There was a story in today’s Guardian about Lego’s plans to “remove gender bias” from its toys. I tweeted this story with a comment about how I had begun writing about Lego’s gender problems ten years ago. My original website is gone, but I still have the posts I wrote. Here is the very first, originally written March 25, 2011. As this is a very old post, some of the links no longer exist. Where possible, I found the links to the original text, some through current vendors and many via the Wayback Machine, an amazing resource for those who are not familiar with it. In fact, here is the Wayback link to the original version of the post below. (I have other posts about Lego in my archives. You can see all the, follow the Lego tag.)
I have often heard parents in my generation lament the changes in one of the favourite toys from their childhood. Lego, the colourful, gender-neutral building toy that taught kids to use their imaginations, have been transformed into “think inside the box” kits. Basic blocks are still available, but Lego is putting its considerable marketing skill into its tremendously popular sets based on established franchises (Star Wars, Toy Story) and Lego’s own characters and storylines (Atlantis, Hero Factory).
Lego kits offer children one way to build a structure—no imagination required, at least at first. My experience has taught me that the act of creating is not completely endangered by the “new” Lego. My son initially builds as instructed, but after a while, he grows tired of the items he was told to build, takes them apart, and repurposes them into some truly fantastic vehicles.
Still, there is cause for concern with Lego as it is manufactured and marketed today. The company pushes children to become avid consumers by marketing their kits as “collectibles” instead of toys. Further, their sets build on one another to tell a story, so, in most kids’ minds, one is not enough.
Then there is also the issue of blatant gender stereotyping in the company’s toys and marketing.
The images of masculinity and femininity proffered by Lego are a microcosm of the main themes I discuss in my book: the dominance of male characters in children’s pop culture, the lack of female heroes, rigid gender stereotypes, and the tendency for males to use violence to solve problems (perpetuating the notion that “real” men are tough and aggressive.)
Consider the Hero Factory line, which Lego deems suitable for children aged 6 to 16. The original incarnation of character William Furno “torches enemies with flames of fury from his dual fire shooter,” while Dunkan Bulk is “[a]rmed with a multi-functional heavy metal weapon, loaded with metal sphere ammo.” There was one female among the original heroes. Named Natalie Breez (pictured below), she was a “natural diplomat” with an energized boomerang and unique air powers. Although she looked nasty, she didn’t sound quite as menacing as the males.
I refer to Natalie Breez in the past tense because the 2.0 versions of the heroes have had their gender stripped, leaving most kids to assume they are male. Now known as “Breez 2.0,” Natalie’s description has no gender indicated.
In the Ninjago line, lone female Nya is as courageous as her brother Kai, but relies on her psychic powers to battle evildoers. Kai, on the other hand, is “[q]uick to anger, even quicker to act and armed with his golden sword.” Not that female characters should resort to violence (nor should males), but is Nya likely to be seen as equal to her brother or the other male characters if she “thinks away” the bad guys?
Lego Pharaoh’s Quest also has a single female character, but the marketing is not exactly gender-neutral, as the clip on this page shows. (Note: The original clip was in Flash and is no longer playable, but I linked to an ad that shows how the toy was marketed.)
Even the names of some products play a role in stereotyping the target market. In the World Racers line, sets are called “Desert of Destruction,” “Wreckage Road,” “Jagged Jaws Reef,” and “Snake Canyon.” Who are these toys designed for?
Contrast Pharaoh’s Quest and World Racers with Belville, the “girls’” line. The brief animation on the Belville home page leaves a different impression, as do the product names: “Sunshine Home” and “Playful Puppy” among them. The Lego Harry Potter line very likely has cross-gender appeal, but Belville is the line aimed most clearly at girls. (Note that the original link to the Belville home page no longer exists, but I found this ad which has a similar vibe. )
And then there are the minifigures, cheap, collectible and highly stereotyped (including some ethnic stereotypes). In Series 1, there are two females out of sixteen characters—a nurse (not doctor) and cheerleader. The cheerleader “waves her pom-poms around wildly whenever she talks, which is pretty much all of the time.” The nurse is “[c]heerful, professional and devoted to making people feel better.” Series 2 through 4 offer at least one decent female representation each—the lifeguard who wants to study medicine, the snowboarder with nerves of steel, and the athletic “surfer girl.” But these females are offset by some egregious stereotypes, like the series 2 Hula Dancer, and the series 4 “Kimono Girl” and female ice skater who is “elegant, graceful and light on her feet,” compared to the male hockey player who was raised by wolves and described as fast, tough, and ferocious.
Granted, most young kids won’t read the website descriptions of these characters, but what conclusions will they draw from the images alone? And what will kids who can read conclude? Males are portrayed as musketeers, ninjas, wrestlers, scientists, “hazmat guys,” “tribal chiefs,” explorers, and athletes of all kinds. They are also the only minifigures to have weapons (Zombie, Forestman, Ninja, Spaceman, Spartan Warrior, Samurai Warrior, Viking). Add to the stereotypes the fact that only 11 of the 64 characters released so far have been female and you have a very male-centric product line based on a very narrow view of boyhood and masculinity.
Boys are bombarded with messaging across pop culture that shows males not only as tough and strong, but also tougher and stronger than females. It’s a shame that one of the most popular and influential toy manufacturers has chosen to reinforce this highly gendered view instead of combating it.
On its Corporate Responsibility page, Lego notes that the company does its best to “make a positive impact on areas such as: human rights, working environment, environment, anti-corruption, charity etc.” Clearly, gender is not something they have considered.
While Lego has many benefits, and some products are okay, the male dominance, stereotypes, and violence in the toys are troubling. I am in the process of drafting a letter about my concerns to Lego and will post it here within the next couple of days for anyone else who is interested in contacting the company. (I have included an image of the letter below.)