LEGO’s Girl Problem
When the recent Research Institute set came out, there were a lot of people that were really excited to see it, both because it was a decent idea and because it was a set that could be used for positive role-model toy for girls. There were some people that weren’t, a lot to just indifference, but some that just get angry when you say the word “girl” without also including some derogatory reference. I assume that those people are registering on the site right now, just to complain without ever reading another word. Sadly, those comments won’t be approved until after the contest voting has wrapped up.
I have a vested interest in this, because I have a two-year-old daughter. She loves stuffed animals, Duplo, and Tonka trucks. I have a closet of Lego sets put away for her, and in all of them there are four female minifigs (three are in the Research Institute). There are some mini-dolls in there because I have a few Friends sets in there too (the ones I didn’t part out for myself, because the part selection in Friends is fantastic).
Let me be very clear… I’m talking about the gender imbalance in LEGO sets. There are plenty of other things we could call out about LEGO… the lack of diversity, the problem with how certain ethnicities are portrayed (or not), the lack of handicap figures (which I find surprising primarially for much LEGO does to donate to hospitals where the “just like you” factor could make a big difference). These are things that I think should be talked about too, but I’m only going to pick one fight at a time.
I’m also aware that the problem is much bigger than Lego. The idea of equality, especially gender equality, just unleashes a whole heap of stupid inside the nerd realm. Lego is part of that, which means it’s just a reflection of the bigger problem. Except Lego isn’t just a nerd property, and it isn’t just licensed sets. It’s a kids toy. I could write many, many articles about the problem with the entire girls toys vs. boys toys, or the problem with pinkifying to make something “girl friendly,” and I have posted stuff like that on the forums… but Lego is loved by girls and boys, and that’s where the problem is.
Before I get into the stories and the numbers and what not, let’s be clear why this is a problem: because it messes up kids, and messed up kids make messed up adults. People that study this (read, scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, etc) have found a very clear reality: gender bias is not innate, it’s something that’s taught.
It’s not that boys and girls are different (they are from a biological and physiological sense), and therefore prefer different things. It’s the idea that somethings are inherently for girls, and some things are for boys. In a simple sense, it’s that old pink vs. blue divide. Reality doesn’t really care how we feel though, and the fact is that this divide is a relatively recent thing. As recently as the beginning of the 20th century, pink was a neutral or masculine color. Toys were effectively gender neutral and a lot more rare before modern commercialization. After all, the Teddy Bear was based on Teddy Roosevelt killing a bear while hunting, and a guy turned that into stuffed animals and dolls marketed to boys and girls.
What splitting toys up does is reinforce the mistaken idea that boys and girls are different at a fundamental level, emotionally, mentally, and physically. There are differences, sure, but they do not line up on the girly vs. manly divide. Nature doesn’t care about things like that, it cares about killing you, and everything about us is meant to prevent that and perpetuate the species. So women get higher pain tolerance (to help with childbirth) and guys have more testosterone (so we can invent sports like log tossing).
Boys get toys that are keyed to being macho or violent while girls get toys meant to be soft or pretty, when neither is especially accurate, it’s just semantics. An action figure is a doll and a trike is a trike if its pink or if its red. Ultimately, what we’re doing is building up gender stereotypes, that women need to be all domestic and boys need to be lugging around bricks and chopping down trees. That’s the problem right there: boys can push strollers and play in the kitchen and girls can dress up like firefighters, there is nothing wrong with that. But we present it like an either/or proposition.
So, anecdote time. This past weekend, I had a few friends over to talk some business for a development project we’re working on, trying to make some mobile games that I’m sure I’ll be “hinting” about in future posts. They brought their kids, which amounts to a few toddlers and a couple of 8 and 6 year-old girls. For the most part, the girls were bored… until they came into my “office” where we were talking and saw that my office is full of Lego stuff.
These are two girls that are targeted by Lego with the Friend’s line, all that pink and bright colors. But what they latched on to with my displays was pretty much everything. The older one likes Superhero stuff and the Lego Movie, the younger one really liked the Ecto-1 and the Sandcrawler. They spent an hour looking at my modular building shelf and trying to identify all of the characters (specifically trying to find the ones from the movie). Because these are kids in the digital age, they were using mobile phones to take a whole bunch of pictures of the display.
Unikitty was very popular as well, but both preferred the non-pink versions of her (angry and space, they knew which ones specifically). I gave them an unsorted parts bin to play with, and they set about to building a whole bunch of stuff that I’m sure I would have made if there were more than eight different bricks when I was a kid (okay, there were more, but I certainly didn’t own them).
The one thing that came up a lot was asking me to identify a lot of the characters. They wanted to know where Wyldstyle was (she’s having dinner in the Parisian Restaurant), and things like that. I’ve put a lot of effort into making my modular display be a lot more diverse than what usually comes with it. Plenty of custom figs and torso swaps, etc. As far as I know, the kids didn’t think anything about my mixing of the characters (though one was surprised at how many of the female figures she hadn’t ever seen). After I named them, they wanted to know where they came from, and then immediately asked their dads if they could go buy the set. A few extra Emmets and Wyldstyle figures may have been given away that day.
I’ve been an AFOL my entire adult life, and I’ve been collecting LEGO for fifteen years now, and I’ve never seen the power of the toy like that before. Sure, I’ve been in LEGO stores and seen kids having fun, or see videos and the like. But I live in a part of the country that doesn’t have big cons and doesn’t have a LUG community (and I don’t have the time or desire to found and run one), so perhaps it’s a bit more common elsewhere. AFOLs with older kids may also see it a lot, though I have a feeling that they’re likely as spoiled as my daughter will end up being on LEGO stuff.
The problem isn’t simple, either. It’s not just the lack of female minifigs (though that’s there), it’s how minifigs show up. There have been some improvements in recent years, but there’s still a very long way to go. Friends has the same problem, just backwards, and the whole fact that LEGO’s first attempt to address the problem with how “boy-centric” the sets had gotten was to introduce a girls-version is a whole mess by itself.
Licensed stuff is obviously a problem that’s a bit more limited by source material. It’s not as if Lego is going to invent characters or something just to balance out a set. Okay, yes, they’ve done that numerous times, but who notices those things. The fact that outside of Catwoman or the Indiana Jones line, female characters only show up in expensive sets is as big of a problem as the fact that Star Wars put out thirty-six sets this year and only included a female minifig in two of them. Sure, it’d be cool for Venus to suddenly show up in the TMNT sets, but until it happens in the cartoon, it’s not happening in the sets.
Of course, none of this means anything if it’s just my guesses, and not backed up with numbers. Let’s look at how the 2014 sets, and how their minifig makeup looks like when you break it down along gender.
I’m counting things like battle droids, monsters, etc, as whatever they’re portrayed as in the theme, even if it’s not explicitly said. In other words, male. I could use murphquake’s terrible joke of “of course they’re male, they keep calling each other Roger,” but I’ll go with the more direct evidence that they use male gendered pronouns like him and sir.
I’m not counting duplicates of figures here, either, as that would affect the numbers in both directions. The Lego Movie includes a lot of Unikitty and Wyldstyle, Star Wars has a lot of Battle Droids. The Arctic sets in city include a female character, but she appears exactly the same in several sets. These numbers also include polybags, as more and more, those are including minifigs (except Batman polys, for whatever reason), as well as sets without minifigs like Curiosity in Ideas.
|City||Agents||Ideas||Ninjago||Movie||Creator / Winter Village|
|Total # of Minifigs||99||19||9||31||93||29|
|# Sets w/ Females||12||3||2||2||15||4|
|Total # Sets||36||6||4||9||26||6|
|% Sets w/ Females||33.33%||50.00%||50.00%||22.22%||57.69%||66.67%|
|% of Minifigs that are Female||13.13%||21.05%||44.44%||6.45%||27.96%||31.03%|
|Lowest Price w/ Female Figs||$14.99||$39.99||$19.99||$59.99||$2.99||$69.99|
|Avg. Price w/ Female Figs||$61.66||$69.99||$27.49||89.99||$63.57||$117.49|
There is a certain argument that licensed stuff is limited by the source material (and the fact that so much of the source material is a sausage-fest is a problem to itself… maybe we need a license for Old Man’s War by John Scalzi or something), so I’ve broken it down to original stuff. Ideas is in there, even though it’s kind of both (what with Ghostbusters), but it tends to be the best one for the numbers.
Kind of ugly, when you look at it. Only two lines include female minifigs in more than half (Ideas has it in half, but that’s 2 out of 4 sets, and only 3 have minifigs): Creator / Winter Village / Modular Buildings and The Lego Movie. The Creator stuff is an AFOL-focused line for the most part… the kid-priced stuff doesn’t have any minifigs, and the ones that do are things like Santa’s Village, the Parisian Restaurant, and the Fairground Mixer.
The Movie stuff is better, but not perfect, which is kind of surprising. The Lego Movie was obviously not aimed squarely at boys, it was targeted to kids (and adults) of any gender. And kids absolutely loved it. The girls in my story above spent a good deal of their time explaining who the characters were to their dads (whom I berated for not paying attention during the movie). A lot of the numbers are skewed by Unikitty and Wyldstyle, who are obviously popular characters, but there are plenty of others.
I liked a lot of the sets in this lineup specifically because it had a good mix, and this line has seven different sets with multiple female characters. Even better, a lot of what it showed were women working as something other than housewives or moms. That’s an important part of this, especially when you’re trying to get across the point that young girls can grow up and do anything that guys can do.
The Movie stuff is also, sadly, an exception on the price point with female figures. You can get female characters in the Collectible Minifig Line, and you always have been able to, but in a lot of sets, getting to more varied sets gets expensive. The City stuff introduced the Arctic line (again), and this time gave us a female minifig. Even better, her parka is orange like everyone else, and her hood orange. The figure itself isn’t even overly female (though it has the typical indicators of lipstick and eyelashes)… she’s obviously a member of the team, like everyone else is. She shows up in a $15 set that’s a LEGO exclusive, a peg blister pack with a tent (that she shares with the male minifig that comes with it, I guess).
The same figure shows up in three other sets, priced $39.99, $49.99, and $89.99), while we get eight unique male figures across the various sets. So the numbers are kind of deceptive, since Lego isn’t willing to even do a face swap to show more than one woman working up north (it’s called arctic… sure, all the stuff looks like Antarctic expedition bases, but you know).
The female Movie and Ideas figs are much better distributed, but it falls apart on the other lines. Ninjago only includes two female characters this year, Nya/Samurai X and someone called Pixel. I don’t know anything about the cartoon, but this line had actually once had Nya as a spinner pack and let her carry her own giant Samurai Mech (a set which I had multiple of to part out, actually, after I picked up a ton of Ninjago stuff on clearance one year; why I needed ten Jay’s fighters I will never know).
Agents does have female minifigs in half the sets, three out of six, but they’re also the three most expensive sets. It also only amounts to just over 1 out of 5 characters. One is called an agent, but it could be some sort of Moneypenny thing here… that’s an awful lot of pink in her character.
There is progress here, especially when you compare it to previous years, but it still feels like it’s coming up short. Both boys and girls love LEGO stuff. The ad at the top of this shows what it was like when LEGO targeted both genders with their stuff, but it’s still targeted as a “boy’s toy” a lot of the time.
The licensed stuff is far, far worse.
|Marvel||DC||Star Wars||TMNT||Simpsons||The Hobbit and LotR|
|Total # of Minifigs||34||19||124||36||22||5|
|# Sets w/ Females||4||1||2||1||2||0|
|Total # Sets||12||10||36||10||2||1|
|% Sets w/ Female Figures||33.33%||10.00%||5.56%||10.00%||100.00%||0.00%|
|% Minifigs that are Female||11.76%||5.26%||1.61%||5.56%||27.27%||0.00%|
|Lowest Price w/ Female Figs||$39.99||$49.99||$49.99||$69.99||$3.99||N/A|
Simpsons is kind of an aberration here, since it only consists of two sets, and the sets are based on a license that’s always had female main characters (Marge, Lisa, and Maggie). They all show up in both sets… in fact, they’re the only female characters. Simpsons has always had a good cast of supporting women as well: Ms. Krabbappel (who was retired as a character upon the death of her voice actress), Patty and Selma, Mrs. Lovejoy, Maude Flanders (may she rest in peace), and hundreds of one-offs that are just as important to the whole setting as some of what we got. The Simpsons CMF line was sub-par, but sad that they didn’t include anyone else.
Marvel is better than most others, as a full third of the sets include female characters, and if you take out the polys and promotional figs, it would be better. Of course, since they’ve included popular female characters in the SDCC promos (Jean Grey as Marvel Girl and Spider-Woman), they must really like us having to pay a fortune to get them.
Marvel isn’t exactly helping things here, with their latest cover reveal for Spider-Woman #1, which is doing a vast disservice to the character and to fans for either gender. I could do a whole article on everything wrong with that picture, but lucky Rob Bricken on io9 already has it covered. My point is that I get that LEGO’s hands are tied, but they can be the standard here, instead of just doing more of the same. I also get that this is the style of the particular artist, who has a long history drawing things like this… none of those details make it okay.
If you take out Guardians of the Galaxies from the lineup, which features a female baddie (Nebula) and a less-bad “hero” (Gamora), we’re left only with Storm in the X-Men set and a Mary Jane figure that is just so downright infuriating that it might as well not exist. Of course, it doesn’t exactly help the problem when we get places like The Children’s Place doing get away with nonsense like this:
Obviously, boys don’t like the most dangerous woman in the galaxy, the one that has swords and is capable of killing pretty much anyone else on the crew. Must be the cooties or something like that. Do boys still talk about cooties?
Seriously, Mary Jane, for all the knocks against her, was a unique character in her own right in the Spider-Man universe. She had a career, a life, and a whole lot of stuff outside of Peter/Spider-Man. The fact that she’s basically reduced to a damsel in distress (which she was far too often in the comics) in a Spider-Man fangirl T-Shirt is just… *nerdrage*. For me here, the gender issues are just as maddening as how far from the source it was.
The X-Men, specifically, has had a huge swath of popular female characters. Jean Grey (just put her in the modern costume if you want to keep the Marvel Girl exclusive, Lego), Rogue, Emma Frost, Storm, Kitty Pride, Magick… I could go on naming for a long time. Lemmie just say, I’d love a Dazzler or Jubilee minifig. Avengers has Black Widow in all of the forms, and we’ve gotten a figure, but Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) has been popular as both her current name and Ms. Marvel, and the new Ms. Marvel has been a surprising and very well-done series (that’s popular with young women for it’s take on topics they actually care about). We’ve gotten exactly one (and a half, if I’m feeling generous with the Jean Grey figure) of those.
DC is worse… if you want a female character, I hope you like Harley Quinn. Harley is an awesome character, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of great characters in the DC universe. Then again, DC doesn’t like girls, given that they’ve cancelled shows because “girls don’t buy toys.” Also, they have long and sketchy history of absolutely ruining characters that girls like in their shows (see Power Girl and Starfire).
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are more complicated, since they’ve actually had to invent a character to get women in The Hobbit (there weren’t any in the book, otherwise), and the few that were in the Lord of the Rings have yet to make it into minifig form. There also are sets coming this year, but they haven’t been released yet (I know there are spoilers out there that would alter this number ever so slightly, but Lego is touchy about them and doesn’t always understand how the internet works).
There are a couple of characters, but you have to go back to last year, or make them yourself. Eowyn isn’t getting some minifig love anytime soon, sadly, but the Forest Maiden can be made into her fairly easily.
It’s Star Wars that really stands out as the problem here. Sure, the Original Trilogy (OT) isn’t exactly known as a bastion of variety, with Leia as the only main character, and a few others sprinkled in for flavor (Mon Mothma, Aunt Beru, Oola, etc). The Prequel Trilogy (PT) improved that, especially when the Clone Wars was mixed in, and two-thirds of the sets are from the newer material. The one Clone Wars set got Ahsoka, and she belongs in there, as the most interesting character to come out of that series. We also get Hera in the just awful Ghost set, but if the previews are any indication… being in Rebels isn’t going to endear her to anyone. The rule that girls only show up in expensive Star Wars sets is alive and well in the promos, since there’s been two chibi versions of the Ghost, and Hera, the owner of the ship, hasn’t been in either one!
Interesting side note is that there have been a total of 34 female Star Wars minifigs, including all variations of characters like Padme and Leia (which make up about half of those). For some contrast, there have been 20 different versions of Han Solo, 31 of Luke, and 26 of Obi-Wan.
There were plenty of sets where they could have included some of the others. Aunt Beru in the Sandcrawler is the most obvious, as we have said before. She makes more sense in that set than the lightsaber. Most of the PT stuff was focused on Episode III, and there were plenty of Jedi shown in it. Yet we don’t get a Padme in any form (the most recent one was in the last year’s stellar Republic Gunship) for Episode III.
We also still only have Clone Wars varieties of Stass Allie, Aayla Secura, Luminara Unduli (who actually has a LULS version too),
or Barriss Offee (correction, Barriss Offee is the only one to get an Ep III version). We have no Episode III Padme. I’m just saying, there are a whole ton of options they could have released here, not to mention dipping into the Clone Wars stuff, which is canon even in the Disneyverse, and giving us some variety. Maybe, just maybe, we didn’t need a dozen different clone colors (and yes, what we did need were more regular clones). Licenses should reflect the license, of course, but these things are failing at doing that.
Even on the OT, there are women, only you have to do some Gorgo-searching to try and find them. You can try to argue that they weren’t main characters, but Star Wars is a license built on merchandising. We’ve had a set that were built from a two-second fuzzy shot in the Special Edition, a set based on an unused prop that’s presented as a toy – one that’s rumored to be getting a remake, and characters included that were only there to cry. We get three Bith musicians in the Cantina set, but no way we’re going to get equally background characters of three or four women in there.
Girls like Star Wars too… I’m not sure why toy retailers seem to struggle with that. Instead, girls end up getting pinkified toys (if the toymakers are lazy), or maybe new products that have to have pink and neon (looking at you, Nerf), or sometimes stuff that’s like a terrible version of the “boys toy,” you know, like Friends.
|Total # of Figures||34||10|
|# Sets w/ Males||2||3|
|Total # Sets||38||7|
|% Sets w/ Males||5.26%||42.86%|
|% of Minifigs that are Male||5.88%||30.00%|
|Lowest Price w/ Male Figs||$24.99||$29.99|
|Avg. Price w/ Male Figs||$32.49||$46.66|
This is obviously the same problem, only in reverse. In fact, I would argue that this one is even worse, because it compounds the issue. Instead of it just being a different line, the entire thing is a different line that seems dedicated to hitting absolutely every single bad stereotype of girls toys. Let’s see…
- We have things that are turned pink, lime green, and purple for no reason at all
- There are “career” type figures in here, but they put them into cutesy outfits, or in some cases, give them purses to carry along because… I don’t know why
- The majority of the sets are just domestic junk… even the career stuff is all domestic focused
The worst things about Friends has got to be in their polybag line, which are basically a non-blind version of the polybags and Collectible Minifig line. The biggest bonus of the CMF stuff is that it has greatly expanded what’s available for variety, both in male and women figs. They’re also a decently mixed group of gender stuff, even though there’s a pink space marine… which on one hand I want to bash for being pink but on the other hand I just love as a figure and own a couple dozen of them. It’s not perfect, since you get more stuff like the carhop or Paris Hilton-knockoffs, but you also get a nurse, doctor, zookeeper, several sports characters. It’s not perfect, but it is progress.
Friends is not…
Instead, Friends might as well be all about glitter and nail polish with big messages that say “Love Pink, Give Up On that Learning Stuff!” when you look at them. If you want something made for a girl, just get the boy thing and pretend. Or better yet, paint it pink! Because a boat won’t float for a girl if its not painted lime green, and a woman could never fly a helicopter unless she is carrying her designer purse. What happens if she chips a nail trying to adjust the thrust ratio?
Let me be clear about this here… the issue is not that people pointing out issues like this want everything to become girl-centric. We don’t. We want them to be kids centric, and for men and women to be represented accurately and evenly. This problem is just as bad, if not worse, because of the example that it puts for girls. Boys can grow up to be Ultra Agents! Girls can run their own fruit stand (which is a good set for parts, not so much for inspiring).
Friends does do some stuff well, especially on mixing different ethnicities. It’s a fleshy-color based set, so that’s a lot easier, but i would still be nice to see a bit more even stuff.
Toys being off like this don’t have a huge, direct, devastating effect; girls aren’t going to be just destroyed that they didn’t get female figures in the sets. It’s far more sinister than that. Toys don’t set stereotypes and biases, but they can reinforce and reiterate them. They say that girls aren’t as important, that they can’t do the same things, that they’re relegated to doing domestic things. Even if they show women doing jobs that have been traditionally been show as “guy jobs,” they have to be softened, or made more cutesy.
This is a real problem: research has shown that the biases and cultural stereotypes have created a confidence gap between men and women. We start hammering that into their heads early, as if their success is something of luck or accident. And it doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts guys too. LEGO was once a toy that was simply that: a toy. It wasn’t about girls and boys, good guys and bad guys (or good girls and bad girls). It was about creativity, and expression, and more than that, fun. Making toys reflect the world hurts us all, and just hammers home differences that aren’t really there. We adults, we AFOLs, are the ones making the boy vs. girl gap.
I’m sure LEGO is falling back on some marketing ideas that help reinforce this nonsense. Of course, we all know that marketing preconceptions are infallible, no matter what science might say. I’m pretty sure that in my college business classes, we were taught that you want to target your products to the widest swath of people without compromising the core competency of what brought you to that product in the first place.
LEGO used just be about building and playing, not about boys playing with boy stuff and girls with girl stuff. They made their market narrower (and yes, I get that they sell far more now than they did in the 70s and 80s… do does everyone); something feels odd in ignoring half of the market for your product, or worse, pandering to them.
This is a throwback to the ad that I showed at the top of the page, but it’s worse than that, because it just shows off the problem and reinforces it. The text says:
It’s a garden, a pirate ship, a castle, and island, an enchanted forest and an epic adventure. It’s exactly what she wants it to be.
She’s an explorer, a builder, a designer, a creator and an inventor. She’s every child that’s ever spilled a bucket of LEGO® bricks onto the carpet and made them her own.
All of those things are absolutely fantastic things to build, for boys and girls. I certainly built my share of enchanted forests back in the day (and pretended they were full of Ewoks that were chasing Gummy Bears… the 80s were weird). But have you purchased Friend’s sets? I certainly have… good luck building a castle or pirate ship for the part selection. I’m also pretty sure that their idea of epic adventure, based on the set lineup, is getting your nails done or putting bows on young animals.
I suppose all of this is just comes down to a simple ask put on a whole lot of rant. LEGO… put more female figures in your sets. The girl in your ad thinks it’s a problem too.
Girls like Star Wars and Super Heroes. Boys like animals, pink, and purple. And it is beautiful.