History of gendering in Lego

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46 Responses to “History of gendering in Lego”

  1. Happler says:

    As my wife points out every time we see the “girls only” LEGOs,  “All LEGO’s are a gender neutral toy.  They do not need to make crap ‘Girls Only’ LEGO sets, especially if they do not mesh well with the normal LEGO’s.”   She is referring to the current girls set, where the “mini” figs are twice the size of normal ones.   

    • digi_owl says:

      This swings the other way as well, as deity forbid you should call action man toys for “dolls”.

    • Jake0748 says:

       When I was a kid, in the early sixties, we had LEGO blocks.  That’s just what they were – building blocks (and maybe some pads and connectors and etc.)  There WERE NO LEGO PEOPLE.  When and why the fick did they have to go and start making “LEGO” people anyway??   I always thought it was fun to build houses, cities, cars, spaceships and whatever – without having to deal with any stupid PEOPLE who would have to live in, or use any of them. 

      I guess my point is that, LEGO was a better toy when it was just for building and making models.  They ruined it by adding lego people – AFAIC anyway. 
      Rant concluded. Thanks for your patience. 

      • There’s a great blog called the Living Brick that blogs original LEGO creations that ignore the existence of the minifig, seems like it would be right up your alley. I personally am a big fan of the minifig, but I do think that too many LEGO builders obsess over making creation to that scale.

  2. albtraum2004 says:

    Very interesting area of investigation. There were some unambiguously female lego figures before the Pirate lady in 1989, though - 

    http://www.brickset.com/detail/?set=6083-1

    There’s no way that’s not a female princess.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      In a world….where princesses wear hospital scrubs and pearls.

    • Ladyfingers says:

      Agreed. The pigtail hairpiece existed in the early 80s at least in LEGO City sets.

      EDIT: I see he describes these figures as gender neutral in his terms. Fair enough.

    • The beauty of the standard yellow smiley faces is their ambiguity. In the “golden era” minifigs were defined only by the roles they played. Change the hat on their head and they go from police officer to princess to space explorer. Do these roles all have strong gender associations? Of course, but that doesn’t mean there’s “no way that’s not a female princess.” It could also be a prince who like jewelry and bangs, or a magician with unkempt hair. The only limit is your imagination.

      That’s why I stuck to really strict definitions of gendered traits in my analysis: masculine (facial hair) or feminine (lipstick, eyelashes, cleveage). If you broaden the definitions, the ratios are even more depressing. My question for you is are there any unambiguously male figures from before 1989? What criteria are you using?

    • anansi133 says:

       Now, that’s a *real* lego horse!

  3. UrbanUndead says:

     @ Happler – I agree. They’re gender neutral. My brother & I put in equal time playing with the giant box of ‘em we had. That said, I remember wishing they came in a wider range of colors that we had – the primary colors plus green palette was kinda disappointing. A color range like Cuisenaire rods had would have been amazing.

    • Happler says:

      I, too, wished that I had more colors and parts. (currently sitting on 85 lbs of LEGO’s and always buying more) .

  4. Shinkuhadoken says:

    It’s interesting that they would increase gender cues at a time when you’d think the opposite would be happening.

    But ultimately, I believe it’s up to the child’s caregivers to decide what type of toy to buy their children. That Lego’s offerings have evolved the way have may say more about the parents who buy Lego than some sort of twisted corporate agenda to reinforce gender roles. If people want the toy to be gender neutral, they will prefer to buy those types of sets. If the trend is to step away from that, it would seem there’s a preference to have it another way.

    That may be too much of a “market-forces” line of thinking, but I’ll happily take a response that shows me what I’m missing here. I do wish to learn, truly. ;)

    • YakHerder says:

       “But ultimately, I believe it’s up to the child’s caregivers to decide what type of toy to buy their children.”

      You, sir/ma’am, do not likely have a three-year-old girl!

  5. 20tauri says:

    Great historical look. I’m curious as to the methods for counting the figs…among other things, there are quite a few non-human or semihuman forms that may or may not be counted as gendered. I actually completed a related count earlier this year, and I came up with very similar ratios, but looked only at minifig heads. The resulting chart/graphic can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixbymaia/6917772865/

    • 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.

      • 20tauri says:

        Cool, thanks! I think it’s safe to say there’s going to be some personal  judgment for any count like yours or mine, but I think it’s great that our findings were at least in the same ballpark (as opposed to that 18-1 figure). Just for clarity, when you say you counted the number of minifigs, do you mean distinct designs or total number of figs available in a set?

        •  Total number of figs available. So even though the same exact same pirate captain shows up in five sets, he gets counted five times. Another variable I can’t account for is how many copies of each set was produced. I imagine the smaller price sets are produced and sold in much larger quantities than the high-priced set (which is often where the token female is found) which would skew these numbers even further.

          • 20tauri says:

            Okay, interesting. I decided to stick to counting only designs, which makes me wonder, then, why your male + neutral figs weren’t more plentiful, since one would assume there have been many more sets with copies of the same male fig(s) than the same female fig(s). In any case, tho, I think we can all agree that female figs have been significantly outnumbered!

  6. Stephen Marts says:

    It troubles me that Mr. Pickett appears to have ignored 57% of his chart. It’s bad for democracy, I tell you. 

  7. Vendor Xeno says:

    Look at those toys. Look at them. That’s as perfect as gender neutral a toy can get while still recognizing that genders exist at all. Bravo, LEGO!

    • Tynam says:

       It gets a lot less gender neutral when you consider the existence of the whole, incompatible, ‘for girls only’ ranges.  The message, deliberate or not, is: and all the other ranges belong to boys.

  8. jambon says:

    If you think Lego is bad, don’t even get me started on the gender imbalances in the Barbie range of… no wait 

  9. Michael Grosberg says:

    Dumbing down the sets is not something that is exclusive to the “girl” legos sadly – most of the sets nowadays require very little building and contain a lot of special-purpose blocks that can only be use to construct a single model. So much so that they have a special line for those that do require some elaborate construction – “Creator”.

    • Jonathan Roberts says:

      I always thought it made more sense as a profit maximization strategy – if every new set requires new pieces, you need to buy every set to make every model.

      • Wreckrob8 says:

        So why not just construct them in one piece then and do away with all the pretense? Lego is building blocks. There were no minifigs when I was a kid. I had a doll (Action Man) to fuck me up.

        • penguinchris says:

          Do you decry the existence of plastic models that you glue together and paint? Specialized lego is the same thing, except if you’re creative you can disassemble them and re-use the parts if you want.

          • Wreckrob8 says:

            No. I think all children have a sense of propriety in play. They establish rules for a creative language of toys which will always be at variance with that envisaged by their adult creators. I can only say what I felt as a kid.

    • Happler says:

       I have never had problems finding uses for the specialty parts sold in sets for my own models. In fact, I look for specialty parts.  Some of them are more perfect for builds than the normal ones, you just have to be “unorthodox” in their use.  I always just considered the  “creator” sets as ” a box of basic LEGO’s.

  10. peterkvt80 says:

    I was looking for an ordinary girl minifig. The only female minifigs  in London were movie characters like from Harry Potter, business suited women or pony riding girls. In the end I built my own minifigs in the Legoland shop.

  11. anrs says:

     Hey let’s make a deal, you go back in time and re-live your childhood as a girl and only play with Barbies, which you can dress in different outfits and…. then take the outfits off, I guess. And I’ll go back in time and re-live my childhood as a boy playing with Legos, with which I can construct pretty much anything  I can imagine. How about it?

    • Happler says:

       There is nothing stopping you now from playing with LEGO’s, just as there was nothing (other then family) stopping you then.  I have two little girls (5 and 8) who LOVE their LEGO’s and are always asking for more sets.   They told me that they wanted to go to Legoland instead of Disney, since Disney only has princesses while LEGOland had ninja’s.

  12. I buy off-brand minifigs from Lakeshore that come in multiple genders and colors. My kids <3 them.

  13. Kramski says:

    You know, when I was little, we had LEGO figs (most gender neutral, some gendered, probably more male) and a lovely invention called permanent markers. Needed more rough-looking guys? Well, let’s draw some more beards! Needed more feminine ladies? Just make the lips red and put some color above the eyes. I also built medieval  ladies by sticking the upper body of a lego fig on that roundish piece that went on the bottom of rockets. What I am saying is, it doesn’t matter if there is more of one or the other because you can always make more. The differences just shouldn’t be as extreme as in the new figs, so that you can still use everything for everything.

  14. I used to work at a LEGO store, and I assure you that ‘Clikits’ were as despised by the staff as they were by the customers.  Single worst product LEGO ever made, and more than a little patronising. Young girls loved them, because it was just plastic jewellery, but it had sod-all to do with LEGO.

    I tend to call for as much gender neutrality as possible, I’m no more into manly men than I am girly girls, especially at the extremities; but I really don’t see the harm in having a minifig with pigtails or a skirt.  If you want to blame anyone, blame society, not the companies trying to create products that people can actually relate to.

    By all means call out Barbie for all its atrocities, but a female minifig?  Really?

    • I think the increased gendering of LEGO products reflects on the company’s choices as well as society as a whole. I do consider corporations morally accountable agents, though I’m not really attempting to blame anyone so much as explain a trend. So many people were shocked by the appearance of LEGO Friends earlier this year, I am trying to show what led up to them and how much worse products like Scala and Clikits were.

      I might be inclined to write about Barbie if I had a sufficient background, but as I LEGO nerd, I am sticking to writing what I know.

  15. aaronius says:

    Wow, this essay is a far drier and later version of an outstanding set of videos by feministfrequency on Youtube (the title is LEGO Friends – LEGO & Gender Part 1 if you want to search for it). In that video she covers much of the same material, but with far more (very justified, in my opinion) anger at the Lego company for its abandonment of an originally family oriented, gender-neutral toy in favor of a highly gendered (i.e., male-dominated) one.

  16. aaronius says:

    Wow, this essay is a far drier and later version of an outstanding set of videos by feministfrequency on Youtube (the title is LEGO Friends – LEGO & Gender Part 1 if you want to search for it). In that video she covers much of the same material, but with far more (very justified, in my opinion) anger at the Lego company for its abandonment of an originally family oriented, gender-neutral toy in favor of a highly gendered (i.e., male-dominated) one.

  17. ishotjr says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out my feelings on this issue for some time now – it’s hard to view objectively as a massive fan of LEGO, but I’m an even more massive fan of my daughter and of making sure that she is brought up to be open-minded and isn’t subjected to gender stereotypes etc. whenever possible.  Her name, for example, was specifically chosen to allow gender-neutral contractions so that if she so choses, an item such as a resume c/b presented w/ no inherent gender bias.  But all that said – I’m somehow not getting the Friends controversy.  We have LEGO of all kinds, including Friends.  An adult male, I, as suggested in many of the other articles on this topic, really like the Friends line – whether tearing around on ATVs or uploading new sketches to their robot’s MCU in their hackerspace, the Friends seem to have some pretty badass options – it’s not all ponies and shoes.  Comments RE incompatibility or being “twice as big” are I assume just uninformed reactions – we actually own these toys, and I can say from experience that this is simply not true – they are very slightly taller than a standard minifig but otherwise fit in just fine.

    My hope for the friends line is that rather than pigeonholing, it might attract girls to LEGO who were otherwise only interested in things like Barbie, and act as a gateway into other LEGO sets.  One thing I’ve not seen attention drawn to is the rather surprising fact that “Girls” is a category on the LEGO shop site – like “Key Chains” or “Books” (there is no “Boys”) – BUT again after the initial shock I interpret this as another attempt to help find sets for girls who may not have been introduced to LEGO yet (similar to the Age Range filter to help find sets that would appeal to those groups) – if they were, then they’d know what they want and be shopping by brand etc.  And the contents are not all pink:

    http://shop.lego.com/en-US/Girls-ByCategory

    Town Hall, Volswagen Camper Can, Fun with Vehicles, LEGO Master Builder, Basic Bricks Deluxe (for all the “bring it back to the bricks” types), Kingdoms Joust, SpongeBob, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean…  Now, a lot of those might be considered “boys” sets by some – especially given their male:female head ratio – BUT aren’t they just faithful reproductions of the franchises – why is LEGO getting all the flack vs. the franchises themselves whose characters are predominantly male?

    As big of a fan as I am, I was taken aback when I watched a documentary about LEGO recently and a product designer referred to screen-printed pieces as being favored “so that your little boy doesn’t have to put stickers on” or something along those lines – but that was just a casual comment out of context – he didn’t say “and I do mean boy – no girls should be playing with LEGO police” etc.  Less defensible, yet for some reason escaping the scathing headlines that Friends were subjected to is the Disney Princess DUPLO – I’m much more concerned about infecting even younger minds with this syndrome vs. the more rounded Friends line.  But I do think LEGO are actively recognizing diversity, e.g. the Friends are at least available in various skin tones (could be more, but compare to the race-neutral minifig yellow (yes, some of the franchises offer non-yellow, but…)), and even better the DUPLO World People Set:

    http://shop.lego.com/en-US/LEGO-DUPLO-World-People-Set-9222

    But where are the differently-abled LEGO sets?  There is a wheelchair in the DUPLO Doctor’s Clinic but that’s about it – if LEGO is charged w/ accurately representing society, surely disability, race, sexuality, religion etc. need to be tackled too?  Would make some cool additions to the next minifig series! :)

    http://minifigures.us.lego.com/en-us/Bios/Default.aspx

    The overarching fact in all this remains: LEGO is about imagination.  All of our LEGO gets mashed up into whatever crazy scenario we want to play out that day – right now at our house, the hundreds of minifigs we own barely factor into our play – instead my daughter has created a playground and “nest” for our LEGO pigs, dogs, and cats, whose primary activity is going to the grocery store to get more piggy food and lamenting the absence of whichever animals departed to make the food run.  LEGO did not have to spoon-feed my toddler this scenario, and her play was in no way prescribed or limited by them – she just took this amazingly adaptable toy and used it for whatever crazy scenario popped into her head.  And that is what makes LEGO such a brilliant toy! :)

    •  A great and thoughtful comment. A couple points I want to follow up on:
      1) The best defense I’ve heard of the LEGO Friends line is the gateway argument. I am all for that, but I wish they’d include more male figures so that it could also serve as a gateway for the little boys who like to play with Ken.

      2) Is the LEGO group responsible for the fact  that most of the movie franchises they make licensing deals with all contain disproportionately low numbers of female characters and also fail the Bechdel Test? Yes, those licensing deals are negotiated by TLG, they are choosing very carefully which franchises to associate their product with. More over, why are none of the female characters from Lord of the Rings present in the first wave of LEGO sets? Eowyn is more important to the narrative than Eomer, but he gets a minifig and she doesn’t?

      3) I am equally surprised that the LEGO DUPLO Disney Princess line has not gotten more attention.

      4) It’s great that the Friends sets are bringing more racial diversity into a core LEGO product. I hope this trend spreads to some of their other lines. I like your ideas about differently-abled figures as well. Don’t hold out for religions though, LEGO has made it clear it that doesn’t fit within their brand standards. Check out the recent brand standards post on the cuusoo blog for a succinct outline.

  18. Lis Riba says:

    When LEGO Friends was first announced, and people started discussing whether LEGO was gender-neutal or more boy-friendly, I came to believe that the Bechdel Test was a useful measure of LEGO’s problems.

    In order to play any scenario where women interact independently of men, one needs to have more than one female (or androgynous) minifigs. Without that, female characters lack independent agency. 

    There’s a disincentive for girls to want to play with your product.

    I understand that LEGO has been talking to women’s groups since the LEGO Friends announcement about trying to come up with better girl-friendly options. I hope somebody seriously suggests increasing the number of female minifigs in sets and kits.

  19. madtranslationskillz says:

    Interesting and well-intentioned, so yay for that. But meh for taking a very undifferentiated look at the issue – which unfortunately is true for a large percentage of gender discussion/studies. Are you seriously faulting LEGO for producing a set of pirates (classic, old-fashioned ones) that contains mostly male figures??? It’s one thing to try to educate children towards gender equality. It’s another to pretend to them that there always has been gender equality. Also, how are pigtails and pearls more neutral than lipstick? Just my 2ct

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