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Problematizing the Minifig
May 18, 2012 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Historical perspectives on the LEGO gender gap.

Or, in slightly different form, part 1 and 2 (3 presumably coming soon)
posted by latkes (98 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this. Bookmarked for later reading and discussion with my 8-y.-o. son, who has recently noticed that outrageous ratio of male to female 'figs in any given set. (We got a Friends set. I talked about it here.)

i liked this observation: "“Where do the girls go from here? There isn't a lot of intense-ish building to keep the girls interested in the line..." Despite the Friends website, the sets don't have the same universe to back them -- no storyline that's comparable to, say, Bionicle (movies! comic books! graphic novels!), and yeah, more challenging builds are needed. The garage laboratory was such a missed opportunity!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:25 AM on May 18, 2012


What a rich article. Thanks so much for posting it.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:27 AM on May 18, 2012


From the comments: "I know your post is focused on the gender gap in LEGO but it is worthwhile noting that in all of the mini-figures that LEGO has built/designed, it appears there are only two that actually have black skin. The basketball players. Really LEGO?"

My word.
posted by jaduncan at 6:29 AM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Great post. I especially agreed with this (so far):

1978-1988: The Golden Era

For a 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. The LEGO Town, Space, and Castle sets from this time are classics. In the LEGO fan community there are even some fervent Neoclassicists.

posted by KokuRyu at 6:35 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


jaduncan: Lego Mace Windu.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:36 AM on May 18, 2012


Any girl who likes Comics and Star Trek can easily become the queen of all Nerds
posted by Flood at 6:37 AM on May 18, 2012


This was a fascinating article, and I am glad to see it linked here. I have recently been getting into lego again, and I notice that there are tons of people that will sell their entire collection of bricks, sans minifigs. When there is an explanation it is that the kids only care about the minifigs, or don't care about building.

Lego is such an amazing toy, and it saddens me to see the gendered stuff sneaking in. That said, I am totally into the colors in the "for girls" sets. Check out this sweet mecha that a 3 y.o. built with her Lego Friends parts.
posted by jonbro at 6:43 AM on May 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I keep feeling as though Lego is in a "can't win" situation. If they put out neutral stuff, people ask, "where are the girls?" If they put out girl stuff, it's gendered and sexist. In the article they first complain that there are no female minifigs, then complain when the female minifigs have abstract cleavage.

Believe me, I know Lego has been highly problematic when it comes to dealing with girls. And I am glad I don't work for them and have to navigate this minefield. But to say, "there are no intense building sets for girls" begs the question, "what would you suggest that isn't going to immediately get denigrated as sexist?"

I wrote a blog post about how Lego is kind of in a corner when it comes to pleasing people concerned about gendered toys and people buying gendered toys (never mind the actual little girls the toys are supposedly for.) The tl;dr is: unless you make it pink and purple, a lot of American adults simply can't identify it as something girls might like.

(Incidentally, there are a lot of black minifigs, though there should certainly be more, and they aren't all basketball players. Lego does only yellow minifigs in non-licensed sets and white/black ones in licensed sets. What they REALLY need are black, female heads.)
posted by Legomancer at 6:43 AM on May 18, 2012 [11 favorites]


"Lego does only yellow minifigs in non-licensed sets and white/black ones in licensed sets."

I'd be really happy to be wrong, but you mean licenced with existing characters from the original properties (ie. Star Wars, Star Trek, etc?) So it only produces black minifigs when the people they are licencing from are the ones who chose to make them black? I'm not sure I'm more impressed by that than the original state.
posted by jaduncan at 6:48 AM on May 18, 2012


From the comments: "I know your post is focused on the gender gap in LEGO but it is worthwhile noting that in all of the mini-figures that LEGO has built/designed, it appears there are only two that actually have black skin. The basketball players. Really LEGO?"

There's the, um, zombies from the Pirates of the Caribean sets... And Mace Windu, that may be it.

TBH not entirely down with the whole fleshtone minifig thing for this and other reasons.
posted by Artw at 6:49 AM on May 18, 2012


The overtly tendered minifig thing is problematic too - though we managed to do a lot for it by hitting up the Lego store online and getting a bunch of girl hair prices and neutral or feminine head peices. Still, then you find things like some of the body peices have chest hair - what are we supposed to do if we want a girl convict, Lego?
posted by Artw at 6:55 AM on May 18, 2012


Lego is also designed and manufactured by Danish people, who are really really white.
posted by weinbot at 6:55 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pretty good anthropological overview of the gender culture of LEGO.

As for my daughter, so is going from Duplo (or whatever the large LEGOs are called) right to Mindstorms + Technics, sans the packaging.

Honestly, though, she isn't that interested in building toys, but if she shows an interest, we can build stuff with the big plastic box of assorted Mindstorms and Technics pieces I have. I don't see us buying any of this lavender stuff, but she'll be aware of it soon enough.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:58 AM on May 18, 2012


I blame the hair.
posted by jonmc at 6:58 AM on May 18, 2012


This is a great article. I only have two problems with it:

1) I desperately want to play with some Legos right now
2) NIGHTMARES
posted by Panjandrum at 7:00 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


My family avoided this whole business by making our characters anthropomorphic space ships. We never really bothered with the minifigs.
posted by Jpfed at 7:00 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


it appears there are only two that actually have black skin

Those sets also have the white people in fleshtones, rather than standard yellow.
posted by smackfu at 7:00 AM on May 18, 2012


It doesn't matter what color a Lego brick is when you step on it with bare feet in the dark.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:00 AM on May 18, 2012 [16 favorites]


Take this awesome 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.

I would have loved for my father to have spent hours in the basement, building horse cities and weird truck-houses with me, and it makes me sad that, in 2011, LEGO has deliberately chosen to structure their marketing and sets around a very dude-dominated visual.

No love for the new kits, sorry, LEGO. Signed: the lady owner of multiple Technic kits, Indiana Jones keychain, Indiana Jones airplane fighting set, and many, many past spaceships, because nothing says a fun Saturday night date like Legos.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:01 AM on May 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


LEGO does OK including female figures in large sets that you might expect would be all men, but smaller sets with one minifig will generally be a male. For instance:

Forest Police Station has a female ranger.
Garbage Truck has a female worker.
Recycling Truck has a female boss (or maybe a customer)
Police Station has a female police officer.
Fire Station I think has a female fire fighter?
posted by smackfu at 7:03 AM on May 18, 2012


Also:

maybe you want a retro-futuristic space exploartion theme with a female protagonist

Me: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Link: Has been deleted.

Me: Oh.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:05 AM on May 18, 2012


So it only produces black minifigs when the people they are licencing from are the ones who chose to make them black? I'm not sure I'm more impressed by that than the original state.

I think it's more that Lego people are an abstract Lego race, apart from reality, and that only "real" people have accurate skintones. Whether you are buying that...
posted by smackfu at 7:05 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's more that Lego people are an abstract Lego race, apart from reality, and that only "real" people have accurate skintones. Whether you are buying that...

If they want to go that way, they could be explicit about it (like the muppets) and make blue and green and dark purple people.
posted by jb at 7:10 AM on May 18, 2012


Paradisa is an anomaly in many respects. A subtheme of town, this island resort theme is the only “girls only” theme that uses standard minifigs.

You know, if Freinds was like that I would totally buy them for my daughter - she'd enjoy the themes, they'd make a nice contrast to her more action themed sets, some interesting collies and bricks and more female minifigs. Instead they are these weird half doll things that scream "different" and "separate".

(also we are on a Lego pause until they are less of a choking hazard for child 2. )
posted by Artw at 7:17 AM on May 18, 2012


If they put out neutral stuff, people ask, "where are the girls?"

The argument being made is that they started out putting out neutral stuff, and then they ever so slowly started making it not neutral, by changing neutral minifigs into a bunch of male minifigs and a few female ones, and then by making advanced sets by asking boys what they wanted, and decreasing female and increasing male minifigs, and advertising how boys and their fathers could use Lego.

So it's not neutral, or hasn't been neutral, for a while, and while it's perhaps admirable that they are trying to fix that, it's not so admirable how they are doing it (even more gender segregating).
posted by jeather at 7:21 AM on May 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've been running into the same sort of problems buying Playmobil sets for my two nieces, where you have to be careful if you want to get something that's not just girly girl pink stuff but still includes some female figures. They tend to be doing pretty well with the modern slice of life sets, but not so much with the out and out fantasy stuff like the knights and castles sets.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:25 AM on May 18, 2012


I suggest the garbage truck, it has a guy and girl figure.
posted by smackfu at 7:27 AM on May 18, 2012


Already got it. Also the woman copper with the jewel thief.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:29 AM on May 18, 2012


I have been restarting my Lego collection and my solution was to buy a whole bunch of the limited edition random minifigs (which are for the most part hideously gendered - be a male mad scientist or sketeboarder or lumberjack, or a female ice skater or 80's workout class attendee or tattered-skin-wearing cavewoman!) and then swapping bits as necessary to make a female Dragon Knight, etc. They are all yellow, though, except for the monsters.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:51 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reading this reminded me of perhaps the awesomest thing I had as a kid: the Technic pneumatic system.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:53 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Minifigs of Color

I've almost missed some, but here's a quick survey of non-white minifigs from licensed products listed on BrickSet. I'm not going through all the minifig yellow ones from standard sets, like the Native Americans in Western, or Sangye Dorje and Maharaja Lallu from Adventure.

Pirates of the Carribean:
Yeoman Zombie
Gunner Zombie
Cannibal 1 (oh god)
Cannibal 2 (seriously?)

Batman:
Arkham Asylum Guard

Indiana Jones:
Assorted ethnicities, including:
Kazim
Shanghai Gangster
Ugha Warrior with Hair

Prince of Persia
Seso

Spider Man
Ambulance Driver
Security Guard

Star Wars
Lando Calrissian, 2
Mace Windu 2, 3
Bespin Guard

NBA:
A bunch.

Speed Racer, I guess.
posted by zamboni at 8:06 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


This post reflects my experience growing up with Lego, which I'm sure I've commented on in the last gender-and-Lego thread (yep, here it is). I don't have much to add to that, except I wish there had been more Lego sets that were just various houses. Building houses is awesome even when you don't have any minifigs to put in them. I don't think Legos need any sort of narrative or universe or action to be fun.

With the minifigs I usually just pulled the pants pieces off and pretended they were leg robots anyway.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:08 AM on May 18, 2012


I've almost certainly missed some
posted by zamboni at 8:09 AM on May 18, 2012


This is great, thanks for posting.
posted by odinsdream at 8:16 AM on May 18, 2012


This is horrifying.

The way they keep touching each other at manic pace, it's like they know they're on the Lego-set equivalent of the Titanic, tiny giggles manically struggling to offset their dread
posted by MangyCarface at 8:24 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I had this super-girly Belville set. I don't remember how I got it, but I suspect it was a gift from a well-meaning relative who was told I liked Legos and then assumed I'd want the "girl" Legos. I can't complain. I wasn't gender normative back then, but I LOVED ponies. And the Belville sets were just kind of hilarious and random and campy. They seemed like some bizarre Disney parody. But the good thing about these and any sets like them is that you can use the parts with other sets even if the dolls can't play very well with the regular Lego minifigs. Like I would have shoved my sister aside to get to the wheels on Stephanie's Pet Patrol. Those are definitely a step up from the Belleville Sets, which had ladies being transported mainly by ponies and surf-boards.

I also had Lego Technic, so I built all kinds of stupid things like a motor-powered pony parade float.
Now that I'm thinking about it that motor was terribly depressing. I was so excited to get it, but it was very slow and bulky. My sister and I also built a "cracker mill" that basically turned crackers into crumbs using the power of expensive batteries. My mother wasn't very happy about that.
posted by melissam at 8:32 AM on May 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


Echoing that a lot of this tracks my feeling about Legos. I grew up with bricks, before the minifigs era at all (my Fisher Price wooden Little People subbed in where minifigs would later go), and the toys I remember weren't nearly as heavily gendered. But back then little girls weren't exiled to the pink aisles of the toy store in general the way they seem to be now either.

Also echoing that I want Muppet-style racial differentiation, with little purple minifigs, but to the extent it's all about the licensing now, that's not going to happen.
posted by immlass at 8:34 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Metroid Baby: " except I wish there had been more Lego sets that were just various houses."

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I used to build houses and buildings; I built garage-mazes and tunnels for my brother's matchbox cars; I'd turn airplane windows and those round fake light things that fit on one knob into architectural features. I spent hours doing that. I didn't need a story or a theme to tell me how to play with it.

That said, my mom bought us the Castle sets, and they were truly awesome. Of course, I used those walls in spaceships and modern houses and in jets of my own design, too.
posted by julen at 8:35 AM on May 18, 2012


But back then little girls weren't exiled to the pink aisles of the toy store in general the way they seem to be now either.

Isn't that the truth? As a girl I had a shiny red tricycle and the classic blue/yellow/red Big Wheel and wore a standard Burger King cardboard crown (some BKs have a princess tiara version) and I never felt excluded by the toys I played with. I had a bucket of cheap Lego knockoff blocks (we were a frugal family) and loved them dearly.

As for girly Lego(s)...I know multiple people who will only buy pink/girly toys for their daughter. If a pink Lego set gets one of those Toddlers-and-Tiaras Mom-types to buy her girl a set of blocks instead of a pair of little-girl-high-heels, it's a win in my book.
posted by ladygypsy at 8:50 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I keep feeling as though Lego is in a "can't win" situation. If they put out neutral stuff, people ask, "where are the girls?" If they put out girl stuff, it's gendered and sexist. In the article they first complain that there are no female minifigs, then complain when the female minifigs have abstract cleavage.

Believe me, I know Lego has been highly problematic when it comes to dealing with girls. And I am glad I don't work for them and have to navigate this minefield. But to say, "there are no intense building sets for girls" begs the question, "what would you suggest that isn't going to immediately get denigrated as sexist?"


No, the problem, as explained thoroughly in the article, is that since 1989, there have been few to no "neutral" sets. Rather, Lego has very purposefully courted boys.

You know, if Freinds was like that I would totally buy them for my daughter - she'd enjoy the themes, they'd make a nice contrast to her more action themed sets, some interesting collies and bricks and more female minifigs. Instead they are these weird half doll things that scream "different" and "separate".

I think it bears saying that Paradisa sucked in terms of gender portrayals.

In these conversations, Paradisa has been treated like the holy grail of equitable lego, thanks mostly to the minifigs. But I had Paradisa. It was loads worse than the Friends set. The poolside theme was done in a very similar color palette (pink everywhere! plus weird pastel green grass that didn't match other town sets), and featured very sexualized-looking minifigs, all dressed in bathing suits. The activities celebrated were poolside lounging, horseback riding, and . . . going to restaurants? I guess?

I think the blog post brings up good points about the articulation of the new dolls. I would love to see new versions with more leg articulation. I also think both mainstream lego minifigs and friends minifigs need more gender parity. I dont think Friends, in and of themselves, are any more problematic than Paradisa--and are in fact loads less so if you look at the composition of the sets, which includes drafting tables and a robot building kit.

Also the Lego Friends house is worth a look for those like Metroid Baby who like building lego houses. It's pretty awesome and detailed. Though I prefer the various Lego Creator house sets, which also seem to have more gender parity in the figs.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:51 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also this prompted me to get out the last lego catalog I received, and, heh, it opened to a page with a marina set. The 5 included figs are "Diver", "Lifeguard", "Sailor", "Wind surfer", and "Girl".
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:55 AM on May 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


Has Lego ever offered a girl minifig supplemental pack? Or is that strictly a pick-your-pieces-and-order kind of a thing? I kind of wish they would. OTOH, my little girl is now crazy about Ninjago and Bionicle; interestingly, Bionicle females look just like the males, and the only way I can tell them apart, so far, is by the voices in the movies.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:02 AM on May 18, 2012


Remember when toys were fun and not politicized by adults? Remember when childhood was fun and not politicized by adults?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:06 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Remember when toys were fun and not politicized by adults? Remember when childhood was fun and not politicized by adults?

Yeah, we were better off as a society when we didn't think about toys like this.
posted by modernserf at 9:09 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Remember when toys were fun and not politicized by adults? Remember when childhood was fun and not politicized by adults?

Not really, no - I grew up in a house with a "no toy guns" rule.

(We built them out of Lego)
posted by Artw at 9:12 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, we were better off as a society when we didn't think about toys like this.

I had no idea LEGO made those. I guess you're right.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:17 AM on May 18, 2012


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?

If someone isn't buying planes, trains, and automobiles for their daughter because the advertisements don't show girls, well, I'd say that's their problem, not LEGO's.

It's not as if the cashiers in Toys R Us will deny your card if you buy a "boy's toy" for a girl.
posted by madajb at 9:17 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Has Lego ever offered a girl minifig supplemental pack? Or is that strictly a pick-your-pieces-and-order kind of a thing?

I would just go ahead and pick your own peices - it's super easy.

Of course, a lot depends on where you buy your Lego - online there's the whole range of everything, in local hippy-run ethical toy store there's an emphasis on the Creator range (lots of houses there, BTW, though not always at minifig scale) and then in the toy aisle of Target and the like you get an emphasis on the licensed stuff and the girl aisles and the boy aisles - that, I suspect, is where the problem lies.
posted by Artw at 9:17 AM on May 18, 2012


Reading through the comments on the article, I agree that part of what upsets me more is that TLC's previous sexist appeals to girls--Bella, Scala, and yes, even Paradisa, have escaped comment. I see the Friends line as very much a step in the right direction in several significant ways--in terms of the coloring not being so pukingly pink, in terms of the activities shown. I also just like both the dolls and the sets. They appeal to me--and the ten year old Lego fanatic in me--far more than do the modern, equally sexist sets for boys.

But I also see how separate is not equal, and the gender division is a bad thing that will only widen the schism between boys' and girls' play and keep more positive female minifigs out of mainstream legos, because, well, girls have a line. I wish they'd make the minidolls better articulated and lose the notion that they're "for girls" and the mainline is "for boys" at all.

But that's not a likely solution, I suspect.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:21 AM on May 18, 2012


But back then little girls weren't exiled to the pink aisles of the toy store in general the way they seem to be now either.

I think this is a mythical "back then." I don't remember a time (and I'm older than the Metafilter mean) when toys weren't heavily gender-coded. No one marketed Barbie to little boys, no one marketed war-toys to little girls. I remember the toy marketing ramping up in the months before Christmas and it was always exceedingly clear which toys were aimed at me and which were aimed at my sisters.
posted by yoink at 9:22 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was 13 when they started branching out from the simple smiley face on minifigs, but I remember being really disappointed by it.
posted by hyperizer at 9:32 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Remember when toys were fun and not politicized by adults? Remember when childhood was fun and not politicized by adults?

Oh. Was that back then when middle class white boys were the absolute norm and everybody else (girls, children of color, etc) shut up about it?
posted by lydhre at 9:36 AM on May 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


No, that was back when playing with Legos was just harmless fun.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:42 AM on May 18, 2012


Remember when toys were fun and not politicized by adults?

No, because that has never happened in my lifetime. Just look at Barbies, they've been political since feminism took off in the 70s.
posted by smackfu at 9:54 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Remember when toys were fun and not politicized by adults?

Yeah, they talked about that in the article, before some adults decided that girls had to play like this with Legos and boys had to play like that with Legos.

I don't remember a time (and I'm older than the Metafilter mean) when toys weren't heavily gender-coded.

There was always a pink aisle, sure. There were also clearly boy-only aisles. But there used to be aisles that weren't heavily coded, where there were just toys, and when I venture into toy stores now, everything is coded. There's almost no middle ground. But I was also a toy-buying kid in the hippie 70s, when everything was less gender-coded, and the plastic nurse and doctor kits (I had both, remember those? with the sugar pills!) weren't pink and blue but yellow and black, and there were blue and pink bikes but also red and green and other colors that weren't designated either way.
posted by immlass at 10:01 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


One time, I remember building little cars and putting together a little town to drive them through. Another time, I built spaceships with some Technics bits I got at a garage sale, since we weren't middle class enough enough to buy sets from the store. I'm not sure how that reinforced the dominant wealthy patriarchal paradigm, but then I was always more interested in building imaginary worlds and exploring them with my imagination. Man, those were fun times. Maybe that was in the golden age, though, when adults didn't get their claws in how kids should play with an open-ended toy like this.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:06 AM on May 18, 2012


If someone isn't buying planes, trains, and automobiles for their daughter because the advertisements don't show girls, well, I'd say that's their problem, not LEGO's.


It is their problem, but it doesn't help that there's suddenly this gleaming pink arrow separating out the "girl" toys from the boy sets. One year, I got nine Barbies for Christmas. Nine. The only one I really adored was Skipper, because she had flat feet and could sort of stand independently, though not going to lie, the dozens of fancy doll heels were awesome. I would have loved spaceship Legos, but I'm willing to bet my very kind and generous relatives went to the store, thought, ooh, six year-old girl! and were directed right towards the Barbie section with nary a question about my personality or tastes, because goodness, what girls don't love Barbie?

I'm reminded of times when girl science kits have come up on Metafilter and Boing Boing, with some arguments in favor of it, because hey, girls and science! and others saying that oh, but the science is different, and why even gender science? And then someone will point out they loved pink as a little boy, and it's really sad that there's essentially a No Boys Allowed taint over everything pink and perfume-based. And it's all true. So yes, it is an individual's problem, if they won't buy planes or trains for their kid because she sometimes does ballet and wears tutus. But it would be a cooler world for kids if every one of them was encouraged to explore trains and pet shops and motorized LEGO blocks.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:08 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Blazecock, I think the complaint is that by making these sets more overtly gendered, Lego is making their product less open-ended.
posted by mmmbacon at 10:10 AM on May 18, 2012


Why can't they include pink and lavender bricks in ALL the lego sets?
posted by KathrynT at 10:12 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


But I was also a toy-buying kid in the hippie 70s, when everything was less gender-coded, and the plastic nurse and doctor kits (I had both, remember those? with the sugar pills!) weren't pink and blue but yellow and black, and there were blue and pink bikes but also red and green and other colors that weren't designated either way.

I suspect that if you could get back in a time machine and revisit those toy shops of your childhood you'd be startled at just how aggressively gender-coded they were. Here's a website with a bunch of photos of toy stores from the 60s and 70s. Where you can make out the displays in any detail, it's almost immediately obvious which gender the store is aiming which set of shelves at. You don't see the dolls stacked in among the toy trucks.

And, sure, there have always been "family" games (Monopoly etc.) and non gender-specific toys (Slinky etc.)--but those still exist. The vast majority of the market has always been strongly gender-coded, however and I very much doubt that this is more the case today than it was thirty or forty years ago.
posted by yoink at 10:41 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I had several dozen LEGO sets while growing up. I'm 28 years old now and still mess around with LEGOS. I also happen to be a woman. When I was younger, I got LEGO sets on my birthday, and they were awesome. I had all manner of sets; pirates, space, town, Star Wars; you name it, I had it. What I've always wanted, though, was a normal kind of house scene, like a suburban street or something. My favorite color is purple and I wish that LEGO would make a case for including purples, pinks, and other typical feminine colors into their normal sets. I've never let the theme of the deter me from buying any particular set; it was all about the building to me. I dislike the LEGO Friends set because the minifigs are atrocious and so un-LEGO. I never minded the hints of cleavage in the princess or jungle lady, but I certainly did notice them when they showed up. I would be happy if LEGO just incorporated feminine colors and more women minifigs into their sets instead of injecting typical gender roles like shopping, child-rearing, and cooking. There's more to women than that, and we like to build stuff too!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 10:45 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


When we were at the new Lego store at the mall, my wife asked aloud while staring at the wall of Star Wars sets, "Where's the Princess Leia figure?"

A bashful employee said, "Uh, we have her in a key chain?"

"Where?"

"You can order it online?"

"Ah."

No lego for me that day.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:47 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


So it only produces black minifigs when the people they are licencing from are the ones who chose to make them black?

It means they only produce white minifigs when the people they are licensing from are the ones who chose to make them white.
posted by BurnChao at 10:52 AM on May 18, 2012


What I've always wanted, though, was a normal kind of house scene, like a suburban street or something. My favorite color is purple and I wish that LEGO would make a case for including purples, pinks, and other typical feminine colors into their normal sets. I've never let the theme of the deter me from buying any particular set; it was all about the building to me. I dislike the LEGO Friends set because the minifigs are atrocious and so un-LEGO.

This is weird to me because LEGO friends sounds like it does everything you want, aside from the minifigs. They are not focused on shopping, child-rearing, or cooking (although shopping and cooking are featured, in sets that also have women as small business owners--owning/working at a cupcake shop, specifically). This is, however, well-balanced with women and girls designing, inventing, mowing the lawn, and chilling out in tree houses.

In fact, Oliva's House sounds precisely like what you want. The set is compatible with regular minifigs, too.

My favorite color is also purple. Yay purple!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:53 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


my wife asked aloud while staring at the wall of Star Wars sets, "Where's the Princess Leia figure?"

They should have had Hoth Base and Millennium Falcon, which each have a Leia figure and are still in print. They don't sell the minifgs separately, except as keychains.
posted by smackfu at 10:58 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is weird to me because LEGO friends sounds like it does everything you want, aside from the minifigs. They are not focused on shopping, child-rearing, or cooking (although shopping and cooking are featured, in sets that also have women as small business owners--owning/working at a cupcake shop, specifically). This is, however, well-balanced with women and girls designing, inventing, mowing the lawn, and chilling out in tree houses.

I agree, and they contain several types of pieces that were coveted (hoarded by whichever kid was the biggest bully) in my childhood for building, like nice doors, awnings, gates, windshields, wheels, and windows. The Belleville sets didn't really have such nice versatile pieces.
posted by melissam at 11:02 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think this is a mythical "back then." I don't remember a time (and I'm older than the Metafilter mean) when toys weren't heavily gender-coded. No one marketed Barbie to little boys, no one marketed war-toys to little girls. I remember the toy marketing ramping up in the months before Christmas and it was always exceedingly clear which toys were aimed at me and which were aimed at my sisters.

As far as I can tell as someone born in the 70s and interested in history and gender, the 70s were a weird anomalous era where gender neutrality was popular. Tomboys like Jodie Foster and Tatum O'Neil were cool. Similar hair styles were popular for girls and boys. Everyone I knew wore the same Toughskins jeans. I definitely grew up playing with lots of un-gendered toys and so did my brother. Sure, there were Barbies and those crazy Barbie makeup heads for girls and weapon toys for boys, but there were more un-gendered options. And of course the girl toys, with the exception of Barbie I guess, were not sexualized the way today's girl toys are. And as the parent of a 9 year old girl, don't get me started on trying to buy clothes for her!

I may be wrong though - interested to hear more perspective from folks who grew up in the 60s or earlier.
posted by latkes at 11:37 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm old enough that when I grew up, LEGO hadn't gone in the direction of predigested themed sets yet—we had those big blue plates, square blocks in red, white, or blue, big rectangular blocks in red, white, or blue, red sloping and peaked "roof" blocks, little rectangular blocks, usually white, and little flat planks that were also usually white.

The figures came right around the time the marketing deals with a variety of franchises came along, but fortunately, I was old enough by then that I'd missed the age where there was a "supposed-to" use for those hyperspecialized pieces. Hell, even the window and doors were a little avant garde to me, but I preferred to imagine my own combinations that didn't depend on a fannish involvement with the execrable Star Wars franchise or other pre-imagined universe that LEGO offered up. Isn't the thing with construction sets that you have mostly undifferentiated raw material + imagination?

The gender thing that really bummed me out was when my nieces were old enough to start digging into books and I had all my Richard Scarry favorites set aside for that magical moment. Pulled 'em out, went through them with the anticipatory glee I'd always had (especially for my favorite, Cars and Trucks and Things That Go), and was absolutely knocked out by what sexist tracts they were. Holy crap, I mean—well, I was really disheartened. Bought a few of the newer editions, and sadly, what they did in the process of introducing some equality was to suck out the humor and poetry, too. As I wanted my nieces to be powerful creatures with options in the world, I resolved to read them the originals, but with notes.

"Umm, Joe," I was asked, after the fact, "Did you tell Rain that men are assholes?"

"Yes, but only in context."

"I'm not sure if there's a correct context for telling a four year-old girl that men are assholes who rewrite history to contain the threat of womens' empowerment."

"Well, how's she ever going to learn, then?"

"It's just that I'd rather save that lesson for later."

In the end, I just gave them the tedious modern editions, where the juicy poetics of "beautiful screaming lady" were replaced by the prosaic "cat in danger," but at least men and women had all kinds of jobs. For a while, I made up stories about a plucky lady rat that lived in a mirror and solved mysteries when she wasn't secretly doing math problems on a little chalkboard at the Goddard Space Flight Center, but my nieces informed me that those stories just made them afraid of mirrors. Some of us were meant for child rearing, but I'm apparently not so inclined. At least I make a good traumatic uncle.
posted by sonascope at 11:54 AM on May 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


The vast majority of the market has always been strongly gender-coded, however and I very much doubt that this is more the case today than it was thirty or forty years ago.

My experience is that there is a difference but your childhood may have been and apparently was different to mine.
posted by immlass at 12:00 PM on May 18, 2012


The figures came right around the time the marketing deals with a variety of franchises came along,

I think you lost a decade or two there. Star Wars was the first licensed sets, released in 1999. Minifigs have been around since 1978.
posted by smackfu at 12:06 PM on May 18, 2012


I came in on the tail end of the Lego Golden Age. I mean, I was barely hanging on the end of that. After a couple years of their newer stuff... I just stopped.

That generic looking golden age stuff was just rocking.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:07 PM on May 18, 2012


As far as I can tell as someone born in the 70s and interested in history and gender, the 70s were a weird anomalous era where gender neutrality was popular. Tomboys like Jodie Foster and Tatum O'Neil were cool. Similar hair styles were popular for girls and boys. Everyone I knew wore the same Toughskins jeans. I definitely grew up playing with lots of un-gendered toys and so did my brother. Sure, there were Barbies and those crazy Barbie makeup heads for girls and weapon toys for boys, but there were more un-gendered options. And of course the girl toys, with the exception of Barbie I guess, were not sexualized the way today's girl toys are.
posted by latkes at 1:37 PM on May 18


This matches my memory as well, though I suspect if I looked at the advertising now for things I played with then, I'd be astonished by some of the gender essentialism. I encountered what I was able to recognize on my own as sexism for the first time because of LEGO, though - it was 1978, and I was just five, and had been playing with LEGO since I was two? three? however old you have to be not to try to swallow it. It was the first week of school. There was a sort of common area for toys and you were supposed to go pick out what you wanted to play with, presumably at recess. I started to pick out legos and a little boy told me legos were for girls. I don't remember my response - even odds on either crying or punching him (I was a mercurial child). I think the teacher stepped in and told us to share nicely, but I don't really have a clear memory of anything after the shock of being told there was something I couldn't do because I was a girl.

My favourite memory of lego was getting the playset for a giant spaceship (I think it might have been the Millenium Falcon, but I don't recall for sure) and my meticulous civil engineering Dad and I pieced it together very carefully from the instructions. And then after we flew it around the house for a bit we broke it into bits and made some other stuff. That was my first "grown kid" set with the tiny blocks, I think. I remember being really excited and proud I could make something so complicated.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:09 PM on May 18, 2012


I grew up in the classic era of Lego and I'm so glad I did. I had at least one set that was a kitchen for some of those crazy-ugly larger figures but they were promptly tossed in the trash in favor of the awesome mini-figs. Of course, there wasn't a single girl among them but that bothered me less than the giant cloddhopper family that came with the kitchen. My thing was to build giant architectural wonders on top of a table in the green house. The kitchen set was needed to make it more believable. These beautiful, "Falling Water-esque" wonders had crazy shit like secret passages and winches to get supplies up from the floor. After all, they were living on a bluff due to the frequency of Hot Wheel attacks.

Of course, this is coming from a girl whose My Little Ponies lived in Playschool sets that I fashioned into slums. They regularly rioted, with the help of the Hot Wheels ( good and bad are two sides of the same coin) and stormed the My Little Pony Castle and threw the queen off the side of the table in a fit of regicide and made Firefly their queen in a democratic election.

I guess my point is I didn't use the Lego stuff, or any other toy, in the rigid way the makers envisioned. I doubt most kids do. The beauty in the early Lego stuff, the kind that came in the giant box of oddball bricks, was its flexibility. I didn't care that it wasn't pink and girly or that there wasn't a girl figure to play with, all I cared about was building my houses, ripping them apart, and starting over again. My mini-figs were important, they gave me a purpose to build, but they only lived in the structure for moments before I demolished the thing and started over again. The building was the thing.

It seems like most of what Lego gives girls is stuff that excludes building. Who wants to play with a set that you not only don't get to build much of but is ugly? The blockiness of the mini-figs is in fitting with the blockiness of the blocks. The more cartoony-real figures they give girls are in discord with the set. And, again, it's about the building, not the playing within the set.

Wow, I had no idea I had so much butt-hurt about Lego.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:10 PM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


....okay, I'd already made up my mind to avoid these new girly-twee Lego sets when it came to gifts for my brother's kids; I wasn't gonna go in for any of that girly crap (and my brother also thinks the same way).

...Except - my niece's name actually IS "Olivia". And I bet she's gonna want this at some point as a result.

Damn.

At least the "Olivia" character is supposed to be the one who's into science and knows how to navigate by stars, apparently, so there is that. I'll just supplement things with a CD of "Free To Be You And Me" or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:21 PM on May 18, 2012


Hmm. Having been presented with a small set Child #2 is showing an interest in Duplo that Child #1 never had. I'm sort of against Duplo as an inferior Lego that should be skipped over, but at the same time I'm always for expanding any kind of building toy so I poked my head into the store to check the available sets out...

There is a Pink Duplo Brick Box.

That just seems way too early for this kind of gender-differentiation nonsense, this thing is for 1 1/2 year olds...

At the same time it's kind of tempting as the colours are less McDonaldish.

BTW, if you have a 3-5 year old who is going through a pink stuff phase but might also enjoy building things the Pink Brick Box and the bigger Pink Brick Box are actually pretty good starter packs, with plenty of building options AND a horsie and some bricks in otherwise hard-to-get colours. It's where we started with Child #1, before she moved on to pirates and castles and Star Wars, and the purple roof prices are still amongst her most highly prized construction materials.
posted by Artw at 2:08 PM on May 18, 2012


Here is a link to the upcoming new Friends sets to be released this summer, for further discussion.

Personally, I think this is a chicken-and-egg problem for the LEGO company. They didn't invent the gender gap in toys, but they do have to compete in the market and react to its trends. And it's a much less forgiving market than it was in the 70s and 80s. Back then, the same Lego sets would be offered for years at a time. In today's toy market, they have to serve up fresh products every 6 months. Sets that don't sell well are cut. Their marketable age range has shrunken as older kids stop playing with toys and move on to other things. Toys have a lot more competition from information technology. Kids today have a wealth of video game systems, iPods, iPads, YouTube, music, the internet and 500 cable channels all vying for their attention.

I fully comprehend and sympathize with the desire for Lego sets to be more like they were in the Golden Age of non-gendered sets, but that is a very fine line to walk in the current market. Lego tries to offer that sort of experience with their Creator line as well as their more traditional brick sets.

The Friends line tries to offer sets that would traditionally appeal to girls, with horses and pets, but they also offer sets with the characters building robots and flying an airplane.

Friends offers the Lego traditional quality of building sets, but with cute feminine figures that are an attempt to compete with the sort of figures that sell very well in the pink aisles. If this gets more girls interested in building with Lego instead of playing with Barbies, I'm all for it.

On preview...

Hmm. Having been presented with a small set Child #2 is showing an interest in Duplo that Child #1 never had. I'm sort of against Duplo as an inferior Lego that should be skipped over, but at the same time I'm always for expanding any kind of building toy so I poked my head into the store to check the available sets out...

Did you know that you can stack a regular Lego System 2x4 on top of a Duplo brick? They're compatible. I have seen some Lego Train fans use Duplo as support structure beneath their landscape layouts because it's lighter than a similarly-sized stack of System bricks.
posted by Fleebnork at 2:33 PM on May 18, 2012


I was a girl in the 1970s and I played with Legos all the time. My brothers and I just had a big mixed up set of bricks and hardly any figures.

I used to build motor homes that flew and traveled through space. So you could camp in space. Then I'd crash them into pieces and start over. The crashing really was the best part.

I also hated dolls and refused to play with them.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:51 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, as a kid I always had a few Duplo bricks mixed in with the rest - they're compatible, but it doesn't feel right.

/clearly a brick racist concerned about miscegenation.
posted by Artw at 3:01 PM on May 18, 2012


...Except - my niece's name actually IS "Olivia". And I bet she's gonna want this at some point as a result.

Watching that video, it is so clear to me that the entire point of LEGO building sets is to groom future buyers of assemble it yourself Scandinavian furniture.
posted by madajb at 5:10 PM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


My husband and I are big into Lego, by way of preface.

It strikes me as hilariously ironic that the sets most explicitly aimed at adult Lego geeks - the modular buildings, which typically run around $200/set and take us weeks to build - are the ultimate freaking dollhouses for six-year-old girls. There is a modular petshop with a ton of little animals. There is a modular greengrocer's with lots of little food. One of the modulars has a chandelier. They're all multistory buildings that come apart so you could act out all sorts of crazy stories involving running up and down stairs. As we build I'm always exclaiming over how freaking cute the modular buildings are. Yet these sets are way, way too involved for the six-year-old girls who'd get the most enjoyment out of them to actually build on their own. The instruction booklets are complicated and difficult, and building the actual sets takes forever. I wish I knew some six-year-old girls who could play with my modular buildings with me.

The Harry Potter sets were somewhat less difficult (still not for six-year-olds but a precocious child not that much older could build the smaller ones on her own for sure), featured lots of female minifigs, and had lots of fun play elements. Unfortunately it doesn't look like Lego will make many more of them, if any at all.

I'd say if you want to go gender-neutral while still purchasing toys made for proper children the only real choice is Creator sets. City has some okay stuff too but has kind of way too many vehicles.
posted by town of cats at 7:39 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those modular buildings are insane - of course I say that as someone who looks at this thing in awe.

And yeah, the Harry Potter sets were an object of desire in this house for a while. Some of the Pirates of the Carabean ones were pretty intricate interiors wise. Some Kingdoms and City stuff too.
posted by Artw at 11:01 PM on May 18, 2012


The Grand Emporium is great - and I just got the Pet Shot for my birthday. (I was debating holding out for some of the Lord of the Rings stuff, but the local shop doesn't get it in til next week and the only interesting one so far is Helm's Deep - and it's just not that interesting.)
posted by restless_nomad at 11:44 AM on May 19, 2012


"Hey, can I ask you something? This is unrelated. As somebody who just finished spending the majority of his life in prison, what happened with Legos? They used to be simple. Oh come on, I know you know what I’m talking about. Legos were simple? Something happened out here while I was inside... Harry Potter Legos. Star Wars Legos. Complicated kits, tiny little blocks? I mean, I’m not saying it’s bad, I just want to know what happened."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:34 AM on May 20, 2012


That's very true. When I was a kid it was just bricks. If I wanted people I made them by putting a four-er in between two twofers (one for the head, and one for the legs), and that was a person. It was a sort of three dimensional 8-bit game world (albeit over ten years before the 8-bit game). Given that level of abstraction a person was any gender you decided they should be in the moment; given the limited availability of bricks, not only were the people all different colours, some of them were blue.
posted by Grangousier at 2:51 AM on May 20, 2012


So, I just bought 5 copies of the sun to get some lego batmobiles. If you judge corporations by the company they keep, this is a stroke against them. However, I was the informed consumer. No such thing as cheap lego I guess.

It also made me think a bit about the politics of a protected standard, single company building system. I know that there are some radical things happening around the interoperability of lego, but there is something a bit conservative about these toys. I suppose most of the pressure to keep your lego system pure, and free of glue comes from the AFOL, rather than the company itself. I suspect that to most kids, the boundaries between their toys are pretty ephemeral (see up thread about hot wheels lego slash).

Like most other things kid related, I imagine social and parental pressure creates these problems. Oh well.
posted by jonbro at 8:50 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not the system you would design if you were looking for interoperability. It relies on millimeter tolerances. Too big, no locking. Too small, no connection.
posted by smackfu at 7:13 AM on May 21, 2012


Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal on "boy toys" and "girl toys" (Lego-esque reference)
posted by flex at 9:07 AM on May 21, 2012


When I was a kid it was just bricks. If I wanted people I made them by putting a four-er in between two twofers (one for the head, and one for the legs), and that was a person.

Not to be all "get off my green base plate," but this is an excellent point. Many multifunction widgets + many ways to put them together = many interesting possibilities, only some of which were foreseen by the Lego Idea books. Kid builders continue to find their own uses for individual bricks, but the overdetermination of some of the bricks seems like it forecloses on possibilities. Something was lost as minimalism was overtaken by ties-ins, "girl" sets, DVD movies, comic books and the pre-imagining of Lego. Maybe it's more visible to me because of my own rejection of pink and purple and horsies, and the way that I grew up on classic space sets and legless proto-minifigs -- but "Friends" is just not as minimalist and possibility-filled as the just bricks-era Lego. It trusts a child's imagination less. It suggests narratives. It plays on convention. Girl builders aren't free to be you and me; they're encouraged to be "Friends," and I think that's a step back in terms of Lego as an imaginative tool and a way to develop problem-solving skills. (Meanwhile, over in weapons-filled Bionicle world...)

Given that level of abstraction a person was any gender you decided they should be in the moment; given the limited availability of bricks, not only were the people all different colours, some of them were blue.


Exactly. What kids decide in the moment is more constrained by the stories that have been developed around certain combinations of bricks. Clear set-gendering is one aspect of this greater change.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:28 PM on May 21, 2012


Part III of the slightly different version of the article is now out.
posted by latkes at 2:08 PM on May 22, 2012


One woman's take on how to do Lego for girls. (via)
posted by immlass at 8:57 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Kind of reminds me of the real LEGO Friend set Olivia’s Invention Workshop: "Features workbench, microscope, chalkboard, small rack and pet robot. Accessories include power tools, crystal, chemist jars and oil can"
posted by smackfu at 9:11 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Non-standard minifig!
posted by Artw at 9:15 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is, however, seriously cool and probably deserving of it's own FPP, maybe with some other Cuusoo highlights. It's also the first one I've seen get traction that isn't based on some media property Lego would have to get licensing for, too.

The Engadget writeup, full of frothing at the friends sets, seems to settle on pastel bricks as their most evil feature.

1) What's so bad about pastel bricks?
2) The Adafruit set includes pastel bricks.
posted by Artw at 10:38 AM on May 24, 2012


It's also the first one I've seen get traction that isn't based on some media property Lego would have to get licensing for, too.

The western town is another great one, and has a good chance of going through, I hope. Depends on piece count / cost I'm sure.
posted by smackfu at 10:53 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Hakko soldering station on the Lady Ada desk is a nice touch.
posted by zamboni at 1:21 PM on May 24, 2012


Oldest child has discoverd that the Duplo is compatible with regular Lego... hope is lost...
posted by Artw at 10:58 PM on May 31, 2012


Also, further cementing their terribleness, Lego have now released a KKK themed set. Yeah, we've got their number now...
posted by Artw at 11:04 PM on May 31, 2012


Lauren Faust's Milky Way and the Galaxy Girls
posted by Artw at 2:35 PM on June 11, 2012


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