Cross-posted at Ms.

A few years back we published this fantastic ad for Legos as an example of gender-neutral advertising. It appeared in 1981; during my childhood, I’m happy to say.

The ad offers nice context for the new effort by Lego to capture The Girl Market.  Their new line of Legos, Lego Friends, has gotten a lot of attention already. In the circles I run in, it’s being roundly criticized for reproducing stereotypes of girls and women: domesticity, vanity, materialism, and an obsession with everything being pastel.  Kits include a house, cafe, animal hospital, tree house, beauty salon, and an inventor’s lab.  Choice examples:


The new line also includes a new Lego figurine that is taller, thinner, and more feminine, with boobs.  There is no innovation here; it is the exact same makeover that we’ve seen in recent years with Dora the ExplorerStrawberry Shortcake, Holly HobbieLisa Frank, Trolls, Cabbage Patch Kids, My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite, and Candy Land (or visit our Pinterest collection of Sexy Toy Make-Overs).

Examples of the old “mini-fig” and the new “mini-doll” available at The Mary Sue.

The company is framing their new line for girls with “science.” Executives are going to great lengths to explain that the line is based on research, using anthropologists who spent time with girls in their homes. The frame gives the company an excuse for reproducing the same old gender stereotypes that we see throughout our culture.  They can shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, what are we to do? This is what girls want.”  In this way they are trying to make it clear that they shouldn’t be held accountable for the messages their products send.

But it’s no accident that girls feel alienated from Lego.

According to Business Week, Lego has spent most of the last decade focusing their products on boys.  They have deliberately designed products that they expect will appeal to boys and included boys almost exclusively in their marketing material. Today Legos are shelved in the boy aisle is most toy stores.

So, basically, what Lego has done over the last few decades is take a truly wonderful gender-neutral toy, infuse it with boyness, and tell every kid who’ll listen that the toy is not-for-girls.  Now, stuck with only 50% of the kid market, they’re going after girls by overcompensating.  And, to top it all off, they’re shaking their heads and doing “science” to try to figure out girls, as if they’re some strange variant of human that regular humans just can’t get their head around.

In fact, girls don’t feel like the toy is for them because Lego has done everything in its power to ensure that they will not.

The market research manager sums up Legos’ impression of what girls want this way: “The greatest concern for girls really was beauty.”  How ironic, because the true beauty of Lego is its ability to inspire creativity, not enable conformity.  They somehow knew that back in 1981.

(An ad that deserves being looked at over and over.)

Thanks to Anjan G., Sangyoub P., Rachel W., Dolores R., Erin B., Christie W., and Paul K. for suggesting that we write about this!

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.