Monday, February 20, 2012

my dear lego, you are part of the problem

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past two months, you probably know that the Lego Group has been under attack for introducing a new brand of modular toys aimed exclusively at girls. The LEGO Friends line has set off a firestorm of criticism from parents and feminists everywhere for its tired gender stereotypes, and for the fact that it fails to address LEGO’s real gender problem: the blatant boy-centered marketing strategy it’s relied upon for the past several decades.

If LEGO’s executives are to be believed, they really, truly care about girls and are simply dumbfounded as to why they haven’t been more successful in reaching them. In this post I list five concrete ways in which LEGO could shift their focus to be more inclusive of girls—and less bound by stereotypes—without losing boys in the process. But first, I highly recommend you watch the following videos from Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian. These clips provide a helpful primer on what’s so frustrating about LEGO Friends, plus a brief history of how LEGO’s marketing has evolved into what it is today.




And now, I offer...

5 Ways To Make LEGO a More Girl-Friendly, Less Sexist Brand

1. Get some women on your management team.

I thought the recent announcement of Facebook’s all-male board of directors was bad...but at least I could take comfort in the fact that the company is managed by a highly visible female COO. So of course I was completely flabbergasted to find out that LEGO’s management team is all testosterone, all the time. Of the company’s 21 senior executive management positions, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM is currently held by a man. [LEGO's board of directors is composed of six men, one woman.] And you wonder why LEGO hasn’t figured girls out?? Let’s fix this overwhelming leadership imbalance, guys. Pronto.

2. Produce sets that give girls and women leading roles.

So many of LEGO’s sets today are made in conjunction with a movie or other Hollywood media brand. It’s a win-win for Hollywood producers and LEGO alike. But how many of those brands star girls or women in the lead role? Star Wars? Toy Story? Pirates of the Caribbean? The Lord of the Rings (available in LEGO this summer)? Hermione Grainger is a major character from the Harry Potter series, and there were a fair number of female minifigs incorporated with those sets, so I’ll give them that one. But still, in almost every franchise that LEGO has partnered with, females are secondary or sidekick characters at best. To be sure, this heavy male slant in children’s programming is a problem with Hollywood as a whole, not just with the famed brick-makers. (For an in-depth look at how girls and women are marginalized, sexualized, and stereotyped in family films, check out these studies by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.) And yet, LEGO could go a long way toward increasing its girl-friendly cred by creating sets and minifigs that mirror movies and shows featuring prominent leading ladies—like Avatar, Dora the Explorer, Spy Kids, and The Hunger Games.

3. More female figs, please.

Let’s forget LEGO Friends for a moment. The core identifying character of the LEGO world is and will always remain the minifigure. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a good amount of time sorting through minifig parts for various LEGO projects I’ve worked on. And it’s certainly nice to know that LEGO has way more female figs than it used to. But there’s been no doubt in my mind that the numbers aren’t close to being even. So I decided to do some counting...

In 2011’s The Cult of LEGO, authors John Baichtal and Joe Meno state that of 4,000 unique minifig designs produced since 1978, male-identified figs have outnumbered female-identified figs 18:1. Even I was a little surprised at this ratio, so I got in touch with Baichtal to inquire about his source. Long story short, while the sheer number of male figs produced probably vastly outweighs the number of females (since in some sets multiple copies are included of the same fig), I think the 18:1 ratio might be a little misleading.

One way to examine the gender balance of minifigs is to explore the stock of BrickLink.com, an independent LEGO marketplace. BrickLink hosts thousands of sellers worldwide and offers not only full minifigs but millions of individual parts representing models produced throughout LEGO’s history. Baichtal and Meno counted minifig models available on BrickLink, but I'd argue that this may not accurately measure the true minifig gender balance. For one thing, many figs could conceivably be any gender. One reason for this is that, if they don’t have hair, many minifigs come with some sort of hat or helmet that obscures the face. Even if not, plenty of figs have gender-neutral faces, hair, and torsos.

I myself decided to looked at the archive of minifig heads to measure how many male faces there are compared with female or neutral faces. While more than one fig model could have been made with the same face, I found it easier to separate faces into distinct genders. So, here’s a little chart with my findigs. The ratio isn’t as shocking as 18:1, but it's still skewed quite significantly toward male-specific parts: I counted four male heads for every two neutrals and every one female.

Full-sized version available here.

So how do kids acquire minifigs? These days, you can buy some of them individually...though individual figs are packaged so that, for all but the most dedicated LEGO fans, a buyer doesn’t know which one she’s getting until she opens the bag. This is fine if you want a surprise and frustrating if you want to buy the minifig you most identify with—or to not get duplicate figs if you buy more than one. More maddening is the fact that while the ratio is getting slightly better, the series in which individual minifigs are released continue to include significantly more male-specific figs than female-specific figs.

Really, though, sets have become the norm, so unless you shop through a specialty Web store like BrickLink, you’ll get whichever figs come in a set—and the reality is that those remain predominantly male-focused. To be sure, not everything LEGO’s done in this area is bad. For example, the City Community Minifigure Set features images of a female construction worker, a female EMT, and a female police officer, all careers that play against stereotype. I saw at least one space set in stores recently with a female astronaut. But here’s another big problem: Whenever there’s only one minifig included in a set, it’s invariably a male. Would it be so hard to include one extra part, a female head, and show the female version clearly on the box of every set? Or, if one extra part would break the bank, why not include a dual head, with a female face on one side and a male face on the other?

Finally, I’ll offer a quick word on LEGO Friends figures. My biggest beef with them is just their being completely separate and different from regular minifigs. I have a hard time believing that if LEGO made more/better female minifig options, and if they coupled them with awesome new sets, that they couldn’t capture the interest of girls and their parents. More on this in points 4 and 5.

4. Quit it with the stereotyping.

As mentioned above, there are plenty of gender-neutral torsos that can work for any minifig. Unfortunately, though, female-specific figs have tended to be decked out in stereotypical, overly feminine features.

My suggestion here? Less cleavage, less pink, fewer hearts, and less excess skin. Mind you, a little of any of these things is perfectly fine. But when such a large percentage of female-specific torsos includes one or more of these factors, it becomes a problem.

Which brings me to a related point. I cringed—and probably swore a little too loudly for a toy aisle—when I saw this scene in a big box store this past fall:

Et tu, LEGO?

When I was a kid, LEGOs were among my favorite toys. Of course, I had plenty of dolls, too, but I didn’t need my LEGOs to be pink or purple in order to enjoy using them. Nor did I need to be presented with stereotypically girly situations such as those in the LEGO Friends sets to be happy with my supply of bricks and minifigs. And while I’m generally fine with the fact that minifig designs have become more detailed—and thus more gendered—over the years, I feel that the way it’s been done has only helped reinforce, rather than break down, stereotypes. And that’s sad.

So I urge LEGO to take the lead on bucking this mode of thinking in which manufacturers feel like they have to offer separate boy/blue and girl/ pink versions for all of their products. It’s true, boys and girls may play slightly differently, but plenty of evidence shows that their tastes are shaped at an extremely young age by what’s around them...including the toys they see in ads, online, and in stores. Do we really want to teach our kids that girls and boys can’t play and build together? Or that they’re so different that they can’t possibly enjoy the same things?

5. Inspire.

Last but not least, if you want to focus on new, girl-empowering products, you’ve gotta provide plenty of inspiration. Why not focus more on sets that show girls doing inspirational, socially valued—dare I suggest cerebral—things? The characters could be scientists, engineers, CEOs, politicians, teachers, journalists, technology specialists, architects—the list goes on.

Model scientists (clockwise from top left): Astronaut Sandra Magnus; Physicist Lisa Randall; Primatologist Jane Goodall; Astronomer Jill Tartar; Oceanographer Sylvia Earle; Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco. Individual versions on my photostream.

Now, I have to give LEGO some credit here: The Friends line does include sets for an invention workshop and a vet’s office. But why do these all have to be bathed in pink, purple and other stereotypically girly pastel colors? And why do the more cerebral types of situations have to be the exception rather than the norm?

At the end of the day, it’s certainly possible LEGO will make money off of their new initiative. And I do wish them well, as they will always hold a special place in my heart. But my call would be to drop LEGO Friends as a distinct “girl only” product and to add some meat to the offered sets. More specifically, I would encourage LEGO to reinterpret Friends in a way that incorporates gender-neutral colors and normal female—and male—minifigs. And then make more sets that include girls in inspiring careers or situations. The fact is, in just a few short years, the company has morphed from childhood favorite to ubiquitous mega-player in today’s toy sector. I believe that with LEGO’s success comes a special responsibility to set an example on gender issues such as these.

Pink bricks photo courtesy of Sandra Høj.

9 comments:

  1. The LEGO Group do have a female board member: http://aboutus.lego.com/en-us/lego-group/board/, although she's only been on it since May 2011, so not that great.

    Love the inspirational figs though - one of the things that bugged me about the Invention Workshop friends set was the inclusion of hearts and flowers on the blackboard - none of my female lecturers at Uni ever drew those during their Physics classes ;)

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  2. Thank you for the clarification! I will add the board stats to the post - I had only heard about the main management positions. I agree with you about the flowers/hearts - the same can be said about the vet's office...

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  3. astrokiwi10:07 PM

    I do have some love for the Invention Workshop. I agree with the general 'let's not have everything all the time pink'; though I do worry that always saying 'no pink' is its own form of exclusion on those who do actually like the colour. Our six-women office at the start of my thesis had in one corner a toy inflatable astronaut adorned with a hot pink superfluffy scarf. I mostly wish colour hadn't got so heavily gendered the last few decades.

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  4. Hey Michele! I'm sure your astronaut looked fetching in her/his hot pink scarf :) I'm all for a little pink, I'm just not a fan of, as you say, 'gendered' colors such that kids feel like they're being deviant if they want a toy from the 'wrong' side of the toy store... Often it's the parents that give these messages, too. I overheard a mom once telling her daughter something she wanted was too masculine, and instructing her to pick something 'for girls'. Kinda messed up...

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  5. Well done! This has been an ongoing conversation in my circles too, and as a Mom of two boys, I very much want to have positive and equal representation of male and female minifigs available for them. My biggest beef with the female faces that we have(which we got in a set of minifigs) is that almost all of them are two-faced with one side lipsticked and smiley and the other mean and grumpy. Not even just grumpy, but smirky and sour. Why can't the female faces show determination, surprise, pride or some other emotion? Why mean and smirky? And I SO agree about the Lego "Friends" line; if only they had channeled the energy of that product into better minifigs and scenarios(male, female, and neutral). Finally, the scientists rock!

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  6. Thank you! And good point about the two-faced heads... I would actually say the same is true for both female and male figs.

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  7. Anonymous2:18 AM

    Awesome!

    One thought your post inspired: get more sanely-girl-friendly designs (and members) on Cuusoo!

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  8. Anonymous3:38 AM

    Does Lego have a girl problem? Yes it does. But at least they are "trying" to address it. The reality is we live in a world where girls are attracted to different toys than boys. I have for years tried to get my daughter (who does not play with dolls or read princess books) to play with Legos with little success. My son, on the other hand, is an avid player. Lego Friends are changing that. And if Lego Friends get some girls hooked on Legos and some of those girls graduate to Lego Technic someday, so much the better.
    Should we expect Lego to do better in its marketing and product design? Yes. But let's remember they have enough trouble as it is even implementing their ping-gets-girls-to-play-Lego strategy (for details see http://unfolding-mirror.blogspot.com/2012/08/does-lego-still-have-girl-problem.html), let alone improving that strategy to a level that addresses their commercial needs as well as our social needs.
    Just as we expect Lego to be more creative and be a better social corporate citizen, perhaps we can also think more creatively on "how" they can do that while remaining profitable. Only when we start sharing that burden, will we realize what a tough task that is.

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  9. I see there are no criticisms here, so I'll add some.

    Lego doesn't care about what you think, individually. They don't care about your feelings or your "fight". They don't care about the social impact their toys have or whether they're alienating social activists. You know why? Because the only thing they give a fuck about is money. They are a company, not a charity or an activist group. They exist because millions of people worldwide buy the products they make at a premium that covers expenses and ultimately turns a healthy profit.

    They only conceivable reason they acquiesced (if this is that and not just *gasp* a female scientist) is that enough hens clucked when they released a product line that, admittedly, was sexist as compared to other girls' brands but still committed no more transgressions than any other toy that has existed for the last seventy years. The Friends line was understandably irritating, but are your victories to so few and so shallow that you have to be excited about a toy release that is just as likely not a concession to feminist criticism as it is? If that's the case, I'd say that that is an indicator of a floundering movement.

    One more thing: ONE female executive on the job for TWO years as of yet seems more like a token than a "glass ceiling" victory. If you want a real female accomplishment, Google "Ruth Handler" and quit praising negligible victories.

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