Feminism

Why Girls Don’t Play with LEGOs

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I LOVE Legos. And you know I love Legos based on the mere fact that I say “Legos” because that’s what I GREW UP SAYING in the god damn ‘80s and ‘90s and I refuse to bow to the POLITICALLY CORRECT SNOWFLAKES who insist that the “proper” term is “Lego bricks.” NO. The plural of Lego is Legos. This is one Lego. These are two Legos. I will die on this hill. I will step on these Legos in my bare god damn feet. Cry about it, sheeple!

I got into Legos as a kid thanks to the many sets owned by my two big brothers. We had so many Legos we dumped them all into two enormous duffle bags, and when it came time to play with them we’d dump them all over my brothers’ carpet and build together, occasionally looking up from instruction sheets to ask someone to pass a “2 by 3” or a “wing” or a satellite dish. My favorite things were the entirety of the space sets, or just the horses from the castle sets. Horses in space were my specialty. Eventually, Lego debuted the Pirate sets at which point I went all in on sea horses. Not seahorses, but like, land horses that rode around on pirate ships and plundered all day with monkeys on their backs.

While I loved the pirate sets, I noticed that suddenly the kits weren’t quite so customizable. When I was younger and played with my brothers, we would always *start* by making whatever the main build was, like a lunar lander or a castle. But once that work was done, we’d tear it down and build whatever entered our heads. With the pirate sets, I noticed that a lot of the pieces were really specialized, so that the main build looked amazing but it was harder to build anything else with those pieces. And then I basically aged out of Legos as I entered high school and got distracted by drugs and booze and rock music or whatever.

But I’ve followed the travails of Lego over the years, and watched with interest as they continued to go down that path of using highly specialized parts, combined with incessant brand deals that honestly I found really stupid and obnoxious until they started doing Star Wars, at which point I’m like yes, please give me the Millennium Falcoln now thank you.

The most concerning development, though, was when they introduced Lego Friends in 2012. This was obviously aimed at girls, considering all the new, more detailed and thinner minifigs were girls and everything was pink. I didn’t realize it at the time but this was just an updated version of Bellville, a line that debuted when I was busy drinking in high school, which was even pinker and required even less actual building.

But Lego Friends came out in the age of social media, so it was pretty well known and I will be honest, I thought it was gross. It seemed less like Lego and more like Barbie, which for the record I also played with as a child — but no real building, no creativity, just stereotypical “cute” girls and beauty salons and whatnot.

So I was surprised to see the parents of young girls, including parents I knew valued science and math and creativity for all genders, come out in defense of Lego Friends. They pointed out that their girls loved the kits, which actually did require some building and which apparently inspired a lot of creative play.

I looked into it and was surprised to learn that Lego launched the Friends line after years of market research. In 2008, they found that 90% of Lego sets were being sold for boys, despite the fact that they’ve had pretty gender neutral advertising over the decades. That means if they could find a way to reach out specifically to girls, they could practically double their sales. They studied how girls and boys built and played with castle Legos, and they found that boys built the castle and then enacted battles in front of it — the castle was just the backdrop. The girls built the castle and then were disappointed that there wasn’t anything going on inside of it where they wanted to enact their stories. They also learned that the girls were more interested in smaller projects, and that they were more likely to want to see themselves in the minifigs. And thus “Friends” was born, with hearts and butterflies and pink and purple colors and listed on the Lego website under the category of “girls.”

It was a huge hit, but I wasn’t the only one who was put off by it. A lot of people complained about the stereotypical “girliness” of it all. A beauty parlor, really? 

At first, the company was defensive. A spokesperson for Lego told The Atlantic that, hey, the Friends sets had the same number of pieces as sets made for boys, and besides, clearly being gender neutral didn’t work — this is just how girls want to play. “I think there’s been a lot of momentum around this idea that everything should be gender neutral,” McNally said. “That’s not what we’re striving for. We don’t see anything wrong with the natural ways that children are choosing to play. We try being gender inclusive.”

But — is it gender inclusive to label certain sets “for girls?” To make all the characters girls and to put them in a special category on your site, as though “girl” is just a modifier like “space” or “pirate”? Does that tell girls that the rest of the site is not for them, and does it tell boys that “Friends” are not for them? But if they didn’t label things that way, would parents even think to buy LEGO sets for their little girls?

A few years later it seems as though Lego execs heard the criticism and was actually interested in doing something about it. This week, in honor of the International Day of the Girl, LEGO partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to explore the issue further by surveying 7,000 families from seven different countries on how parents and children feel about not just toys but also gender roles. What they found was pretty interesting. For a start, it turns out that yeah, it’s mostly the parents who are the problem. Most girls and boys (though more girls than boys) said it was okay for girls to play football and boys to practice ballet. But their parents “were almost five times as likely to encourage girls over boys to engage in dance (81% vs. 19%) and dress-up (83% vs. 17%) activities, and over three times as likely to do the same for cooking/baking (80% vs. 20%). Adversely, they are almost four times as likely to encourage boys over girls to engage in program games (80% vs. 20%) and sports (76% vs. 24%) and over twice as likely to do the same when it comes to coding toys (71% vs. 29%).”

They also found that boys were more likely than girls to think of activities as being gendered, and thus off-limits to themselves.

So this isn’t just about only offering girls stereotypical “girly” toys to play with. Girls tend to do a bit better than boys when it comes to acknowledging that they can do anything they choose, which isn’t much of a shock considering how much more quickly society has accepted, say, girls wearing pants and playing sports compared to boys wearing skirts and playing with dolls. It’s ironic, because this means we restrict boys’ play more than girls, even though we do it for a misogynistic reason — we code traditionally feminine pursuits as being weaker, lesser, and embarrassing. Girls SHOULD want to do “boy” things because “boy” things are BETTER. Boys should be embarrassed to do “girl” things because “girl” things are pointless and stupid.

How do we fix this? Well, one toy company can’t fix it but I am happy to say that they’re making an effort. LEGO has launched a campaign to increase gender inclusivity by championing female role models — not just for girls, but for boys and for their parents. The more parents see women as people to admire in a variety of roles, the more they’ll consider encouraging their little girls to pursue those careers and interests. The more that little boys see women as role models, the more they’ll see their female peers as, well, actual peers. The more we normalize women as equals, the less we will put down traditionally “feminine” things like pink and flowers and dance and care-giving, and more boys will feel comfortable trying those things out. 

Like I say, this is much bigger than just LEGO. But I’m happy to see them continuing to explore their role in a complicated system that currently serves to limit the potential of both boys and girls.

Also, bring back the pirate sets you guys. Those were awesome.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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3 Comments

  1. Great summary of the situation. As a huge Lego nerd I am shocked and dismayed that you still call them “legos” ;) But in all seriousness – the Friends line has been excellent since inception, IMHO. The models are quite good, some of them pretty detailed, and nobody can accuse Lego of dumbing them down or otherwise compromising. Yes, the Friends mini-dolls have their problems and limitations, but at least they’ve done well to make them racially diverse unlike the yellow minifigures.

    Also there are some pirate sets available for sale right now, get them before you miss out!

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