Legos and Gender

Like a lot of people, I am pretty horrified by Lego’s new “Friends” line, which is their attempt to market to girls, because apparently girls only like pink and purple, home decorating and beauty parlors.

What is especially sad about this is that Lego used to market to both boys and girls rather than segregating them into two different Lego universes (someone tell me – why didn’t Lego just add a beauty parlor to its Lego City line, rather than segregating girls into the pink and purple suburbia of the brand new Heartlake City?). Here is how Lego used to market: 

You see? Gender neutral! Just build! Just be creative!

Here is how Lego markets today:


Whatever happened to gender neutral? Whatever happened to creativity and “just build?” Here’s an awesome take on the whole Lego Friends controversy. Apparently, Lego was thinking about having two different – and gendered – Lego Club magazines. I heard that they were rethinking this decision, and I really hope that the rumor is right, because I would hate to end up with this:

And the bummer is, way beyond this whole Lego thing, as the mother of a young daughter I think we’re going backwards. Just try walking through the toy aisles at Wal-Mart. Try looking for gender neutral pajamas. You won’t find any. I mean, I went down the toddler shoe aisles the other day and, viewed from a distance, the girls’ aisle was a cloud of pink while the boys’ aisle was a mixture of red and gray! You really can’t get away from the highly, highly gendered marketing for children that goes on today.

The trouble is what this marketing says to kids. It tells girls that they’re supposed to like pink and purple, supposed to play with dolls and kitchen sets, and that boys are supposed to link dinosaurs and trucks and play with militaristic toys and guns. Think of Barbie and G. I. Joe for crying out loud! And I hate, hate, hate that this is the message my daughter will get whether I like it or not! Now obviously I’ll work to counteract it by telling her that she can be strong as well as nurturing, a leader as well as a builder of compromise, etc, but it doesn’t change that the messages she will get from the pervaisive advertizing we have in our society are so very highly gendered.

But the whole Lego Friends thing happened months ago, you say? Well yes. So let me share what got me thinking on it again – a brilliant pair of youtube videos examining Lego and Lego Friends and Lego’s marketing. They’re really worth the watch:

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    In my opinion, Lego in general has become less about creative building and more about building one specific thing like something from Harry Potter or in this case a beauty parlor. When I was a child Lego was more different sizes of building blocks that could become anything. Yes, I remember getting some small items that would become something special but mostly everything became what the child wanted it to be and not something some adult had created beforehand.

    • Conuly

      You can still get the old school sets. You have to ask for them, but you can get them.

      • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

        Yes, I know, but as you say yourself, they are not what they use to market their product and not every place carry them. It is a bit sad I think, Lego should really market both I think.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I loved lego as a kid and hated barbies (in fact my brother had more barbies than me, later he changed to a kind of GI Joes but for years he had 3 barbies and I one who barely played with instead I preferred to play with our animal set, our train tracks and such). From as young as I have memories of I’ve always been repelled by the girl’s aisle of toys and it wasn’t until I was older than I had a phase of playing with dolls but to make them clothes while at the same times I had a big collection of toy guns (I’m now pro-gun regulation and have no desire of touching a real one ever but as a kid I loved my toy gun collection and took pride in it XP).

    It really is sad we seem to be going backwards in time with the extreme “genderization”of toys. I imagine they are doing it to increase sales but I wonder if it might have something to do with the change in the parent’s ideologies since in the end they are the ones buying the clothes especially for toddlers and the like. I still don’t have kids but this is quite problematic since toy marketeers are forcing even more gender conformity, will this increase bullying of kids who don’t conform with it?

  • http://getinhangon.wordpress.com/ Meg

    Legos have been sexist for over a dozen years. My DD is about to turn 18 and she had piles of these: https://www.google.com/search?source=ig&hl=en&rlz=1G1ACAW_ENUS340&q=lego+bellville&btnG=Google+Search#q=lego+belville&hl=en&sa=G&rlz=1G1ACAW_ENUS340&prmd=imvns&source=univ&tbm=shop&tbo=u&ei=SaWJT_qPO5Co8ATJ0ty2CQ&ved=0CIQBEK0E&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=1903eebfa98b0afa&biw=1173&bih=817

    OTH, she and her brother mixed all the Legos together and what they created was their own ideas.

  • shadowspring

    Wrote Lego personally and signed the Change.org petition I found following links.

    I remember my children loved playing with Legos. I have a picture of my daughter using Legos to build a pyramid for her unit study on Egypt. When my husband first started travelling, we would buy Lego kits and he would parcel out pieces upon his return; we focused on environmental kits: the Artic, an African savannah, etc.

    I even used Legos to introduce the concept of taxonomy and classification. I would dump out our giant collection of Legos and have the kids sort them by color, remix them and have the kids re-sort by shape, remix them and have the kids re-sort by thickness. We would discuss other possible ways to sort them: by original kit, by utility, etc. Then we would talk about the current ways science classifies living things, pointing out that we are always learning more about our world and our ways of classifying things change. (When I was a child there were two kingdoms only, now there are five, for example.)

    I would never NEVER have purchased the barbie-type Legos. What a joke. If my daughter wanted a Barbie (I never encouraged the fashion/sex object type toys, but she had a few) I would have bought it for her and asked her what she liked most about it. As it was, we played with old school primary colors Legos and science/explorer themed kits.

    I think Lego had a community helpers people set you could buy at the time, because I had all of those little people and I got them from somewhere. (Found them, they are in Duplos. They still appear to have a focus on diversity, at least in the writeups.)

    For parents of young children, I can recommend some good toy catalogs, like Hearthsong, Young Explorers, MindWare, Learning Resources, etc. No Legos, but plenty of other great construction toys.

  • shadowspring
    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ blotzphoto

      Great link!

  • http://vulu.net Bertrand Le Roy

    My two daughters and I are Lego fans, and while I much prefer the “what it is is beautiful” approach, one of their new girly-girl-targeted kits is an inventor’s workshop. I bought this one for my older daughter. It’s still all pink stuff but it’s still in the empowerment theme. I’m actually slightly more bothered by the aggressiveness of some of their boy-targeted kits but in any case I’m not sure Lego is to blame here. After all, they are a commercial entity producing goods in exchange for money so they are following what they identify as trends in society in order to maximize their profit. Not that I like that, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s in society at large that we need to raise awareness so that as a consequence, corporations stop doing this kind of stuff. But I also think you’re doing a good thing here, exerting consumer pressure on them to show them that their marketing can be insulting and counter-productive. Anyway, sorry if I sound a little confused here; big fan, thanks for the blog, keep it up.

    • MadGastronomer

      Moaning “Society’s to blame!” doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Lego’s board and staff are responsible for the choices they make about what Lego puts out and how they market. People are society, and society feels this way because people feel this way. “Raising awareness” in some vague, general way doesn’t actually get anything done. What needs to be done is for points to be made the the decision-makes at key companies. That’s whose minds need to be changed. Targeted petitions and other consumer actions are one way to do that. Another way, one, alas, few of us can do, is to actually produce creative building toys of the kind Lego used to be, and then sell them effectively using ungendered marketing.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Couldn’t agree more, MadGastronomer. Toy marketers (or any other kind of marketers) don’t just follow trends, they by and large CREATE them. I’ve never bad much patience with the “they’re just playing the game” excuse for big, powerful companies. They’re the ones making the rules of the game. They can change them but they won’t unless enough people make noise.

      • http://vulu.net Bertrand Le Roy

        Do you have to be so nasty? I’m not moaning, and you are putting words into my mouth. Manufacturing quotes is dishonest. I didn’t say “society’s to blame”. What I’m saying is that as long as society doesn’t change in depth, corporations are unlikely to change their behavior, and that consequently we should focus at least some of our energy on the wider issue. Protesting to the manufacturer will only work if enough people do it, and that will only happen if society at large considers this a problem. What’s “vague” about raising awareness? It worked for the LGBT movement, and it worked for the Feminist movement. How do you know what I do or don’t do to “get things done”?
        I’m not trying to excuse Lego in any way as you are both suggesting, but honestly wondering what is the best course of action or courses of action to change things. I even said that I though Libby was doing the right thing here. Is suggesting to act in more than one way so offensive? Tss.

  • Nurse Bee

    My girls have just a generic set of duplos right now (I have seen a “girl” set of pink, purple, etc), and I can’t say I would ever encourage them to want the new sets they are marketing to girls.

    It isn’t just legos, though. My older daughter absolutely loves Go, Diego, Go and Curious George. However all the toys and clothing related to these seem to only be for boys.

  • Sue Blue

    I loved Legos as a kid – and Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys. I also had cap guns and BB guns (this was the 1960s) that I bought with my own money. I remember noticing that all the ads for these toys showed only boys using them, and that ads for Easy Bake ovens and Barbie Dolls only showed girls. I remember wondering why kids couldn’t just play with whatever interested them. The first time I remember actively getting pissed off by gender bias was when I was shopping for my first bike. I was always being steered toward these tarted-up pink or pastel things with dropped top tubes, flowery little plastic baskets on the handlebars, extra-cushy seats, and plastic streamers on the grips. Such bullshit! I wanted a “real” bike – black or red, with a speedometer and hand brakes and a regular, structurally-sound top-tube. And I don’t even think I was that much of a tomboy! I bought a “boy’s” bike and rode it for years. I remember being somewhat ostracized for playing with boys, being interested in math and science (and doing well at them), and for preferring to play “Star Trek” at recess instead of jacks or jump-rope. When puberty hit, I got a little more self-conscious and started trying to fit in to avoid being accused of being “butch”. I didn’t understand why having these “boy” interests automatically meant I was a lesbian – I wasn’t. I still regret not having the spine to just forge ahead as I was. The plus side is that my daughter who is now twenty years old, was encouraged to be herself during childhood and is now a strong, highly-educated, and independent feminist.

    • http://blauthor.blogspot.com PlumJo

      I went through the same thing when I got my first bike in 1993! I desperately wanted a red bike, but when the salesman said that all the red bikes were for boys my parents were concerned the seat might bother me so I ended up with a pink one. No fair…

  • Awakingsleep

    I feel like there is a class element involved in all this. If you look at higher end toys and clothes, it is quite a lot easier to find gender-neutral things. Walmart and other discount stores, not so much. I don’t know what prompts it, but having lived in a couple of different parts of the county now, over-the-top gender signaling seems a bit … trashy? In some circles.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ blotzphoto

      That’s not a bad point at all. The aisles at ToysrUs and Target suffer from the pink ghetto segregation problem, but the upscale (and expensive) independent toy store over on the richer side of town tones that crap down a lot!

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    This kind of gender segregation infects an enormous segment of products aimed at children. Even totally utilitarian products get the treatment; I mean, seriously, a pink microscope?

    Yet you still have no trouble finding ignorant parents who claim that they “tried to raise their children without biases” and they just “naturally” segregated themselves into dolls and guns. It would be totally obvious where the cultural programming was coming from if they decided to use their heads for a few minutes. Children are not socialized exclusively by their parent’s attitudes, and no parent is perfect anyway.

    • Conuly

      When people say that, and the child is very young, I often notice that the child is doing exactly what the parents swear he or she never does – boys playing with kitchen toys, girls crawling around with cars. People see what they want to see.

      With older kids, I ask when the kid started preschool. Lo and behold, the huge uptick in carefully gendered behavior generally occurs a few months after they are surrounded by other kids who are big into GIRL and BOY stuff. What a surprise!

  • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

    It’s not just kids’ marketing that’s gender segregated. Last time I was in Wal-Mart, I spent ten minutes in the pharmacy trying to figure out whether the products I needed were in the For Him or For Her section. FYI, Q-tips are for girls.

    • Conuly

      LOL, really?

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    GRRRR!!! This is one topic that always gets me steamed, maybe because, even when I was little and didn’t know the word “feminist” the gendering of toy advertising always really bothered me (What I hated the most was when any kind of “scary” toy–which I loved–was advertised, it was always shown being used by boys to scare little girls. Drove me nuts!) And you’re right, it’s totally unnecessary. Girls already like legos, they don’t need to be wooed with pink and “girly” stuff. This is like when they came out with the pink ouija board for girls that was all about boys and gossip etc, as if girls couldn’t get interested in a regular ouija board! My all-female cousins and I certainly never had any problem–like most kids, we were totally fascinated by ghosts and sceances and the supernatural etc. We didn’t need to have everything be focused on stereotypically “girly” things to enjoy them. We were intereseted in PEOPLE things because we’re PEOPLE! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

    I loved legos when I was a kid–even my mom loved legos, and it looks like she wasn’t unusual, given all the other moms that have weighed in here. Legos, erector sets, blocks any kind of building toy. And the thing is, I also loved pink, sparkly, “girly” stuff. I’d have worn my pink tutu all day every day if I’d been allowed. But I was also an artsy, crafty kid and I liked to make things. I’d build entire cities with legos and then make people and animals out of modeling clay to inhabit them. I didn’t need everything to be pink and princess-y. I was my own person, with multiple dimensions, just like I am now. Plenty of women here have posted to say that they hated the pink princess stuff but even those of us who DID like that stuff liked other things too. But toy manufacturers seem to think that little girls are just “Sex and the City” airhead waiting to grow up.

  • Mikey

    If I may :D

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jitDWAx6_eA

    But seriously, It’s a shame that legos feel they need to go to these stereotypical places to attract girls.

  • Noelle

    My 5 year-old daughter made a rocket earlier this week with the various legos mixed up in bins in the house. Many of our Legos are from my husband’s childhood collections. I never noticed the commercials dropping boys and girls playing together before you mentioned it. I’m not sure what they spent all their research money on. I have a feeling this girlie line won’t do any better than the previous failed ones. Seems like they could’ve saved some money by recycling their older gender cooperative play ad campaigns. How difficult could it be to come up with scenarios for commercials with a reminder that girls build blocks too? Older sister stuck bbsitting, but gets so absorbed putting together Legos with little sister she forgets to text constantly. Stay-at-home dad day-dreaming of his one-day architect daughter while they construct a castle together. Research means find newer and better ideas, not model the we went to Walmart and everything was pink so we’re sticking with that concept.

    I for one enjoyed things that explode as a kid. There’s very little marketing to girls on exploding things. I made do with my chemistry set.

    • http://jannalouise.thehoskincentre.com/blogs Janna

      I STILL love exploding things. When I went to see the re-release of the original Star Wars movie, I sat in the front row for the explosion of the Death Star.

      Yeah, I like action movies and science fiction and the like, too.

      • Noelle

        The only thing better than stuff that explodes is stuff that implodes.

  • http://jannalouise.thehoskincentre.com/blogs Janna

    I own every single Princess Leia action figure from the original Kenner line. I really wanted a Han Solo, an R2-D2, and maybe a Darth Vader. Aside from Leia, I have a bunch of random secondary characters. I bought my own Millennium Falcon and a droid workshop at a second-hand toy shop when I was in my early teens. I also never got the kind of Lego I wanted, but luckily my brothers were great at sharing. We would play and I would run the junk yard. It was great, I would sort the Lego by colour, size, and shape, and then my brothers could come and trade other pieces for the ones they needed. It suited me, I often used the Lego in my junk yard to build whatever caught my fancy, and my brothers’ space men and pirates would have adventures (someone always gave me a Lego man to run the junk yard). I did eventually get into Barbies, but it was more to collect them than to play with them, and I was 15 when I started. Same with dolls. Oh, and I love playing with trains (both the wooden track kind and the electric model kind) and I think Hot Wheels are cool.

    I am, of course, an adult woman now, and I hate the colour pink if it’s not more of a fuchsia shade. I also hate pastels. My favourite colour is green, and I look fantastic in jewel tones, especially blue. Ask me how much fun I have shopping for pretty clothes. (Clue: I don’t feel pretty in “baby pink,” pastel blue, pure white, or light green. I feel gorgeous in cream and royal blue.)

  • Polly

    My three eldest all love lego! Two boys and one girl. My daughter is nearly 5 and has asked for a dinosaur lego kit for her birthday. It never occurred to me to buy the girly ones as there seems to be less construction in them. All my children enjoy lego, cubby house building and tea parties. I think the best thing you can do is to approach all play as gender neutral. I encourage my boys to cook and learn to do household chores and I encourage my daughter to help her father with the car. Society will do what it will do but we can combat that at home!

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    When signing up for the recent free LEGO magazine offer, a friend’s daughter insisted that her mother sign her up as a boy, because the things LEGO markets to girls are boring compared to the boys’ stuff (although I think the magazine is the same still). My daughter actually has a preference for girly stuff but she just plays with the same LEGOs I bought for her older brother. She does copy what he does to some extent, which is why she’s building airplanes now.

  • Meggie

    I tried to offer all of my children choice. My boys had dolls, doll houses, cooking sets and other “girl” toys – they never touched them. They liked lego. My girls had lego, toy cars and other “boy” toys – they never touched them. They liked books, colouring and craft. Although they all ended up with the stereotype toys for their sex I like to think we did the right thing; we provided lots of toys and they chose what they wanted. It was not us or society telling them what they were suppose to want.

  • Jeanette

    Have you seen this? http://www.thelocal.se/39988/20120330/
    It’s a local toy catalogue from Sweden and kinda awesome.

    • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

      I am Swedish and I thought of bringing this campaign up in relation to this post. I like the catalogue but it is sad that such a small thing can become such big news. Really, a girl playing with a tractor and a child in a Spinderman costume playing with a stroller, is that really supposed to cause this much attention in 2012? Appearently…

      The blogger mentioned Lady Dahmer is a favorite of mine as well, she is very good at explaining how to raise your child in a gender inclusive way that everyone can understand.

  • Caravelle

    One thing I notice about those ads aside from the gender neutrality is who those ads are directed at. All the old lego ads are directed at the parents. It isn’t clear who the newer ads are directed at but from my experience with the ads I saw as a child (late 80s early 90s), toy ads nowadays are very much directed at child.

    I wonder if that difference is linked to the end of the gender neutrality. After all the ads for adults are very gender-segregated too. It may be what happened is that children used to be seen as an undifferentiated mass, parents bought their toys, ads were directed at the parents and there wasn’t much thought given to children as a demographic, or as a set of separate demographics.

    As companies recognized the power of children to direct their parents’ buying decisions toy-wise they started advertising to the children themselves, and at that point they started seeing the children as a market the same way they saw the adults, gender segregation included ?

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    OK … they stop showing females in the ads, make male-centric figures and sets, advertise them heavily, and then they wonder why girls aren’t asking for LEGOs.

    Someone was sleeping all through their marketing classes.!

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    And a young lady named Riley has a comment:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CU040Hqbas

  • http://greatgrandmotherskitchen.blogspot.com/ Jesse (Great Grandmother’s Kitchen)

    Brings back memories of being 9 years old and sending a letter to Lego, begging for more female characters in adventure sets. I got back a note saying, “We’re coming out with new things soon!”, and a bunch of wig pieces. Meh…no way to wear those under a helmet!

  • http://www.girlscantwhat.com Gretchen @ Girls Can’t WHAT?

    Hi Libby Anne – I recently started following your blog (about 2 weeks ago) – good stuff! I have to chime in on this one because I love LEGOS and I recently posted an article of my own about the “pink LEGOS” at my site called Girls Can’t WHAT?

    http://www.girlscantwhat.com/in-defense-of-pink-legos-sort-of/

    While I think they will sell quite a few of these princess-like sets, I think what LEGO is effectively doing is stripping the creativity right out of the product. I won’t rehash my entire article here, but let’s just suffice to say I never had a problem coming up with story lines for my LEGO sets (and I had literally hundreds of them). These new LEGO girls come with names, personalities and careers built-in. Where is the creativity? What if I want the smart girl to also be the sports lover?

    I also wonder if there is a distinct difference in personality types that LEGO misinterprets for a gender difference. For instance, I am not your typical girly girl. I was into all kinds of sports and “boy activities” when I was younger – your standard tomboy. I would rather have been out riding a dirt bike or building a LEGO space station than playing with Barbies or doing dress-up activities. Some girls are just like that, while others prefer to have stories created for them. Consider role-playing… some people will follow a pre-existing story line like acting out parts in a movie they’ve seen. Others (like me) prefer to make things up as they go. That has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with personality. You see this trait across both genders.

    And if it is about personality traits, then it’s fair to say that the creative ones are a minority amongst the general population (going entirely from data given from meyers-briggs research). So if LEGO did their homework like they say they did, they are partially correct in that a very large population of girls will want the new sets. For girls like me (and I’m speculating this includes a good portion of the people who are railing against the pink LEGOS ), they are unappealing and lack the creativity our intuitive minds need.

  • Richelle

    We wandered through Toys R Us the other day, and happened upon the Science section. I’m a scientist and I wanted to cry. All of the boxes had pictures of boys on them – the two boxes (out of many) that had pictures of girls on them also had boys, but never just a girl on a gender-neutral coloured box. The message was loud and clear: these are for the boys… oh and girls, you can join in sometimes.

    I got my first microscope when I was 7. It was fire engine red and it was awesome. Imagine my dismay when I came to the microscope section and yep, only boys looking into these microscopes on the boxes… oh but wait, what’s that? If you look at the bottom shelf, why, there’s some with girls on the box! A moment of delight and then I realize – the microscopes are Hot. Bright. Barbie. Pink.

    ARGH. I have never been so angry over a toy. Young women outnumber men in biology degrees, including graduate now, and here we are, with this condescending, ridiculous, hurtful crap. Oh you like science sweetheart? Well, why don’t you have this PRETTY microscope? It does all the same things as the regular microscope, but I felt that you should be reminded that there is science and then there is GIRL science. Girls don’t like things unless they’re pink, right? Tee-hee-hee, don’t forget to twirl your hair at the boys while you’re pretending to look smart!

    I literally gave the pile of boxes the finger. It made me feel a very little bit better.

  • Cactus Wren

    Richelle, you should see the chemistry sets. The overwhelming majority of kids’ chemistry sets are in black or gray boxes, are very heavy on either the hard-science element or the “gross” factor (the word “slime” occurs frequently), and are illustrated with boys. A very few sets — marketed as “for girls” — are boxed in pink or lilac or palest teal, show only girls (mostly white and with long blonde hair) … and are all about the scientific challenges of making COSMETICS. Honest: they have names like “Perfume Science” and “Cosmetic Chemistry” and “Beauty Lab”.

  • GrinWithoutACat

    Threads a little stale now, but I’d like to point out that, despite my own love of legos, their product line has always, from the late 1970′s on, been hardcore corporatist, and right-wing. Exxon and Shell gas stations, the large preponderance of police stations and police themed sets, the whole space themed thing. And, check out the “Homemaker” line from 1980 – clearly marketed to girls. Although, they are a lot less objectionable than the new Friends line the Homemaker line is still highly gendered. Boy (oops!), times have changed – for the worse. And I beg to differ, it is nigh impossible to buy a box of plain blocks like they used to sell.

    As a lego-loving father of two young girls, it’s nice to read about all the women that enjoy those building sets. I thought that it was widely understood that girls do not like to play with legos as much as boys, particularly to as old an age as boys do.


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