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A while back readers absolutely fell in love with a vintage Lego ad from 1981, featuring a red-headed befreckled girl in pigtails and overalls.  It, and two more in the series, reminded us that advertising doesn’t have to impose rigid gender stereotypes the way that most advertising today and the newest Lego marketing strategy certainly does.

Joanne M. dug up two more examples, both from Family Circle in 1978.  Feast your eyes on these happy children:

David Pickett, by the way, wrote us an amazing four part history of Lego’s (failed) efforts — or lack thereof — to reach out to girls.  It’s a truly comprehensive and fascinating story.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The splashy introduction of the new LEGO friends line earlier this year stirred up a lot of controversy. My goal with this set of posts is to provide some historical perspective for the valid concerns raised in this heated debate. 

This is Part IV, see also:

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2012: LEGO Friends and the Ensuing Backlash

In Parts I through III, I’ve discussed the history of LEGO’s attempts to capture (or abandon) the imagination of girls and boys.  In this final installment, I discuss their newest effort to market to girls, LEGO Friends.

Several weeks before the first wave of LEGO Friends sets were available in U.S. retail stores, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover story that presented an in-depth look at TLG’s thought process in creating the sets. This was a very deliberate move on the part of TLG: it got their version of the story out there first (“four years of marketing research show this is what girls want”) and it made a bold statement about the LEGO brand (“like it or not, the minidoll is LEGO now”).

This move implies that they foresaw the backlash this line would inspire and hoped to mitigate it. The article portrays TLG sympathetically, as a company that wants to help girls build important skills and is trying to figure the most effective way to reach them. This idea is echoed in TLG’s official press release responding to the controversy. To a certain degree, this maneuver has been successful on TLG’s part. I have seen plenty of people point to the quote about “four years of marketing research” to dismiss the arguments that LEGO Friends perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes. But the attempt to integrate the minidoll into the LEGO brand is ultimately doomed.

In many ways, LEGO Friends is an improvement over the previous “girls only” themes. Even more so than Paradisa, for example, LEGO Friends has a building experience that is on par with other currently available LEGO sets (mostly City and Castle, as the action themes use more complex techniques.)

The interests/occupations of the female characters are just a little bit broader than previous lines. While Andrea and Emma have clear predecessors from Belville, Olivia the inventor, Sophie the Veterinarian, and Stephanie the farmer/pastry chef (?) broaden the range of possible careers just a little bit.

Despite the presence of a beauty salon and a fashion designer, the clothing options in Heartlake City are also very limited. There is only one pair of full length pants available and threes shirts with sleeves, everyone else has skirts or capri pants with tangtops and sleeveless blouses. Olivia will have to raid her dad’s wardrobe if she wants to make her laboratory OSHA compliant.

The minidolls may be the biggest barrier to efforts to use LEGO Friends as a gateway to the rest of the LEGO product.  In addition to being sexified and out-of-proportion to the classic minifig, their articulation makes them simply less interesting than the classic LEGO person.  The classic minifig has 7 points of articulation (8 if you count the hairpiece’s ability to move rotate independently of the head) whereas the minidoll only has 4 points (5 with the hair.) Minidolls can’t rotate their hands (which limits the ability to accurately pose accessories) or move their legs independently (which prevents them from being posed in active positions like running, they can only sit, stand or bend over).

The value of the LEGO system is the ability to connect all the different pieces to each other. The only compatibility between minidolls and minifigs is the hairpieces and accessories (think about the message that sends.) More, unlike the legs and torsos of minifigs, which easily connect to standard LEGO bricks so you can build any type of legs you want, the leg to torso connection on the minidoll is not compatible with any standard LEGO connection.  Additionally, the minidolls do not have LEGO connections on the back of their legs like minifigs do, making it impossible to securely attach to vehicles in seated positions.

To be fair, the minidoll has a slight advantage over the minifig in regards to racial diversity. Though darker skin tones were introduced to minifig in 2003 with Lando Calrissian, there has yet to be an identifiably feminine, dark-skinned minifig. Andrea (and Sarah) are therefore trailblazers. Friends is also the first instance of a LEGOLAND scale theme that integrates realistic flesh colors and is not connected to an external franchise (movies, comics, sports, etc.). This is a topic I’d like to discuss at length another time, but I hope this is the start of a trend that leads to a more ethnically diverse range of minifigures.

In sum, LEGO Friends is far from perfect, but it is a decided improvement over previously girly-LEGO iterations.  Still, many consumers object to the line vociferously, coining the clever slogan: “LEGO for girls already exist – it’s called LEGO.” 

TLG seems to fundamentally misunderstand this argument. In a press release, for example, they explained:

We want to correct any misinterpretation that LEGO Friends is our only offering for girls. This is by no means the case. We know that many girls love to build and play with the wide variety of LEGO products already available.

This isn’t satisfying to detractors because the critique of Friends (as I understand it) is not that it is being presented as the only LEGO product line for girls, but that TLG is so clearly marketing LEGO Friends only to girls. Rather than creating themes that appeal to both boys and girls and marketing them to both boys and girls, TLG is creating products for boys and products for girls. The fact that the focus groups for LEGO friends consisted of girls and women and the focus groups for lines like Power Miners and Atlantis consisted primarily of young boys proves that TLG fundamentally believes that boys and girls have entirely separate needs and desires. This is a harmful belief that we as a culture need to rid ourselves of.

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David Pickett is a social media marketer by day and a LEGO animator by night.  He is fanatical about LEGO and proud to be a nerd. Read more from David at Thinking Brickly.

The splashy introduction of the new LEGO friends line earlier this year stirred up a lot of controversy. My goal with this set of posts is to provide some historical perspective for the valid concerns raised in this heated debate. 

This is Part III, see also:

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2004-2011: Lean LEGO Fighting Machine

As discussed in Part II, between 1989 and 2003, LEGO had introduced a stream of lines aimed specifically at girls.  None were particularly successful and the company was in trouble.  So, what next?

Those of us who follow every move TLG makes are well familiar with the company’s near collapse in 2004 and subsequent renaissance. This is a really important moment for our story, because this is the year when TLG stopped being a family run business and brought in a non-Kristiansen CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp. With Knudstorp’s arrival came a change in philosophy. Quoted from the DailyMail article linked above:

Instead of “nurturing the child” – as Knudstorp puts it – [employees’] primary goal now had to be, “I am here to make money for the company.”

I, like many LEGO fans, am very grateful for what Knudstorp did to save and revitalize the company. The post-2004 era has seen a flourishing of LEGO themes and sets aimed at advanced builders. The LEGO minifig has been injected with more personality and variety than ever before. However, part of TLG’s new strategy also involved abandoning efforts the girl market and focusing exclusively on boys.

Abandoning schlock like Belville and Clikits is not a bad thing, but the push toward conflict and hyper-masculinity in classic themes (and a whole host of new ones) made LEGOLAND inhospitable for femininity.  Here are a couple more telling quotes from the Daily Mail article:

As always with Lego, this [action-oriented theme] was developed at every stage… with the help of focus groups, mostly comprising boys aged between six and 12.

In this new world focused on profit, the company sees no shame in admitting that, like it or not, what most excites little boys is conflict.

Which is to say, LEGO City is not the tranquil place LEGO Town was.

Notice the substantial hike in the m/f ratio in 2007. This ratio had been gradually approaching 1 throughout the 90s, but jumped back up to 1992 levels in 2007 (male/female ratio = 8).

Girls also disappeared from LEGO commercials and marketing collateral. LEGO produced a series of commercials encouraging fathers and sons to build together; the utter lack of anything similar for girls sends a clear message about who is expected to play with LEGO, it has entirely entered the masculine domain. With girls being actively excluded from TLG’s marketing efforts it’s no surprise that we see such a low percentage playing with them now.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll offer my perspective on the controversy over the new line aimed at girls, LEGO Friends.

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David Pickett is a social media marketer by day and a LEGO animator by night.  He is fanatical about LEGO and proud to be a nerd. Read more from David at Thinking Brickly.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The splashy introduction of the new LEGO friends line earlier this year stirred up a lot of controversy. My goal with this set of posts is to provide some historical perspective for the valid concerns raised in this heated debate. 

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1989-2003: Gender Ahoy!

I discussed the introduction of LEGOs the invention of gendered minifigs, and early efforts to market separately to girls and boys in Part I of this series, covering 1932 to 1988.  The segregation of LEGO into feminine and masculine sets would escalate beginning in 1989.  That year the LEGO group introduced gender to the minifig in a big way with the new Pirates theme. The masculine figs sported copious facial hair and the lone feminine pirate had lipstick and a curved shirt that implied a busty chest.

This pioneering pirate was the first in a long line of token females in otherwise male-dominated action-centric themes. The imbalanced ratio of masculine to feminine minifigs persists today, though it has lessened over time. I have seen several different numbers for this ratio, so I decided to do my own count. I gave TLG the benefit of the doubt and counted as gender neutral any minifigs lacking definitely masculine (facial hair) or feminine (lipstick, eyelashes, cleveage) traits, even when LEGO marketing materials clearly delineate them as male or female.

The following graphs represent masculine minifigs in blue, feminine minifigs in red, and gender neutral minifigs in gray. I have also calculated the masculine to feminine ratio (m/f ratio). Ideally this should be 1, indicating that there are equal number of masculine and feminine figures. This chart shows the aggreagate across all themes for the five key years between 1989 and 1999. The m/f ratio for this data is 3.74 (which is a lot better than the initial 13.5 it starts at in 1989, but not exactly something to celebrate).

The trend to unrepresent feminine figures in the main LEGO product line is mirrored by a tendency to overrepresent them in the “girls only” lines. LEGO released four major “girls only” themes through this time period: ParadisaBelvilleScala Dolls, and Clikits.  Here’s a quick run down of the “girls only” themes:

  • Belville is the longest running “girls only” theme and also the pinkest and most gender stereotype reinforcing. The classic LEGO building experience is barely present; the sets favor gigantic pre-fabricated “walls” and floors, and the completed “houses” and “horse stables” don’t even look like their real-life counterparts. The figures are completely out of scale with minifgs, so while it is possible to use pieces from Belville in LEGOLAND and vice versa, it is unrealistic.
  • The Clikits jewelry line featured pieces that are barely compatible with regular LEGO bricks (some people might not even think to try.) The line also contained some Bratz-esque characters.

The message that these themes send to children about gender is clear — certain things are for girls only. Namely: fairy tales, equestrianism, the color pink, vanity, and being a homemaker. Boys shouldn’t want these things and the girls that don’t are lesser for it.

The chart below aggregates figures from the first three of those lines across all years they existed (since Clickits was a jewelry line, it didn’t really feature figures).  Beyond the inversely unbalanced the m/f ratio of 0.18 (roughly one masculine figure for every five feminine figures), it is also important to note that the percentage of neutral figs is incredibly low, so playing with these sets reinforces the either/or of gender roles:

Lest you think girls get all the special treatment, fear not, boys get their share of “boys only” themes. We’ve already discussed Trains and Technic which have long, proud, histories and exist in a blue and black anti-Belville realm (Technic even had Belville-sized masculine articulated figures for a while). In 1998 the ill-fated Znap bucked the trend of “boys only” themes being for advanced builders. It was simple to put together (like K’nex), but never caught on despite being viral. 1998 also saw the creation of a Technic subtheme with even more testosterone than usual: Competition. 2001 saw TLG try to bridge the gap between DUPLO and SYSTEM (for boys) with Jack Stone. 2001 was also the launch of TLG’s attempt to get in to the action figure market: Bionicle. This is arguably a gender-neutral theme, but considering that TLG forgot to include girl’s names for an online character creator for Bionicle’s successor, it’s clear that TLG does not think boys and girls can enjoy the same toys.

As a final note on this era, observe this graph of the m/f ratio on minifigs over time. Notice how it is on the decline (towards gender balance) before sharply increasing in the early 2000s? We’ll explore the reasons for that in the next installment.

Read Part III of A Historical Perspective on the LEGO Gender Gap.

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David Pickett is a social media marketer by day and a LEGO animator by night.  He is fanatical about LEGO and proud to be a nerd. Read more from David at Thinking Brickly.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The splashy introduction of the new LEGO friends line earlier this year stirred up a lot of controversy. My goal with this set of posts is to provide some historical perspective for the valid concerns raised in this heated debate. 

1932-1977: The Brick Era

The LEGO Group started as a family business with the motto “only the best is good enough.” The company produced primarily wooden toys for the first two decades of its existence. It wasn’t until 1958 that the iconic LEGO brick was patented as we know it today. LEGO bricks were originally marketed as toys for both boys and girls. The 60s saw the introduction of new elements to the LEGO system like wheels, windows and hinges. Marketing images from this era tend to feature boys and girls equally.

In the 70s we encounter the first LEGO theme marketed specifically at girls: Homemaker. The sets aren’t very different from the rest of the products offered at that time (there’s some bricks and you build stuff), but the pictures of smiling girls playing with the sets clearly mark them as “girls only.” Homemaker sets are clearly meant to be furniture for dolls.

Dolls are popular toys, so finding ways to integrate the LEGO experience into this existing model of play was a shrewd business strategy for TLG, but one that nevertheless perpetuated stereotypes.

The 70s also saw TLG experimenting with different types of human-like figures. The first figures (sometimes called maxifigs to contrast with their later mini brethren) were built from regular LEGO bricks and new head pieces. These appeared in a line of sets with the uninspired name “LEGO Building Sets with People.” These line as a whole was marketed at both boys and girls, but some sets were more targeted. Co-existing for a brief period with the maxifig was a proto-minifigure. The minifig we all know and love today was next.

1978-1988: The Golden Era

In 1978 the minifigure first appeared as we know it today and, after an awkward period of co-existence with the maxifigs, the “minifig” became the standard for tiny plastic people. The minifig is now as iconic as the LEGO brick and equally important in defining the LEGO brand, over the years has tried to introduce other types of figures, but none of them have the staying power of the minifig.For the next decade LEGO minifigs existed in a gender neutral utopia. One can argue that the hairstyles are slightly gendered, but keep in mind that unisex hairstyles were all the rage at the time. When people talk about wanting to get back to the “good old days” of LEGO, this is generally the decade they are referring to.

In response to the LEGO Friends launch a lot of people have been passing around these images from an early 80s ad campaign:Even at this time, however, LEGO was promoting gendered play.  The short-lived Scala Jewelry theme, for example was a major deviation from the core LEGO product line. There is virtually no building in these sets, they are completely superficial — a triumph of style over substance.

Contrast this with Technic, which is all substance and no style. These complicated sets (originally called Expert builder sets) are clearly for boys. Boys also seem to have taken over LEGO trains. It’s great that TLG provides a range of products for builders of all skill levels, but why is it that the products for girls are always on the low-skill side of the spectrum and the high-skill side always reserved for boys?

The segregation of LEGO into feminine and masculine sets would escalate in the next 15 yrs, however, and I’ll cover that development in the next installment.

Read Part II of A Historical Perspective on the LEGO Gender Gap.

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David Pickett is a social media marketer by day and a LEGO animator by night.  He is fanatical about LEGO and proud to be a nerd. Read more from David at Thinking Brickly.

After the recent scandal over LEGO Friends, I am excited to report that I am in the process of working with a LEGO “fanatic,” David Pickett, on a series of posts about gender and the history of LEGO.  In the meantime, as a teaser, I wanted to offer you two LEGO ads that were from the same campaign as the one making its semi-viral way around the internet (1980-1982).  As with the original, these are evidence that advertising doesn’t have to reproduce the idea of “opposite sexes”:

Thanks to Moose Greebles and his Photostream.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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 a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Carol C. sent in another example of the male = active, female = passive dichotomy, this time from Lego. They have a line called Lego City, which contains four figures and various accessories:

While you can obviously pose the characters however you want, Lego’s description of the set clearly assumes men are in more active, with specific work-related roles:

Meet the residents of LEGO® City!

LEGO® City is one busy place! As the girl listens to the radio on the park bench, the nearby policeman directs cars at the traffic light, the delivery boy hurries with an important package on his cart, and the businessman heads to his next meeting. Includes minifigures, street signs, accessories and more!

The men have jobs and things they are going to do. The girl — the only one here not in a uniform — sits on a bench.

Though she’s listening to the radio (on a boombox from, like, 1989), and possibly being hit on by the delivery boy, so maybe those are supposed to count as being active.