LEGO & Gender Part 2: The Boys Club

February 6, 2012

Watch Part 1: LEGO Friends

In part 1 of my two part LEGO and Gender series, I explored how LEGO went terribly wrong with LEGO Friends and provided a brief history of LEGO’s ridiculous and slightly hilarious attempts to market to girls since the late 70′s.

In part 2, I delve into how LEGO shifted their products from their initial relatively, gender neutral building experience to a more male dominated and male identified one.  The LEGO group intentionally did this in three ways: 1. Marketing exclusively to boys, 2. Producing male identified and centered themes and sets and 3. Focusing on stereotypical boys play scenarios with an emphasis on combat.  The strong focus on boys has effectively kicked girls out of the LEGO club house. Keep watching until the end where I provide a few suggestions to LEGO on how to fix their gender segregation problem.

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** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

Transcript
Clip:
“Each day there’s adventure, always something new, and the team that dreams tomorrow up is LEGO Land and You”

In my last video we visited the pastel coloured, gender stereotyped suburban wasteland that is the LEGO Friends theme.  We also took a tour of LEGOs ridiculous and slightly hilarious attempts to market to girls in the past several decades.  So if you haven’t watched that one go ahead and check it out before continuing on to this one.

It’s not secret that LEGO’s clubhouse is currently designed and marketed primarily for boys.

CLIP:
Reporter: There are very few toy brands as ubiquitous as LEGO. And yet research shows that LEGO only clicks with about half of all children, the male half.

Boy: Look at mine mommy

Reporter: Since 2005 LEGO has embraced that, marketing almost exclusively to little boys. And it’s giving boys a boost in the world, LEGO play has been attributed with accelerating boys development.  Research shows that it helps fine tune spacial and math skills.

How did the company shift from their initial relatively gender neutral universal building experience, to a more male dominated one? Well it wasn’t by accident.

The LEGO group intentionally did it in three ways.

#1 Marketing exclusively to boys: LEGO has been intentionally designing, creating and marketing almost the entire LEGO universe specifically and exclusively to boys since at least the mid 1980’s.

First lets take a quick look at the history of LEGO’s marketing before this gendered shift occurred. LEGO can be traced back to the early 1930’s but started producing their interlocking plastic bricks in 1949.

Clip:
Narrator: LEGO a whole new world to build
Song: This young girl had such fun, she used LEGO one by one.  With a nic-nac-paddy-wack build a house of grand, this young girl’s a LEGO fan.

LEGO focused on marketing their products with a strong emphasis on creative play, cooperation, and imagination for the next three decades in a relatively universal way to children of all genders and even as something that families can do together.

By the mid 80’s, however, girls had all but disappeared and LEGO was marketing almost exclusively to boys.  Some of you might remember Zack, you know, the LEGO maniac.

Clip:
I know a boy his name is Zack, his micro chips are out of wack, he built a Blacktron Cadillac, he’s Zack the LEGO Maniac.  He sent his cosmic fleet to Mars, he’s out there cruising with the stars.  His mind is lost in outer space.  A cosmonaut, earth calling Zack, hey Zack come back!

ZACK became the official LEGO mascot, he embodied the LEGO experience, and helped to identify the brand with boys’ play. Boys continued to dominate LEGO’s marketing for the next two decades.

Clip:
Once upon a time a boy discovered a magic castle.  Inside was a bat lord and his knights, a witch and the smell of rotting bones.  It was time to go, and the boy tried to escape but the witch insisted he stay… for dinner.  [cackle]  LEGO Mania.  LEGO Mania.

Yeaaaaaa….

Clip:
Pistons that pump, gears that will get you going, motors that muscle, and blades that’ll blow you away. Technically speaking it will turn you on. LEGO Mania. LEGO Mania.

In 2011, LEGO made sure to drive home the point that LEGOs are for boys with their Build Together marketing campaign.

Clip:
Ah the father and son roadtrip, just a little imagination and you’re good to go.

It’s been said that a man’s home is his castle and truer words were never spoken when that home is in the hands of this father and son team. Well done gentlemen, well done indeed.

Each ad revolves around fathers and sons collaborating on imaginative LEGO creations. You’ll notice there are no grandmothers, mothers, daughters or sisters building together.

#2 Producing male identified and male centered themes and sets:  Over the next of couple decades but especially in the late 90’s and early 2000’s LEGO began creating and producing more sets that were intentionally male identified and male centered.

To reinforce that LEGOs are specifically for boys, LEGO made their products male centered by populating their sets and themes with male minifigures.  Male centered means that the focus of attention is on men, their stories and what they do.  In terms of LEGO, this refers to their shift from their original less gendered minifigures to sets and themes dominated by male characters, moving away from the 2 dots and a smiley face to frowns, sneers and facial hair. On the rare occasion when women do appear, they’re sporting bright red lipstick, curves and cleavage.

The lack of female minifigures in the LEGO universe is staggering, conservative estimates reveal that the ratio of unique male identified minifigures to unique indentified female minifigures is 18:1. The minifigure gender disparity only got worse when LEGO started making sets based on movie franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean, because those films are male centered and male identified, not surprisingly the themes and sets based on them are also male centered and male identified.  Out of the two hundred and fifty plus unique mini figures in the Star Wars sets for instance, you can count the number of women on your fingers.

This positions boys and masculinity as the default for the LEGO universe.

Clip
Anchorwoman: Who can help us?
Man: ADU is here.  Step aside ma’am, let the ADU take over, go get em boys!

#3 Focusing on stereotypical boys play scenarios with an emphasis on combat: Remember that whole creativity and imagination thing?

Clip
“You can build this transport pretending you’re on Mars.  The box shows ways to change it by snapping off the cars.  You can snap them back together and get a scouting craft, or match them with a laser for a base defender craft.  You can make up something wild, supercharged and new.  The sky’s the limit when the team is LEGO Land and you!

That was back in 1985, let’s check in on what’s happening in the contemporary LEGO themes.

Clip:
Ready your weapons. And get ready. You control the battle. Transform to attack mode. Prepare for battle. Arm the rockets. Arm the weapons. Load the missile. You can load the bombs. Man the canons. Load the rockets. Arm the missile. Prepare the torpedoes. And fight back. Fire at will. Fire the canon. Fire the mighty catapult. Fire. Fire. Fire the missile. And attack!

While LEGO group itself has admitted that they have prioritized catering to boys, this has notably shifted their marketing and product design to be less about LEGO’s educational benefits such as fostering creativity and imagination to more about combat, aggression, conflict and competition scenarios which feel a lot more like G.I. Joe then they do the LEGO of yesteryear.

Even in the popular CITY theme we’ve started to see these conflict elements take center stage with the edition of the cops and robbers subtheme over the last couple of years.

It’s not that women and girls are never interested in combat based play—- aggression and competition are of course, possible human behaviours for people of all genders.

In our current patriarchal society, however, traits associated with men and masculinity are more highly valued, even ones that aren’t exactly the most socially beneficial.

CLIP
Narrator: Ninjago, rebuild your spinner and win the fight
Minifig 1: But what about my sister?
Minifig 2: We’re saving a girl? Is she hot?
Narrator: Become the master of spinjitsu

In this case LEGO has strongly emphasized combat and violent conflict in order to market to boys.  This marketing choice has a further consequence of limiting boys because they miss out on toys that help develop cooperation, relationship building, nurturing and caregiving.

Now let’s bring all of this back to the new LEGO’s “for girls”.

While the entire concept and marketing of the Friends theme is deeply problematic, it’s not without some small merits.  The emphasis on sharing, cooperation and nurturing are values that I would love to see infused in toys for children of all genders.  Even the title of Friends draws attention to the importance of relationship building, however, these values are almost exclusively found in media and toys for girls and are wrapped up in harmful gender stereotypes, meanwhile these positive values are almost entirely absent in toys aimed at boys. The repercussions of this can be grave, relegating the responsibility for fostering healthy relationships and communications on women and simultaneously reinforcing to boys and men that using violence is a practical options for solving conflicts, even interpersonal ones.

Once LEGO had doubled down on gendering all their products as ‘for boys’ they were backed them into a corner where they were forced to then create a distinct and separate “for girls” collection. LEGO Friends is clearly marked as “Not for Boys” which defacto reinforces that the rest of the LEGO universe is “for boys” and for boys alone.

If we look at the language in advertising for the sets marketed to boys, they’re encouraged to actively participate in the building as a core part of the story.

Clip
You can build the huge helicopter.  You can build the massive clone turbo tank.  You can build the Batmobile.  You can build the dino truck.  You can build the rocket. You can build the king’s castle.

But in the LEGO Friend’s marketing the construction is not central to the narrative being sold.

Clip:
Drive by Olivia’s house, pass the vet with all the pets, to the newly built café.  We’re here. Let’s all help out, make burgers, shakes, bake the cupcakes.

See how things have been built but the action is not attributed to anyone?  The minifigs just show up at the “newly built cafe”. And the playtime is supposed to happen after the building is complete.  Unlike in the other commercials where boys are encouraged to actively build and construct as a part of their LEGO experience.

Now, to the credit of girls and women, many of us have stubbornly continued to like many of the classic sets despite LEGO’s best efforts to ignore us and kick us out of the LEGO club house.

So LEGO spent 4 years and millions of dollars to research the desires of girls to create another Barbie wasteland and continues to ignore the fact that they already have a potentially great product for girls its called LEGO, or it used to be.

LEGO’s logic surrounding giving girls what they “want” sounds an awful lot like self fulfilling marketing. As Lisa Wade pointed out at the Ms. Blog

“Executives are going to great lengths to explain that the line is based on research… The frame gives the company an excuse for reproducing the same old gender stereotypes that we see throughout our culture… In this way they are trying to make it clear that they shouldn’t be held accountable for the messages their products send.”

The real take away from LEGO’s research is that the literally billions of dollars that the media and toy companies spent over the last couple of decades on aggressive gendered marketing and gendered stereotyping has worked.

We see fewer commercials with boys and girls playing together, and more products that segregate boys and girls into different categories of people, each with very rigid and limiting ideas of what roles are appropriate.

All this marketing is inescapable and young people and adults alike internalize these deeply harmful and limiting messages. Although we don’t wanna believe it, the truth of it is, is that advertising actually works to manipulate us and it works really well, or else corporations wouldn’t do it.

What LEGO should have done if they were serious about expanding the LEGO universe to include girls is to actually include them in a meaningful way, not segregate and separate them into their own pink enclave.  In the future here are two suggestions that LEGO can use as a starting point to think about producing and marketing new products.

First, they’ve got to integrate more female minifigs characters into their themes and make them the focus of those sets.  Then they’ve got to completely drop “ladyfig” doll thing from the entire LEGO universe.

Secondly, LEGO needs to go back to the drawing board and create products that foster creativity and imagination that children of all genders will adore.  They can start by deemphasizing the macho testosterone and the combat, and create universally appealing sets that include occupations and adventure scenarios for children of all genders.

LEGO can look to their own specialized Creator collection which includes sets that are more reminincent of the original LEGO building experience.  These sets even come with three different instruction guides which help to encourage builders to think about the bricks as remixable elements, to be taken apart, hacked and rebuilt again in different ways.  Unfortunately the Creator line is not prioritized within the LEGO universe.

This ad campaign from the early 1980’s has been passed around online quite a bit, not only because it strongly emphasized the confidence building benefits of creative play but it did so without exploiting gender stereotypes and remarkably it didn’t prioritize boys over girls.  This ad in particular features a young girl proudly displaying her new LEGO creation with the text, what it is, is beautiful.  And in fact it is beautiful to feature a girl who is unconstrained by regressive notions of gender.

In addition to being critical of gender stereotyping, we ought to be consciously critical of the values being promoted in children’s toys. And let’s be honest, toys that promote sharing and cooperation, creativity and imagination are probably a better educational experience for raising healthy, well developed kids then a constant focus on blowing stuff up and shooting people.

Between the Creator sets and this ad campaign, its clear LEGO already knows how to create an inclusive, universal play experience that children of all genders can participate in.  So the next step is to actually do it, across the entire LEGO universe.

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8 Responses to “LEGO & Gender Part 2: The Boys Club”

  1. Anita, that’s just fantastic. I hope Lego has the smarts to watch, and learn from it.

  2. Stunning analysis – And I thought I knew this stuff. I play tested one of the Friends sets with 2 four year old girls. They play with the other Lego bricks but begged for a Friends set so I ok’d Olivia’s Treehouse. It seemed the least objectionable.

    (We’re working on customizing some of the other mini figs to get an Eowyn and Brienne of Tarth to visit the Tree House.)

  3. The first time my daughter received her Lego Club magazine, she asked why there were no girls on the page that showed pictures of kids with their Lego creations.

  4. A really great analysis of the situation. Here’s some more proof that LEGO city is marketed specifically at boys ( getting to your point about firefighters all being men). TLG put out a pitch for a new commercial for LEGO City here: http://tongal.com/project/legocity

    Highlights:
    LEGO believes that every young boy has the potential to become a hero

    • A call for heroes! – A strong call for action talks directly to the boys and adds a sense of urgency and excitement

    Target Audience: Boys 5-11; sweet spot is 5-7 boys.

  5. LEGO has a website (LEGO CUUSOO) where people can submit ideas for new LEGO sets, and if they get enough supporters LEGO will start manufacturing them. I signed up just so I could support projects that promote diversity and better female figurines.

    I think these are good examples of ideas we should support: More active female figures that fit into the LEGO City: http://lego.cuusoo.com/ideas/view/15401

    Meet the neighbours brings more diverse figurines into the LEGO world: http://lego.cuusoo.com/ideas/view/17990

  6. Another impressive clear and largely scientific analysis of an important cultural cornerstone. Please keep up the good work, and please tell me the secret of how you remain so calm, professional and rational sounding throughout your videos: even watching it makes me fume at times at how deeply rooted, omnipresent and insidious contemporary gender-stereotyping seems to have become.

  7. This is exactly what was bugging me about these new Lego sets! You hit the nail on the head perfectly! Nice Job!

  8. Brilliant stuff. I was a real lego maniac as a kid and actually I don’t remember noticing how gendered they were. (I also had Barbie dolls and a Sindy hair salon.) But I’m sure this isn’t true of all children, and I think kids have actually become more aware of the cultural expectations they are supposed to fulfil (it also depends on the values their parents and teachers promote, and I was lucky in this regard). Some of this stuff made me spit with rage. I also forwarded it to my dad, the main person I used to do Lego building with, and he was equally sad. Thanks for putting so much into it!