The LEGO Group has just announced that the company is going to move away from encouraging gendered play and attempt to be part of societal change, so that gender expectations no longer limits what boys and girls play with. In Issue 83 of Blocks magazine, Kat Rees-Jauke discusses that very topic.
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Here is the opinion piece that originally appeared as one of Issue 83’s This LEGO Life columns:
In an age during which much of society is keen to move away from labels, almost no toy seems to be able to escape gender stereotyping, except perhaps the good old plushy. A person should be able to freely choose what to play with, no matter who it is marketed at. Toys are meant for fun and to inspire make-believe, so it shouldn’t be this way, especially for an inclusive toy like LEGO. Denmark is a leading nation for gender neutrality, yet LEGO seems to have fallen into the trap of being unfairly labelled a toy for boys. I’ve never cared that I enjoy a product that has historically been labelled as this, however I do wonder when – and even if – this stereotyping will every truly disappear.
What’s prompted me to think about this? Well, the recent 25th anniversary of LEGOLAND Windsor was thoroughly covered in Blocks recently and it triggered a memory. I’ve been to the theme park on multiple occasions, always enjoying myself, however this memory was one I’d buried. Back when I was around five years old I was in Miniland – always my favourite part of the theme park – studiously gazing at the sprawl of brick-built cities. Lost in my own mind and picking out the details in the buildings, I didn’t notice the young boy who came up beside me and stated very matter-of-factly that ‘LEGO is for boys’. Message delivered he promptly walked off, leaving me standing there quite shocked. Rather than dissuade me though, his comment made me realise I needed to keep flying the flag for girls playing with LEGO.
LEGO is most certainly not just for boys, but this is unfortunate stereotype persists. But how did LEGO become stereotyped in the first place? There’s not a clear answer. Back when LEGO sets were first manufactured in the 1960s, girls were encouraged to play quite ‘homely’ games, such as dolls, while boys would more often play ‘working’ games that might be associated with a LEGO city. I don’t think the LEGO Group was to blame as the promotional imagery from that time has both girls and boys on the boxes.
Later though, lines that were very much gender focused like Scala came along and then eventually Friends. A lot of market research went into creating Friends, deliberately to encourage girls to play more with LEGO bricks. The designers focussed on themes girls were supposed to like, such as horses, schools and beauty parlours. Doll replaced figure in the name ‘mini-doll’ and the set boxes were bright purple. All of this was to appeal more to girls. When the theme launched in 2012 there was uproar about this obvious stereotyping, and I think it was justified. A few years later, despite all that initial market research, the LEGO Group did a u-turn and started to say that Friends is for everyone. It’s quite the mixed message.
I love my local LEGO Store, but the last time I was in there I couldn’t help but notice that there was a rather obvious divide inside. Disney (thankfully the Princess part of the theme’s title has been dropped), Friends and DUPLO were on one side of the shop, with City, Technic and Star Wars on the other. Why is it like this? By concentrating all the purplish pink boxes on one side, and all the blue on the other, what kind of message does that send? It’s a completely free choice where anyone goes in a LEGO Store, but there’s some implicit messaging going on there.
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With these changing messages about gender stereotyping, I’m not sure that the LEGO Group will ever break free of its gender labelling, even if it’s implicit rather than explicit. There has been much research into toy gender stereotyping, involving numerous psychological concepts that make quantum mechanics sound simple. The gist of the research suggests that children are influenced from a young age by the world around them, including toy manufacturers, on which toys are ‘correct’ to play with based on their gender.
Is there more that can be done? Well, there has been some positive progress recently, which I hope continues. Friends is thankfully diversifying in subject matter, as demonstrated by the new magic show sets and recent go-karting sets. As mentioned, the word ‘Princess’ has been dropped from the Disney theme. City sets are definitely including more female minifigures in action roles.