate attempt to get them into Legos, whereas these clicked instantly. I recall being frustrated beyond belief trying to find female Lego minifigs. I turned to eBay to help supplement what I could find and yet they still ended up with at least 70% male minifigs. But now every set I had bought previously is getting a second look, with the hair being taken from the minifigs and the minifigs promptly re-shelved, but the lego itself being used for wonderful new creations. Some with unusual inspiration. That is, I’m not sure what Mia needs with a turret from the Portal game series, but I guess no one will try to break into her house with that type of security around.

    I’m sorry if my cousins, who are just as likely to wear boots instead of shoes, pants instead of dresses, play video games instead of dolls, blue instead of pink, or toss colanders on their heads (or once, Easter baskets), grab Nerf guns (or super soakers) and go to war instead of doing crafts, but will still wear and enjoy shoes, dresses, pink, play with dolls and do crafts, don’t fit pink and handbags are evil world view. I’m sorry if they or my supporting their preferences, however influenced they may or may not be from advertising (they have Netflix, they don’t generally see commercials, but…) force you to be perpetually outraged at such ridiculous things.

    Hey, for the record, I’m a former male nanny. (And I worked with girls!)

    After their reaction to the first Lego Friends set, I bought a second the same day. After that, I bought four more. They selected these four. It was a terrible financial move for a college student on a budget, but I couldn’t help myself. Top Ramen isn’t that bad; sometimes it tastes like food. Already they have six sets. Those six sets included a laptop, camera, mp3 player, ruler, brushes, bows, etc. and not one included a handbag. Taking a quick peek at the eight sets they don’t have, I find a handbag in just one, the beauty shop. Which didn’t appeal to them, but somehow I think if I visited an actual beauty shop I might see a handbag there.

    I dare to say that a heck of a lot more thought was put into these sets than handbags, the color pink and tits. I dare to say this might show Lego that there is real money to be made with trying to appeal for girls and that instead of your argument, that this will allow them to justify having effectively segregated the sets (as if they needed to justify it), that they’ll instead try to reinvent the other lines to appeal to both genders to grab more “girl dollars”?

    Maybe the minifig itself will get a makeover. (Yeah, I said it.)

  8. wraithofwonder Says:

    Err, sitting back down I’m surprised I still have this open. I would like to add a bit more and then that will be all.

    (1) When I said “as if they needed to justify it”, I mean it in a water under the bridge fashion. What has been done has been done and there is no changing it. Whatever tag you give it now doesn’t change what has happened. Nothing can be made better or worse if it has already happened.

    (2) Returning to what I said about “girl dollars”. Instead of this of indignation I believe your best move is to buy. Buy all Lego Friends sets. Forget their imperfections and focus on what good elements there are. You really think a hardcore sexist would come up with Olivia’s Invention Workshop? If I’m right, this act would lead to further diversification of the other series, not less.

    (3) “No wonder there are boys who grow up to be teenagers without any empathy for girls!” One teenagers aren’t exactly a finished product and two, talk about sexist. I’ve known plenty of girls and women without the slightest bit of empathy and plenty of boys and men with more than their fair share.

    (4) You say your daughter can expect to get Legos for her birthday, but not the ones with handbags. I mentioned above only one out of fourteen sets of the Lego Friends series has a handbag. I wonder, have you considered taking your daughter to the Lego aisle and letting her look to see what she might try to show you? To do this right, you’d have to pretend to be distracted so as to not unconsciously direct her. I doubt you have, because it’s clear to me that to you, her selecting a Lego Friends set would be a sign of failed parenting on your part. In reality it really wouldn’t be, but that’s your psyche and it is going to provide every justification in your mind to prevent the situation from ever possibly happening.

    It’s already happening right now as you read this, I’m a terrible person. I’m a jerk who posted on your blog without asking. I… who knows. Let’s forget that I was one heck of a nanny, always protective of my charges, that I donate to charities, give blood and volunteer at a hospital. Oh no, my willingness to buy a pink dress after my cousin has expressed interest is a sign that, because the dress is pink and really for no other reason, I must be a sexist.

    A sexist! You think a male nanny wouldn’t understand sexism!? *sigh*

    If you daughter ever asked you to buy a Lego Friends set, it would simply mean that in that variety of toys she wants to try and possibly enjoy, a little pink might be included.

    It doesn’t mean it will take over.

    /off to bed

    (Lab hours will likely prevent my ever seeing a response, or whining about a deletion, so do with this as you wish. My cousins get to enjoy everything.)

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