The LEGO Disconnect on Gender

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By Crystal Smith

As most readers may know, there has been a huge uproar over LEGO’s newest product line, LEGO Friends. (Google it. You can’t miss it.) Regular readers [at The Achilles Effect] might also know that LEGO has been one of my favorite targets for a while now.

Like the people protesting the LEGO Friends line, I have had my site visitors tell me, in defense of the company, that: LEGO is a business; they need to make money; they are only making what sells; and it’s not their responsibility to tackle weighty issues like gender stereotypes. Fair arguments perhaps, but I would like to invite those individuals to read the Company Information section of LEGO’s website, then consider whether or not LEGO owes children a more balanced and thoughtful representation of gender.

Let me provide a few examples of what the company claims, juxtaposed with images from some of its marketing. Emphasis in bold text is mine. All images are from the LEGO website.

Caring and Learning

Learning is about opportunities to experiment, improvise and discoverexpanding our thinking and doing (hands-on, minds-on), helping us see and appreciate multiple perspectives. (From The LEGO Brand.)

Hmm. Expanding kids’ thinking by telling them that pink and purple are for girls…

…or violent toys are for boys…

LEGO Ninjago Kai

…or that the difficult work of saving the world is a job for “gentlemen…”

…or “boys” with big guns?

Caring is about the desire to make a positive difference in the lives of children, for our partners, colleagues and the world we find ourselves in, and considering their perspective in everything we do. (From The LEGO Brand.)

“Caring,” shown through positive, life-affirming imagery like this?

Video clip from LEGO’s Heroica series

Or this…

LEGO Skrall

The Skrall are described as: “…arrogant, vicious, brutal,  fear nothing and care about even less. They are incredibly skilled fighters, both with and without weapons. What they may lack in technique they make up for with sheer bludgeoning power and strength.”

Or the Heroica character…

Heroica

…whose character description reads: “SURGE, there’s been a breakout at the Hero Factory and we need your help recapturing them! We can’t leave anything to chance, so we’ve equipped you with a high-power electricity shooter, plasma gun and super-thick armour. Slap those cuffs on them and give them the shock of their lives!” Yikes!

Perspective

The word “perspective” is used twice in the passages from the LEGO Corporate pages that I cited above. For example, from the excerpt on “caring,” it says that the company considers the “perspective” of children, colleagues and partners in everything they do. And how do the images below affect a child’s perspective on gender?

Intergalactic Girl

(Note that she is a girl, not an astronaut or spacewoman, while her male counterpart, below, is a spaceman.)

Spaceman

The LEGO Friends, below, are hanging out…

Screenshot from LEGO’s website

… in contrast to the Alien Conquest soldiers, below, who are all male and ready to save the world.

LEGO Alien Conquest Video screenshot

Or how about the LEGO cheerleader, described in her bio as waving her pom-poms wildly whenever she talks, “which is pretty much all the time.”

LEGO cheerleader

Or, finally, one of my personal favorites…

LEGO’s Not Walking the Walk

All large companies are guilty of spinning public perception vis-a-vis their degree of corporate responsibility, but these words and  images show the incredible disconnect between LEGO’s purported values and their actions. And they are marketing to children, let’s not forget.

How do corporate brand priorities like “caring” and “learning” mesh with violent, bludgeoning toys for boys and a pinkified world for girls, or the near-complete absence of girls from the playsets aimed at boys?

And what are boys learning about their place in the world through the messages sent by LEGO marketing? Aggression is a highly valued trait for boys. Girls don’t rescue, they get rescued. Boys can’t play with pink things, play houses, or restaurants–those are the domains of females. (Watch Feminist Frequency‘s first video on this. They raise some amusing questions about what the men of LEGO City do when they feel tired or hungry, since there are no houses or restaurants in their town.)

I know that LEGO is not the only toy maker to trade on gender stereotypes but they are pretty intent on making themselves seem like a compassionate company with children’s best interests at heart. (By way of contrast, I checked the Mattel site–another toy maker known for its less-than-progressive views on gender. Their Corporate Responsibility page says nothing about “caring,” “learning,” or the value of a child’s play experience. Its focus is more on safe play and ethical sourcing. Their code of conduct talks only about achieving success and employee integrity.)

So LEGO, to use a cliché, if you are going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. And sexist, violent, stereotyped imagery is not the way to do it.

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As an aside, I thought I’d add this bit from the LEGO site:

As corporate citizens in the local communities in which we operate, we acknowledge that we have a responsibility that goes beyond the value chain of our products. We truly appreciate our close stakeholder relationships, which influence our strategic decisions and give us valuable knowledge about the impact of our actions. (From Stakeholder Engagement)

We’ll see about that. To date, there has been no response to SPARK Summit‘s 50,000-name petition about LEGO Friends.

* * *

Originally posted on The Achilles Effect on February 1, 2012. Cross-posted with permission.

Related Content:

The Pink and Blue Guise of Gender Roles

PinkStinks: Challenging Girly Stereotypes

What Do You Get When a Boy Dresses Like a Girl? Acceptance!

 

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Comments

  1. Ryan F. says:

    It is always interesting to see the newest product that LEGO is putting out of the market for young boys and girls. This new product has generated quite a controversy with it over-sexy female characters and the activities they ‘like’ to do. Why is it that LEGO thinks that the only way to market their products to girls is to stereotype their desires? Not every girl likes to play ‘Cheerleader’, do make-overs, and bake for the boys. This only perpetuates a false sense of gender identity for our young girls by repeating the same image over and over again. Toys like these socialize our young girls to think that baking, looking great, and riding with the top down is what they are ‘supposed’ to do. While LEGO toys for boys inspire adventure, risk, and intellect, girls are stuck with a pink and purple already assembled LEGO world that inspires nothing but a false sense of identity. Like Anita discussed in her video on LEGOs, the toys for girls are incredibly easy to assemble, usually only a few pieces to put together, while the boys’ pieces are incredibly intricate and complicated; the way LEGOs should be. LEGO’s Friends also further inforces the domesticification of young girls by teaching them that baking and cleaning the house should be a part of their interests. Who wants to play a game where cooking and cleaning is ‘fun’? Color codes are also a huge part of the LEGO industry. Friends is decked out in purple and pink, the ‘girl’ colors. While the boys’ LEGO world is filled with green, blue, and black, the boy colors. These color codes act as a barrier that tells the boy or girl if this toy is ‘right’ for them. A young girl automatically knows that Harry Potter LEGO set isn’t for her, because her colors are not represented, however, girls can totally like Harry Potter, ask my professor! LEGO toys like these are discouraging to me because I always thought of LEGO as for everyone when I was a kid, however, it seems like times are changing.

  2. I guess that problem with lego is that they are so aggressively marketing only for boys and only for girls toys. When I was a kid they had also gender neutral “”just building-blocks”, you could use those to build things what ever you liked and not only “fighting helicopters” or “pink pony stables”.

    (Usually girls and boys find their ways to play blooody fighting or pink and frilly nursing when they need and want to do so, and adults dont have to force them to their locers and put some barbedwire between ?)

  3. i might be a hypocrite with my thoughts on this, but i see no problem with separating the genders per their classical senses as it pertains to lego characters. i don’t agree with the DSM in their ambiguous classification of “homosexuality” under “gender identity disorder,” but i’m okay with preserving a girl’s old fashioned right to be pretty and pink.

    see: i have homosexuality.