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Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

A Member of LEGO Company's staff drops in here from time to time to answer questions from LEGO fans like you.

Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby buhs » Wed Oct 14, 2009 4:35 pm

Quick question - once again standard disclaimer if this has been asked before... a thousand pardons - why did TLG change from yellow to flesh minifig faces/hands for Star Wars and othe licensed themes?
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Kyle » Wed Oct 14, 2009 4:42 pm

Because they made Lando brown and opened a huge can of racially-oversensitive worms.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Jargon » Wed Oct 14, 2009 5:04 pm

Expanding on Kyle's comment, by making Lando brown and the rest yellow, the implication would be that yellow = white person, rendering racial diversity among minifigures decidedly skewed.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Draykov » Wed Oct 14, 2009 7:13 pm

If memory serves, the NBA figs were the catalyst, and Lando just happened to get released right around that time. I think this quote if from Jake McKee (Steve Witt's predecessor), but I might be wrong about that...in any case, it comes from the old forums:

Hey all,

Sorry for the delay in getting around to these questions. I'm only one man, and have been REALLY busy!

So first off, which minifigs are going to get the realistic color treatment?

Originally, the plan was to only use flesh tones when the minifig was based on a real person and not movie characters. But we continued to be flexible in our thinking about this issue as we released the products with flesh tones and started getting consumer feedback. Overwhelmingly, response was quite positive and we noticed that the movie characters not being flesh toned didn't seem quite right to us or to most of our (non-AFOL) consumers. So we modified our thinking about which figures would get flesh tone treatment.

So the answer is this: any minifig that is based on a real character (NBA player, movie actor, etc.) will be in the right coloring.

You might ask why not just continue to use yellow as the minifig color across the board. Fact is, Michael Jordan or Shaq as a yellow minifig doesn't make sense. Neither is yellow.

Among many people (mostly Caucasian), yellow = generic. But people of color tend to see yellow = Caucasian. So if we were to keep yellow for everyone who wasn't African-American, but change African-American figs, then we're clearing making the point that a) yellow = Caucasian, and b) LEGO mini-figs have always been Caucasian. (Although neither of those are true, that would be the perception by a majority of consumers who don't frequent FBTB)

Personally, and for what it's worth, I'm quite happy at this move. DUPLO figs have been multi-ethnic for years. And I like that we're moving into the new world instead of grasping to old school ideas.

And as a side note, yellow was selected decades ago when the first figs were being created.

Anyway, I'm sure there are those of you reading this who don't care what the reasons are, but just love the old school idea of yellow = generic. Like I said, I think it's the right thing to do, and I'm glad we made that choice. Only time will tell if it was the right one.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby theJudeAbides » Thu Oct 15, 2009 1:09 am

You know, I tend to agree with whoever it was that wrote that. I have no problem with the flesh and dark colored minifigs and actually think they look better and more realistic than the yellow ones. I almost wish they'd convert entirely to flesh and dark colored figs for all lines.

I have to imagine that the all-yellow figs were really just a product of the limited manufacturing/production capabilities in it's early years. At the time, I'm sure creating flesh and dark colored figs must have been cost-prohibitive, and given that yellow was "close" to what human skin looked like, already a color the LEGO's palette, and allowed you to easily print faces whose features were visible, I'm sure the decision was made to just make them all yellow.

However, since that time, LEGO's production capabilities have increased several-fold, and the cost of creating the figs in flesh and dark colored tones is hardly an issue anymore. Keeping them yellow due to "tradition" is silly if the "tradition" was having limited production capabilities.

I know racism is and probably always will be a spicy issue for some, but both the children and adults of today demand a better quality toy than those of yester-year. We want our models to be accurate, we want the toys to be made from durable materials, and we want our figures to be as accurate and detailed as possible. Toy manufacturers know that, and have responded accordingly. LEGO, despite being behind the curve a little, did come around eventually. I just wish they'd finish the transition.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Crusader » Thu Oct 15, 2009 5:57 am

Personally I prefer the current license = flesh and generic = yellow arrangement, and my guess is that Lego does too. This way the number of ethnic figures is determined by an outside source, and not by some magical quota system that Lego has to abide by. For now, all the Lego knights are yellow and there is much rejoicing. If they were to switch over to flesh then you'd have to have every other knight be a minority be of some kind. Thus causing the AFOLS to complain that its not an accurate reflection of the European Middle Ages. And there would be non-stop whining that the one Lego princess released that year isn't a pacific islander or something. It would go on and on. And just like sets not selling as well when there are cootie laced girl minifigs, sets with an abundance of minorities are not going to sell as well to Lego's white bread population base. Lego is stll primarily a toy for white boys. Lego I am sure is trying to change that, but it all takes time. As an AFOL. I would personally love to see more flesh heads and hands available in Pick-A-Brick. My current collection of flesh minifigs is whiter than my high school graduting class, and that is saying something.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Draykov » Thu Oct 15, 2009 10:10 am

theJudeAbides wrote:You know, I tend to agree with whoever it was that wrote that. I have no problem with the flesh and dark colored minifigs and actually think they look better and more realistic than the yellow ones. I almost wish they'd convert entirely to flesh and dark colored figs for all lines.


I'm actually in the same boat. It might be a huge pain in terms of LEGO having to be mindful of over/underepresenting certain ethnic groups. It would also surely be frustrating for many adult fans. Torsos would be an issue too, potentially. They'd either have to be skin neutral (i.e. no skin showing to make for flexible use between flesh or yellow heads/hands). I've brought this up before, but if you can have green troll/orc/goblins and green/orange/etc. aliens, then just do it...succumb to the flesh!

Crusader wrote:If they were to switch over to flesh then you'd have to have every other knight be a minority be of some kind. Thus causing the AFOLS to complain that its not an accurate reflection of the European Middle Ages. And there would be non-stop whining that the one Lego princess released that year isn't a pacific islander or something. It would go on and on.


I think that is an extreme scenario that is unlikely to happen. It's not like Playmobil gets accused of being racist that often (that I'm aware of). I think the vast majority of people will express their concerns about race in a venue that doesn't involve building toys.

Speaking of Playmobil, check out this blog article...I think Ian Bogost makes a good point about the fascination with detail and specifics. Utilizing fleshtones and representing things more directly/accurately hasn't been a scary thing for Playmobil and it might actually be a boon to LEGO.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Crusader » Thu Oct 15, 2009 12:11 pm

Keep in mind that Lego is a much bigger company than Playmobil, so therefore a much bigger target. People find time to object to the naming of hurricanes, they can make a stink of anything. It's not that Lego couldn't weather any controversy, it's just that they have stumbled onto a solution already. It may not please us AFOLS, but we all know that's impossible anyway.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby legodavee123 » Thu Oct 15, 2009 1:29 pm

Also, Playmobil's audience is primarily Europe, IIRC. It's sold in the US, but I don't think it has a large market share. And Americans are idiots when it comes to being politically correct. Everything's got to be PC, everything has to be fair, and woe to the company that doesn't respond.

I'd reference the Alpha Team product recall as a great example. One of the sets featured Ogel flying around a US city skyline (near some tall towers), and trying to cause destruction in the city. And sure enough, someone decided that they'd draw the parallel to Sept 11th (the set was released in 2001), and say how utterly tasteless it was for LEGO to depict a skyscraper being destroyed. I wish I had the exact imagery handy, but I remember going back and looking and being very unimpressed with the similarities to 9/11.

Anyway, what happens? The news decides that this is worthy of being put on the air, because it's shocking and outrageous, and will make people watch their news show. So it gets on the news, and now LEGO is contacted by news agencies, asking what they intend to do about the horribly disrespectful packaging? LEGO is now forced to act "responsibly" and recall a bunch of their toys and re-package them with stickers covering the "offensive" images, costing them lots of money, and really doing nothing positive, besides preventing negative PR.

I get the impression that the European market is far less concerned with these matters. I expect that's why Playmobil can get away with sets like the Operating Room, or police with riot gear, medieval executioner, or whatever other seemingly "inappropriate" sets they've come out with.

Anyway, I think LEGO would be more under the gun of being politically correct, hence making this a tricky decision. With movies and other licenses, you don't have to worry about what gender and race you make people. Whatever they were in the movie, that's what you make the minifig resemble. But in your own products, you're suddenly faced with the new dilemma of how to ascribe race. Notice how they've already managed to work in token female characters into pretty much all their lines? I expect they'd try to do the same thing with different races as well (token black characters popping up everywhere), which would probably be met with both approval and disapproval.

Personally, I'd be all for them making flesh-colored minifigs everywhere. I like them more than the yellow figs, really. But I respect that it has the potential to make things much more difficult for them.

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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Draykov » Thu Oct 15, 2009 1:45 pm

It does have the potential to cause some headaches, sure. Race exists, though. I don't say that to make the point that LEGO should be responsible for educating children about race...rather merely to say that it's not an issue that should be skirted or ignored or taboo. Call me an idealist. Other toy companies have represented race without being crucified...even in America. I see ethnic Barbies on discount at Toys R Us when the anglo version is still MSRP...I can see where some people might find that pretty insulting. But it happens, and it's not been on the news that I know of.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby legodavee123 » Thu Oct 15, 2009 1:57 pm

Draykov wrote:Other toy companies have represented race without being crucified...even in America.


Actually, the point was more the other-way-around-- that if LEGO started making fleshy figs, but did NOT represent a "proper" ethnic diversity in their lineup, THEN they might get crucified. And then again, they might not. But it's something that their marketing department would suddenly be forced to deal with prior to releasing a lineup. "Did we make sure to get some other races in there somewhere? Will people be offended if we don't? Let's do some market research and see how important it is to customers that we put in some other ethnicities." It's a headache they can do without now, and use their tried-and-true defense of "everyone's yellow!" But going forward, they'd have to devote some degree of time and effort (aka money) to figuring out the proper balance.

Certainly, other companies pull this off successfully, so I'm sure LEGO is capable of doing so, and doing a fairly good job at it. But I wouldn't want to trivialize the process.

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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Draykov » Thu Oct 15, 2009 2:24 pm

legodavee123 wrote:Actually, the point was more the other-way-around-- that if LEGO started making fleshy figs, but did NOT represent a "proper" ethnic diversity in their lineup, THEN they might get crucified...Certainly, other companies pull this off successfully, so I'm sure LEGO is capable of doing so, and doing a fairly good job at it. But I wouldn't want to trivialize the process.


That was my point: "proper" representation of race (which is, admittedly, subjective) can and has been done successfully by other toy companies which leads me to believe that LEGO could also logistically support such a move...presumably with little to no backlash (in terms of race-specific criticism - fans of traditional yellow figs are another story). I understand why LEGO might take an "if it ain't broke" stance on the issue, but I'm sick to death of intimidation and fearfulness caused by PC Nazis. That and my personal preference would be that they just embrace ethnicity and be consistent with minifigs across all lines - I made my peace with fleshtones on minifigs long ago.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Crusader » Fri Oct 16, 2009 4:53 am

Let's not forget the bottom line in this for Lego, and that is (naturally) going to be Kroners. Take the Agents line for example: if good 'ol Agent Charge switches from yellow to flesh-toned brown, will they sell as many Swamp Raid sets? If white kids are the predominant buyers of Lego, will they prefer a set with an Agent that looks like them over this one? You can sell ethnic Barbies, and probably sell a lot of them by researching how many to make and what stores to stock them in. With Barbie you have the luxury of having the same doll in different hues; Lego can't release the Swamp Raid sets with different hues.* No doubt a brown Agent Charge would sell better to minority kids, but are there enough of them to make up for the loss in sales to white kids? Minorities are sadly poorer than white kids and therefore sales will undoubtedly be less. Lego, like any good business, is in it for the Kroners.

*One possibilty would be to have additional heads in a set so a kid could make the Agent be whatever he likes--just throwing it out there Lego. You can send the check to Crusader, 555 Crusader St, Crusaderville, USA.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby Draykov » Fri Oct 16, 2009 7:56 am

For the record: I'm coming back to this thread repeatedly because I'm enjoying the conversation, not because I'm trying to be argumentative for argument's sake.

Crusader, you raise a valid point: it's probably more feasible for Mattel, for example, to release multiple ethnic versions of the same "Queen Fairypants Barbie" doll than it is for LEGO to release multiple versions of the same product merely to accommodate different ethnicity. I wouldn't suggest they take that approach. However, throwing in the occasional multi-ethnic assortment of figs into sets that warrant it wouldn't be a bad solution. I for one think it would be okay to release a set of European knights without a dark-skinned one, and on the inverse of that, there are certain types of sets that you might not necessarily expect any light-skinned ones.

There would be special considerations LEGO would have to make that it's not having to worry about now. Even the most careful research and planning couldn't avoid some hypersensitive critics from chiming in. Maybe that's just too much of a headache to want to worry about. That's understandable. It's possible that I'm just too attached to the idea that fleshtones are more "accurate" than yellow figs, but I guess more than that, I just don't want LEGO to be "afraid" of addressing race in minifigs more directly. Pandora's box had been cracked open via licensed themes and minifig representation of "real people," so I think if LEGO actually wanted to extend racial representation into traditionally "yellow districts" they could do so successfully and I'd be happy to see that.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby thepatient » Fri Oct 16, 2009 4:12 pm

Frankly I've welcomed the ethnic diversity that has shown up in the Indy sets lately. Though they do seem to be in an antagonistic light most of the time. There's been no uproar over that to my knowledge.

I bought my son some DUPLO sets that have black and hispanic DUPLO figs. He doesn't seem to mind playing with the different groups, and I'm not concerned about what ethnic representions are with the sets (yes, I'm white). The question may not be will kids buy diverse sets; but will the parents buy them? It seems clear to me that fear of things that are different is innate in all human beings, but racism is really a taught behavior.
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Re: Why did the Star Wars Minifigs get over their Jaundice?

Postby meeotch » Fri Oct 16, 2009 8:16 pm

Well, since they all ready have yellow ninjas, I say they need to go all the way with accurate representation in non-liscensed themes.
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