Lego is Refusing to Get the Message

Someone at Lego has decided that they will make more money from parents who like gender segregation and stereotyping than those who loathe it.

I’m sure by now you’ve seen this advertisement from 1981.

Girl of about 5, with red plaits, holding lego construction. Text reads: what it is, is beautiful.

Well, this is from the latest catalogue. Circa 2014:

Photos of boys of different ages playing with different kinds of Lego, one girl of about 8 playing with Lego Friends.

From the current Lego catalogue

That’s six children clearly coded to be seen as boys, and one equally clearly delineated girl.

With absolute predictability, the sole girl is there to promote Lego ‘Friends’, the line developed specifically to target girls, which is saturated in pink, full of pre-formed pieces that make only one thing (which usually has something to do with shopping), and human figures who compare to the standard ‘minifig’ like this:

2 Lego minifigs, one a girl from 'friends' one a boy from regular set.

Lego varieties

The label “especially for girls” puts paid pretty effectively to the naive assertion that boys can always buy the pink things if they want them.

Even in the 1 1/2 – 5 years category they seem to have gone out of their way to code the toddler as male, at an age when it would have been easy to choose and dress a child in such a way as to present as either gender. Instead the stripey black t-shirt and messy hair tells us ‘boy’. Girls in ads don’t get to look so casual.

If girls stop playing with Lego once they reach school, maybe it’s because they’ve absorbed the message by then that it’s not supposed to be for them. Or their parents aren’t buying it because everything they see attached to it suggests it’s for boys. It is utterly disingenuous to claim a need to modify the product to appeal to girls when the company is not even attempting to make girls feel included in advertisements for the unmodified version. This is a company that knows its marketing better than just about any other. They know that they could promote ‘regular’ Lego to girls, and they know they’re not doing that.

With all the consumer feedback Lego has been getting there is no way that the people who put these pages together aren’t aware of what they’re doing. It would take no effort at all to think of dressing the children so they read in a less gender-defined way, or to have half the pictures show boys and half girls, or even (imagine!) to put two children in each picture and let us (shock!) see a boy and girl playing together. This is starting to look awfully like a strategy consciously designed to cater to parents who prefer their boys to play one way and their girls to be kept far, far away from that.

Categories: education, gender & feminism, parenting

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11 replies

  1. This is starting to look awfully like a strategy consciously designed to cater to parents who prefer their boys to play one way and their girls to be kept far, far away from that.

    And to insure that boys don’t inadvertently play with the Legos targeted at girls, either.

  2. Many toys are hand-me-downs from older sisters and brothers. These toy companies don’t want that, so they are gender-coding toys so that they can’t be passed down from sisters to brothers, or brothers to sisters. When I was young, half the stuff I played with was my brother’s. Kids nowadays have advertising targeted to them, and I can imagine little girls and boys pestering parents, or parents themselves deciding, that they need to get the “correct” version based on the kid’s gender.

  3. This is starting to look awfully like a strategy consciously designed to cater to parents who prefer their boys to play one way and their girls to be kept far, far away from that.

    Yes. But note that it’s an “as well” not an “only” strategy. Lego has gone for segmentation, just like most of the other toy companies. There’s generic Lego (Creator), baby Lego (Duplo), girl Lego (Friends) and lots of boy Lego. Plus adult Lego (Technic, Architecture, the collectors models), much of which is non-gender-specific. It’s almost as though they keep trying different things and when they find something that sells they do more of it.
    I’ve been buying the big boxes of generic bricks for the various kids I buy presents for and that seems to work. The complaints have been of the “she got more than me” variety, at least.
    And remember “everything is awesome” 🙂

  4. The Lego movie was great in that respect, the female minifigs were the same shape as the male minifigs and there were women on the building site and amongst the minions too. But yeah just when you think you are getting somewhere…

  5. I don’t want to minimise Lego’s responsibility here, but there are a lot of complicating factors. For example, I was recently in a toy store, and there was almost nowhere to put gender-non-specific toys for kids older than toddlers (and even the baby and toddler section has a ghastly invasion of ‘blue version’ and ‘pink version’ of identical toys).
    And I don’t know who to blame for this, but there are a lot of boys out there who refuse to play with something a girl might perhaps possibly also play with. They want their toys clearly marked ‘boys only’. (This is becoming quite the issue with books too, as I understand).
    So for Lego to make the most money, they would in the current climate need ‘boys only’, ‘girls only’, and ‘anyone’, although I’m afraid us ‘anyone’ aren’t a very big market segment, specially since we then have the audacity to pass the toys on to siblings rather than buying more stuff.
    (If you doubt the need for the ‘girls only’ Lego, Barbie have put out an obvious imitation. Lego Friends has been such a big success that the Queen of ‘girls only’ toys needs a share of those profits; the profits from being, well, Barbie, are not enough.)
    I may have a freakish life, but last time I saw kids play with Lego Friends, those kids were boys.

  6. The ideas floating around in society (such as the “boys play with one toy, girls have a *special*, girly toy, which is different”) are definitely reactions to things going on in our culture, not purely formulated from nothing. But by creating SEPARATE lines, Lego is then re-creating and promoting the idea that boys and girls *need* separate toys. They did have an alternative; to actively resists this idea, and market neutrally.
    It’s definitely a defined, decided strategy. And it’s part of a greater cultural shift, which is only reinforced when companies with this much clout give in to it, IMO.

  7. The big problem with non-gender-distinguished toys, as Kali points out, is parents can buy one toy for the first child in the family, and if the toy is sufficiently robust, it can be passed on to subsequent siblings (or sideways to cousins, or retained and passed on to a subsequent generation – one of my cousins had a doll in her collection which had originally belonged to my mother and her sister). This is anathema to the executives in the toy production companies, because this means a potential reduction in profits for them, and thus the End Of The World As They Know It.
    This means we have things like the highly gendered toy lines (where there’s one toy for the boys in a robust blue, and another for the girls in a less robust pink – let’s not forget the wonderful opportunities for encouraging gendered play behaviours as well) as well as the planned obsolescence of various plastics which can and will break down due to UV damage. There’s the regular releases of new versions of various toy lines (to the point where adult collectors are competing with parents for the rights to purchase the toys in stores). It’s all aimed at the wonders of creating profits and maximising return on investment for the shareholders, and it has nothing to do with the interests of children at all. In fact, a number of the toy companies (yes, Mattel and Hasbro, I am looking at you) are doing their best to ensure their adult collector markets are better serviced than their apparent target demographic (children), because the adult collectors have these factors in their favour: they’re willing to buy a design which is a straight recolour of an existing version; they’re willing to spend huge amounts of money on their hobby; and they’re more likely to pay premium prices for brand variant “collectors editions” and similar.
    Kids, by contrast, aren’t all that brand-hardened. They don’t care whether they’re playing with Transformers (TM) or Generic Transforming Robots; the generic Fashion Doll, Baby Doll or Teen Doll will do just as well as Barbie(TM), Baby Alive(TM) or Bratz(TM). Any type of interlocking building blocks will do instead of Lego(TM); all small scale toy cars will substitute for Hot Wheels(TM) and it’s possible to get as much fun out of the $2 pirate play set from the Reject Shop as it is from the Pirates of the Caribbean(R) Authentic Tie-In Merchandising.
    Plus, of course, kids are quite capable of finding hours of fun from the box the toy came in as well.
    It’s enough to make a toy designer weep into their (extremely expensive) beer.

  8. @Megpie71 – I disagree with that slightly with respect to Lego. We’ve had some of the non-Lego Dr Who building block kits and they are terrible. My kids would much rather have Lego.
    I wonder if there’s a degree of the Smurfette principle in this as well – female is a category all of its own. So you have mediaeval Lego and pirate Lego and construction Lego and girl Lego.

  9. I agree with almost everything in this article, Lego has to do better on this, just this :

    full of pre-formed pieces that make only one thing (which usually has something to do with shopping)

    I’ve bought a number of Friends sets (I’m an AFOL[1], to me having more colours available is great), and all the pieces are standard (modern) Lego pieces, as compatible with the rest as from any of the “boy-focused” lines.
    And the range of sets is a bit broader than implied here – there are shops, but also a vet, cafe, scientist, karate dojo, musician, etc.
    I heard a talk by a Lego (Australia) rep a few years back at a Lego event. His (companies) view was that in the 90s, they were losing market share and in danger of making losses. Part of the issue was a decline in the quality of sets in general, but the turn-around came when they specifically set out to target boys (first) and later girls – I see it more as a response to increasing gender-separatism, rather than being on the leading edge. That doesn’t excuse them from trying to improve things (even in the City theme, which should be relatively gender-neutral, male minifigs far outnumber female), but now that the existence of the company seems to be assured for a while longer, maybe they’ll have the chance. Also, Friends is just the latest in a long line of girl-focused Lego themes – Scala, Belville, Scala, Clikits, and so on – but the first to actually catch on and sell well.
    (and maybe they’ll pick up on the reverse trend e.g. some toystores in the UK no longer having a “pink aisle” and “everything else (for boys)” – although I don’t think the Aussie stores have caught up yet, sadly)
    [1] Adult Fan of Lego

  10. I have to concur on the sets themselves. They’re as intricate as any of the ‘boy’ sets, and they’re as diverse. My daughter’s minifig sets are a dojo and a farm. Her cousins like the Lego Friends line of pets as much (if not more) than the Lego line of vehicles. And those little sets (in the foil packages) are again, as intricate as any other set.
    The biggest difference I see, in play and in the marketing, is that most of the Lego lines are media properties so they’re desired as facets of Star Wars or Transformers play. Lego Friends is like Chima – a Lego property.
    My ultimate decision making on this (the Lego Friends issue) is informed the same way as my decision making on Barbie/Disney Princess media – I want MORE female representation for my daughter and within the actual practical qualitative parts of those products there’s a shit tonne more representation than anywhere else in media. The Barbie movies are actually reasonably okay for female representation – female friendships are foregrounded, self-identification and so on. The way the Smurfette principle works is that I either choose between quantity of female characters (in ‘girly’ properties like Barbie, or Disney princesses, horsey books and so on) or I choose the single female smurf in the sea of Ben10 aliens or Lego dudes or superheroes.
    I mean, in reality I choose both, but on the ground, Lego Friends is fun and awesome and has a far better breadth of women than the Lego lines.

  11. I’m in the “friends sets compatible and good, mutant friends figures bad” camp. Also in the “almost lego is not lego”, the cheap stuff I have seen is lacking in the quality of the product, not just the marketing.

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