Are LEGO sets gender biased?

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LEGO Collectable Minifigs Series 2 - Captions!

There has been a discussion going on lately on the Flickr group FFOL Brick Chick (Female Fans of LEGO) on whether LEGO as a company is gender biased or if it is the parents that buy into the stereotype that LEGO is a boy’s toy. Now with only 40 members in the FFOL group and 6,220 members in the LEGO Flickr group this is a valid point of discussion.

Here’s a little bit of what I said on FFOL:

I think it is a little bit of both the parents steroetyping and LEGO itself for still not getting what girls want. Even while LEGO tries to make inroads with female LEGO fans, they still mainly market and produce sets for boys.

No, I didn’t see LEGO as a gender biased toy growing up, but then again, I was more of a tomboy than a girlie-girl anyways. But even I made mostly houses and castles as a child. In fact the whole reason I got into LEGO was that I saw it as miniature houses that I could take apart and build in what ever way I wanted.

As I got older and realized that I was the odd girl out with most of my friends and family (heck, I took all my brothers’ LEGO when they grew out of it) and that most girls, including my sister stopped playing with LEGO when they were still kids. I also realized how much LEGO miss marketed their products, making it very clear what the “girl” sets were with pastels and pinks in the sets.

In fact, it seems that they were less gender biased when I was a kid in the 80s. At least then they didn’t make all the girl’s sets pink. Granted, that was because they didn’t have pink or much more than the six colors at that point but still.

According to Steve Witt, there is a new line of girls sets coming out next year that “is nothing like you’ve seen before” (direct quote). And that these new sets will have four new colors. I’ll still wait and see on that one.

But at the same time, I also asked Mads Nipper if they were ever going to produce a dollhouse-like set. He said no, and yet now we have the new city set that I could only call a dollhouse.

My real question is this — does LEGO even realize what constitutes as a girls versus a boys set? My own conclusion is no. I honestly don’t think LEGO even knows what they already have and what they need.

In the New York Times there was a recent article that talked about this:

There’s a particular kind of story one reads occasionally, making fun of the worst excesses of political correctness. But this entry is about the other extreme—a toy manufacturer so far in the dark ages that even Don Draper might snicker. I’m told that the latest craze among the toddler set is Lego Minifigures—little people to inhabit the recently-built creations of your own little person. I’ve been looking forward to the day I can build Lego houses with my daughter. But we won’t be playing with these Minifigures. You see, there are sixteen characters in the set, but only two are female. That’s the sort of gender ratio you see at a typical economics conference, but even we economists know that we need to do better. But the lesson that Lego leaves for impressionable minds is even worse. The two female characters are a cheerleader and a nurse. Even on Mad Men, Peggy Olson rose to copywriter.

Even Barbie stopped saying “Math class is tough” eighteen years ago.

Now knowing what I know of how LEGO is trying to find a better balance of male/female sets and representation, this article is a little harsh. But at the same time, even the next Collectible Minifigure series is stereotypical = pop singer, witch, and “baywatch” babe lifeguard for the female figs. Females can just as easily be Karate masters, surfers, etc., etc.

Of course since they are minifigs, you could always make the “boy” figures “girl” figures and vise-versa. ;)

So what do you think? And what can we do to change it?

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11 Responses to “Are LEGO sets gender biased?”

  1. Joshua Delahunty Says:

    Hmm… LEGO Digital Designer added a set of new colors in their last update (quite a few months back, actually). They weren’t listed in the 2010 palette, and there haven’t been other public releases of information about them.

    I wonder if they’re related (they are a series of three new blues, two new violets, and a new green).

  2. Joshua Delahunty Says:

    Completely separately…

    Mariann,

    What’s your thinking on the fact that adult fans like to refer to the Star Wars Death Star version that features mini-figures the “dollhouse version?”

    I’ve used it as a shortcut, because it’s a known term. I’m not sure my feeling on it. It re-enforces the theme that we do all play with a toy here; and it’s become really obvious to just about everyone over the years that the Mini-figure truly drives new sales (after one reaches a certain supply on bricks and plates, this completely makes sense). Is it a good thing that everyone is “admitting” that they’re really very small dolls (which would indicate that the gender would be determined by who is playing with them)? Or is “dollhouse” just a sexist term of derision from those folks who would pretend they are “modelers” and therefore “above” the role-play encouraged by Mini-figures in the mix?

  3. Jason Says:

    I know I purposely bought sets for females when trying to populate my train layout. Definite dearth of ladies in my minifig selection.

  4. David Pickett Says:

    In a word yes. The minifig gender ratio is probably the biggest indicator. When female minifigs are present, they are often token females. “Look it’s the (only) female space police officer/pirate/diver/etc.” So many of the themes these days revolve around violent conflict, which appeal to more boys than girls. I think it’s been getting better in recent years compared to the 90/early 00’s. But the overall quality and variety of sets has been skyrocketing in recent years, and yet the percentage of female figs has increased maybe from 5% to 10%, it’s still got a long way to go. I’m interested to see what the sets look like next year. I would love to see a return to something like Paradisa, which was a theme aimed more at girls that stayed at minifig scale and didn’t dumb down the building experience like the Belville and Scala.

  5. Richard Selby Says:

    I’m a dad, and I play Lego with my little boy, and yet I still find it embarrassing. What a pity Lego didn’t give us a female doctor in MiniFigures Series 1, why did it have to be a nurse?

    All the male characters were adventurer types, and the females support the men.

    How about making a set of all female collectable minifigs? and I don’t mean super model, housewife, singer, beach babe.

  6. vexorian Says:

    This whole thing is a bit ridiculous to say the least. First of all, the ‘nurse’ is ambiguous at best. There is nothing stopping her from just being a doctor, oh there is a website. But that’s advertising. We cannot expect a company to dump money in the name of silly PC. Thing is that boys wouldn’t want to collect the minifigures if 50% of them would be girly. And girls wouldn’t buy them anyway, because most girls have parents that just don’t think they should buy them LEGO. Sure it is ‘wrong’ that kids are like that. But that’s not LEGO’s problem it is their parents’.

    I think that enforcing a 50/50 ratio is more sexist than just having all sorts of gender-neutral and gender-less figs among with about 4 definitely-male figs and 2 definitely-female.

    Regarding the suggestion to have a 100% female minifig collection. Exactly why should TLG dump their money like that? Tons of AFOLs will be happy , but that’s just about it. Boys will not really want to buy it. Girls’ parents won’t think they should be buying LEGO. Anyway, it didn’t stop LEGO from releasing a whole set of 5 female minifigs from the past: http://www.brickset.com/detail/?Set=852769-1, none of them seem to be stereotypical female roles.

    Regarding the roles, everyonce in a while a city or space/action theme will have female minifigs that are in exactly the same role as male counter-parts. An exception would be historic themes. It just wouldn’t make sense to have a female knight because it is meant to be a historical theme…

  7. Doctor Mobius Says:

    There’s definitely a gender biased in Lego, however to try and narrow it down to one cause is problematic at best. Lego bricks have been around for a LONG time, and it’s only been much more recently that you’ve started seeing the “Boys” and “Girls” signs on toy aisles start to come down, even if Barbie Dolls still have their own separate aisle from GI Joe.

    The real change will come as the next generations of AFOLs begin to enter the community. Other “nerd” hobbies like video games, role playing games etc. have seen a huge increase in the number of female participants, and I imagine Lego will catch up as well. As most people I know went through a Lego “Dark Age” I wonder if the first big influx of female AFOLs isn’t just around the corner.

    As far as Lego’s part in closing the gender gap, the easiest thing they can do is to produce more diverse female minifigs, because most AFOLs, male or female would like to see more of them. Better sets aimed at female fans could help as well, especially minifig scale themes that are compatible with the bulk of Lego’s other themes.

    Honestly though, as with all social change I think the biggest impact will come from the community as a whole. Social change happens best when the people decide that it’s time to make that change. After all, in the strictest sense we are the consumers and our demand can drive the market.

  8. MichiK Says:

    I feel it’s a bit silly to rant, of all possible contexts, about Lego’s gender bias. After all, these are mostly made up from popular myths and stereotypes, and, as stereotypes go, they are biased by default. Admittedly there is indeed room for some improvement, but as a little thought experiment will show it’s harder as it looks. You just might try to change the gender of each figure (of the second series):

    The pharao? There was a Hatshepsut and a Nophretete and a Cleopatra, so this would indeed work well.
    The archeologist? Sorry, his female counterpart would only have to demurely bring his tea and do his paperwork…

    Surfer Dude/life guard girl? Makes no difference, honestly.
    Popsinger/dico guy? While I’d really appreciate a (let’s say) barechested, young Roger Daltrey, you’d end up again with a disco chic with the only purpose of being sexy. Again, nothing won.

    The witch? There’s no such thing as male witches, those are wizards and that’s something completely different (read Terry Pratchett!)
    The Vampire? Works again (Ms Munster would be nice, indeed!)

    The Mexican? Mariachi IS a stereotype and the band members are always male.
    Highway Patrol Man?
    The Spartan? (Though an amazone actually might do the trick…)
    And so on, and so on…

    Still, it’s a crying shame that there are so few females in Lego – not because they’d perpetuate an antiquated view (after all, Lego is what you make from it, not what’s in the box), but simply because it’s so hard to get an adequate number of them.

    • LegoMyMamma Says:

      To MichiK:
      The female counterpart to the archaeologist is already within the LEGO theme tapestry: Pippen Reed is Johnny Thunder’s “friend” and she doesn’t merely bring him tea — she is an accomplished journalist & photographer!

      With such massive success of Lara Croft as a fictional character, balanced with a few real-life females like Danica Patrick the NASCAR star, perhaps the next wave is just around the corner (as Doctor Mobius suggests). The generation of boys who grew up with these public figures, plus known-females in roles which used to be male-only will have a different viewpoint than today’s AFOLs.

      The notion that boys just don’t want female Minifigs, which seems to be floating around in some circles, appears to be a myth to me. I don’t see boys trying to trade-away (get rid of) female figs. The way fans clambered for the female figs in the first collectible series surely factors into this “perceived” bias.

      So, does LEGO reflect real-life, or does real-life reflect LEGO?

  9. Richard Selby Says:

    So of a set of positive female role models wouldn’t sell, how about a set of less-than-glossy male minifugs, to act as a counterweight to the usual action adventurer types?

    tramp(bum),politician,dropout, pimp, stockbroker…

  10. Gabriel Thomson Says:

    lol…. boys won’t buy female figs eh? That must be why you can’t get cheerleaders now for love nor (a reasonable amount of, anyway) money… XD

    I agree with redressing the gender imbalance with regards to minifigs, but also wonder at the sex markers that have crept into lego over the years that have made this more of an issue. Minifigs didn’t used to have beards, rippling torsos or lipstick back when i was a lad, you could project more of yr own imagination onto them, including whatever gender you wanted them to be. My sister and i had favourite minifigs that would represent us in our lego adventures, and they were both just the classic astronauts!

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