The LEGO Disconnect on Gender

As most readers of this blog know, there has been a huge uproar over LEGO’s newest product line, LEGO Friends. (Google it. You can’t miss it.) Regular readers might also know that LEGO has been one of my favourite targets for a while now.

Like the people protesting the LEGO Friends line, I have had visitors to this site tell me, in defense of the company,  that: LEGO is a business; they need to make money; they are only making what sells; and it’s not their responsibility to tackle weighty issues like gender stereotypes. Fair arguments perhaps, but I would like to invite those individuals to read the Company Information section of LEGO’s website, then consider whether or not LEGO owes children a more balanced and thoughtful representation of gender.

Let me provide a few examples of what the company claims, juxtaposed with images from some of its marketing. Emphasis in bold text is mine. All images are from the LEGO website.

Caring and Learning

Learning is about opportunities to experiment, improvise and discoverexpanding our thinking and doing (hands-on, minds-on), helping us see and appreciate multiple perspectives. (From The LEGO Brand.)

Hmm. Expanding kids’ thinking by telling them that pink and purple are for girls…

 

 

 

 

 

…or violent toys are for boys…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…or that the difficult work of saving the world is a job for “gentlemen…”

…or “boys” with big guns?

 

Caring is about the desire to make a positive difference in the lives of children, for our partners, colleagues and the world we find ourselves in, and considering their perspective in everything we do. (From The LEGO Brand.)

“Caring,” shown through positive, life-affirming imagery like this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

or this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Skrall, pictured above, are described as: “…arrogant, vicious, brutal, fear nothing and care about even less. They are incredibly skilled fighters, both with and without weapons. What they may lack in technique they make up for with sheer bludgeoning power and strength.”

Or the Heroica character below…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…whose character description reads: “SURGE, there’s been a breakout at the Hero Factory and we need your help recapturing them! We can’t leave anything to chance, so we’ve equipped you with a high-power electricity shooter, plasma gun and super-thick armour. Slap those cuffs on them and give them the shock of their lives!” Yikes!

Perspective

The word “perspective” is used twice in the passages from the LEGO Corporate pages that I cited above. For example, from the excerpt on “caring,” it says that the company considers the “perspective” of children, colleagues and partners in everything they do. And how do the images below affect a child’s perspective on gender?

Intergalactic Girl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Note that she is a girl, not an astronaut or spacewoman, while her male counterpart, below, is a spaceman.)

Spaceman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The LEGO Friends, below, are hanging out…

 

 

 

 

 

… in contrast to the Alien Conquest soldiers, below, who are all male and ready to save the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or how about the LEGO cheerleader, described in her bio as waving her pom-poms wildly whenever she talks, “which is pretty much all the time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or, finally, one of my personal favourites…

 

LEGO’s Not Walking the Walk

All large companies are guilty of spinning public perception  vis-a-vis their degree of corporate responsibility, but these words and  images show the incredible disconnect between LEGO’s purported values and their actions. And they are marketing to children, let’s not forget.

How do corporate brand priorities like “caring” and “learning” mesh with violent, bludgeoning toys for boys and a pinkified world for girls, or the near-complete absence of girls from the playsets aimed at boys?

And what are boys learning about their place in the world through the messages sent by LEGO marketing? Aggression is a highly valued trait for boys. Girls don’t rescue, they get rescued. Boys can’t play with pink things, play houses, or restaurants– those are the domains of females. (Watch Feminist Frequency‘s latest video on this. They raise some amusing questions about what the men of LEGO City do when they feel tired or hungry, since there are no houses or restaurants in their town.)

I know that LEGO is not the only toy maker to trade on gender stereotypes but they are pretty intent on making themselves seem like a compassionate company with children’s best interests at heart. (By way of contrast, I checked the Mattel site–another toy maker known for its less-than-progressive views on gender. Their Corporate Responsibility page says nothing about “caring,”  ”learning,”  or the value of a child’s play experience. Its focus is more on safe play and ethical sourcing. Their code of conduct talks only about achieving success and employee integrity.)

So LEGO, to use a cliche, if you are going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. And sexist, violent, stereotyped imagery is not the way to do it.

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As an aside, I thought I’d add this bit from the LEGO site:

As corporate citizens in the local communities in which we operate, we acknowledge that we have a responsibility that goes beyond the value chain of our products. We truly appreciate our close stakeholder relationships, which influence our strategic decisions and give us valuable knowledge about the impact of our actions. (From Stakeholder Engagement)

We’ll see about that. To date, there has been no response to SPARK Summit‘s 50,000-name petition about LEGO Friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 

Crystal Smith is a writer of many things. In her day job, she works as a content marketer for small businesses. In her downtime, she blogs about boys and gender stereotypes, a subject she explored in her self-published book The Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys about Masculinity.

12 thoughts on “The LEGO Disconnect on Gender

  1. Yes, I totally agree with you. We should definitely let all boys wear pink and purple clothes and wear dresses too! Why not? Everything should be gender neutral right? We should all use the same bathrooms – none of this trying to segregate boys from girls nonsense. All young girls think about is their image, and will surely imitate Lego as their figures are “too perfect.” We should avoid Barbie products as well while we’re at it, or maybe make them all obese so our kids won’t think being obese is a bad thing. Why should it be? C’mon, why do you think our society is so backwards now? It’s because everyone is being overly sensitized to everything around us. Kids are suing their parents because they looked at the wrong (AND WINNING)! Parents don’t want their kids to do anything because “there are too many dangers in the streets.” No one is allowed to discipline their children b/c “that is an evil thing to do to a child.” Grow up and let children play with what they want to play with – I bet if you surveyed 100 boys and girls about the Lego Friends toys, most of the boys would not want to play with “dolls” and most girls would not even realize the Lego people are “too thin” or whatever.

    • Interesting that you said I should “let kids play with what they want to play with”. That is exactly my point: we need to stop placing arbitrary limits on children based on their sex. Of course boys should be able to wear pink and purple and play with doll houses. The key word is “allowed”. I am not saying “forced.” All I’m saying is that we need to let kids make up their own minds.

      Companies like LEGO and other toy manufacturers prefer to tell kids what is appropriate for their sex and those messages are picked up on by other kids and adults. Yes, kids can make different choices, but they know there are often consequences when they don’t conform to what’s expected of them–whether it be parental disapproval or being made fun of by friends. And I think that is a harsh and unnecessary lesson for children. Let them be who they want to be without fear of reprisals over something silly like the choice of a toy.

  2. A good number of points here – there is definitely a massive gender imbalance at moment in LEGO sets – something we covered on LEGO Answers here: What’s the male:female ratio of gendered minifigures (http://bricks.stackexchange.com/q/946/56) which came down to a 5:1 or 8:1 ratio depending on which ranges you included.

    As a parent of two boys, I do try and encourage them to play with all their figures, but they don’t have any interest in playing with the more obviously female (i.e in dresses) minifigs, but they quite like the skaters, zoo keepers, and other more “action” ones.

    In terms of weapons and fighting, the Corporate Responsibility report has a section entitled “Guideline for weapons and conflict in LEGO experiences”, where they state:

    In the LEGO Group, we acknowledge that conflict in play is especially prevalent among 4-9-year-old boys. An inner drive and a need to experiment with their own aggressive feelings in order to learn about other people’s aggressions exist in most children. This in turn enables them to handle and recognize conflict in non-play scenarios. As such, the LEGO Group sees conflict play as perfectly acceptable, and an integral part of children’s development.

    While I’d quite like to pick up some LEGO Friends sets, especially the Inventor’s Workshop, my son’s have told me they won’t be playing with the characters.

    • Thanks so much for your comment.

      I totally missed the section on conflict play. For the record, I don’t disagree with conflict play. I wrote a post about this a while back. My problem with LEGO is the extreme violence that is evident in some of the product lines they create themselves, and the fact that these lines are marketed to boys exclusively. (Not counting Star Wars or other licensed products here since LEGO has little control over those. I’ve written favourably about Star Wars: The Clone Wars in past posts too.) The purpose of lines like Heroica, Bionicles, Hero Factory and some others seems to be violence for the sake of violence, witness the character description of the Skrall I cited here. As far as I’m concerned, the word “bludgeoning” has no place in the marketing of a children’s toy. I know kids don’t read all of the website copy, but that word speaks to the intent of the product. The videos for lines like Heroica are also very violent, and those are something children of any age can see.

      Interesting about your son’s reaction to LEGO Friends. My son said he would really like to have the restaurant and tree house. He had no concerns over the minifigures. Everyone has different tastes, which is why I wish toy companies would stop the gender segregation in their marketing.

      • I Think you are missing a Big Marketing point, a lot of the Lego sets are also being marketed to older boys and young men (any where from 12 to 40) . There is a whole sub-sect of those who grew up in the 80s and 90s who are buying toys that remind them of their childhood.

    • Re-reading that passage from LEGO. I wonder where LEGO thinks those aggressive tendencies come from? Is it a chicken and egg argument? The toys boys are given and the attitudes they are taught show them that aggression is a desirable masculine trait, making them want more toys like that as they get older?

      I don’t disagree that children need to find ways to handle aggression and that pretend play is a great way to do it, but I wonder if LEGO sees its toys (and others) as contributing to the “prevalence” of this desire for conflict play in boys, as much as such play may help them. Food for thought. And maybe a subject for a future blog post. Thanks again for sharing this.

      • No problem, glad you found it interesting – couple of additional points:

        Gender Balance: Even with the importance of Hermione, Ginny and Luna in the HP series and the other female characters, there were only 3 female minifigs in all the HP sets last year, compared with 20 male minifigs, so even with licenses they have a way to go.
        Aggressive Play: A friend of mine had been very clear that there would be no toy guns in his house for his kids to play with, yet as soon as they got a large selection of LEGO bricks, what did they build? Guns to shoot each other with.

        I agree that there’s a rather large selection of violent media aimed at young boys and that’s not great, and something I certainly try and limit access to when I can.

        My son’s haven’t seen the video’s for Heroica, but we’ve had great fun playing it, and I’ve been using it to teach them about teamwork and co-op play – using the strength of one character to balance the weakness of another (as you would find in any RPG team) and in use the weapons aren’t all that prominent – they are in your “hero pack” and modify your abilities.

        I think the key difference between LEGO Friends and previous ranges is the focus on both building and story – Belville and Scala were both more focused on “decoration” than true LEGO building, and by adding a story from the start gives the kids something else to build on.

        In terms of the marketing aspect, I think it’s probably two fold however: Partly marketing the sets to girls who are already in a “Pink World” and don’t want Police or Fire sets, and also marketing to parents (and indeed other relations) as a “Here’s something to buy as a present for your Pink Obsessed child/niece/granddaughter”. While we would love to go back to the world in the 1981 advert which was really aimed more at the parents than the child, now that companies are advertising directly to the kids, they have to do so in the marketplace as it stands, and unfortunately that is segregated – so perhaps this move should be looked at in a few years time, and might be seen as a step in the right direction?

  3. Well, it’s no surprise that all of the cool-looking an intricate (girlspeak; hard to build) sets are aimed at boys, it’s well documented that females have a much smaller capacity to learn and extrapolate information as compared to males.
    We don’t want girls’ brains to explode and we don’t want them to think that they will be suitable for jobs like saving the world.

    I’m not saying girls are not important though; they’re the next generation of housewives, cooks, etc.

    Let the boys do the important things, let the girls lean to be girls.

  4. This is not the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen feminists whine about, but it’s probably top 10.

  5. Pingback: The LEGO Disconnect on Gender | Adios Barbie

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