beyond the bricks to the beauty shop: lego goes girlie

A friend circulated this ad on facebook. Maybe you saw it as it made the rounds?

The ad is from 1981, not a year particularly celebrated for female achievement (although it was the year Britney Spears was born, so I suppose that counts for something).

I love legos and this ad only stoked my lego-love. My kids are lego freaks and over the years, my only consolation for finding those sharp-edged pieces in the couch, on the floor, embedded in rugs–on pretty much any flat surface–has been to feel all smug that my kids play with such a gender-neutral toy, a toy that is endlessly creative, blah blah blah.

Then I saw this ad on the lego page site:

If Polly Pocket mated with a Star Wars mini-fig, or if hookers gave away bobble-head doll versions of themselves…here’s what would result: chicks hangin’ at the Friends cafe.  When you click on the live screen, these figures sway back and forth, hugging each other and kissing each other on the cheeks. Maybe they’re whispering sweet nothings to one another–maybe it’s the lego version of “The L Word.”

But no. Nothing so interesting as a set of interlocking lesbians.  Instead we’re told that “Stephanie” likes planning parties; that “Andrea” thinks music puts life in full color (the only African American in the group and she’s the one telling us about music?); that “Emma” likes drawing, fashion, and make-overs. Girls who receive these sets can build a tree house, a car, an animal hospital, a beauty shop, or a cafe.  There are no intricate moving parts and when the sets are completed they look really bad dollhouses.  I imagine that completing Emma’s treehouse might not give the same sense of accomplishment as building this:

This thing swivels, jiggles, and moves; it creates destruction and chaos–and when you’re done playing with it in this form, you can take apart the pieces and combine them with any other lego pieces into any creation you can imagine. Emma’s tree house is always going to be Emma’s tree house. I suppose you could take the tree apart and stick the branches onto Mia’s animal hospital, but somehow that doesn’t strike me as satisfying.

Let’s recap, shall we? In the span of thirty years we’ve gone from celebrating a scruffy little girl’s ability to build whatever the hell she wants from a pile of multi-colored bricks to teaching girls that their strengths include parties, fuzzy animals, and make-overs.

Lego isn’t the disease, obviously, just a symptom. (In writing this post, I found out that several organizations devoted to challenging gender stereotypes are up in arms about these new girlie-gos).  Lego claims that it was just–wait for it–responding to consumer desires.  Apparently little girls only want to play with beauty parlors and kittens, so Lego made beauty parlors and kittens.

Okay. Even Lego has to make a buck, I guess (although with a lego set purchased every seven seconds or something, seems to me the company could’ve tried taking the high road). And okay, boys and girls have different ways of playing, I get that (years of watching perfectly innocent sticks become swords, guns, airplanes–pretty much anything that makes a noise or could inflict bodily harm). So yeah, maybe a seven-year-old girl wouldn’t want to build the Star Wars Death Star (and then un-make it, turn it into 85 other things, and then two years later whine “why can’t we make the deaaaaaath staaaaaaaarrrrrrr”).

And so even okay, make a “girl” Lego set. But what about a Princess Knight or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, or Wonder Woman? What about a group of girl pirates or airship captains?  If you’re going to target to girls, could you at least make your product…interesting?  Complicated? Challenging? Unusual? Little girls may want to play beauty shop, or maybe they want to imagine themselves in tree houses, but hell, couldn’t they at least get a measly multi-piece alien swamp speeder into the bargain?  Something with a little, you know, oomph to it?

Lego. I expected more from you. And so did that little girl in 1981.


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23 Responses to beyond the bricks to the beauty shop: lego goes girlie

  1. Andrea @ The Penny-Roach's January 8, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Wow. I had heard about the pink legos, but I hadn’t seen them yet. They are just Barbies that come in a few extra pieces. Not impressed.

  2. Stasha January 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Hear hear. I am devastated by this. And for the first time, my comment is not meant to be sarcastic. This is rubbish Lego, I expected more too!!

  3. KSB January 9, 2012 at 5:47 am #

    SOOOOOOOO disappointed with Lego. When I first read about their new “girly sets,” I honestly thought it was a joke; still cannot believe it is not. Shame, shame, shame!

  4. Maureen | Tatter Scoops January 9, 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Woaa this is news to me. I absolutely adore that first picture. I think they are doing it the wrong way now with the girly lego. Yikes! Just wrong.

  5. Ado January 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    I love your post and I expect more from Lego. BTW I can only see the first photo – can everyone else see the other ones? They only appear as an error message to me.

  6. Shannon from 'mynewfavoriteday' January 10, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    This is so great! I love the first photo and we can build whatever we want. As little girls as women. Whether it’s a spaceship or a beauty parlor, we are not put into a contrived environment that gives me what I should be. Thanks for spreading the word and also so we as moms can know just what opposite action to take. I am fine with injuring the arch of my foot on a daily basis from stepping on a giant lego, but I am not fine with my own little E being put into a box of what she aspires to!

  7. Laura@Catharsis January 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    Very clever post, and I have to agree that 1981 Lego girl is far more interesting and probably substantive than 2011 Lego girls, or “…hookers [who] gave away bobble-head doll versions of themselves” (LOL!). I get it – some girls like those princess-y things. I wasn’t one of those girls, but that part’s okay. But only as long as there are empowering Lego sets for girls as well.

  8. Alison@Mama Wants This January 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    Yes, yes, yes! Personally, as a not-very-girlie-girl, I am totally offended by the new tack Lego is taking. I am of the belief that girls only like kittens and parlors because they’re TOLD they should in subliminal ways by companies marketing kittens and parlors. Who’s to say they won’t want to build a Death Star? (heck I do!)

  9. Jackie January 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    How is it that the ad from 1981 is more forward thinking then what they are promoting today? I just don’t get it?!?

  10. Kimberly January 12, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    Wonder Woman Legos would be awesome. That was my favorite show at one time. . . very long ago. There are many organizations not afraid of speaking their mind to Legos, and I agree. However, I think the issue comes down to parenting. What do we buy? What do we say about what we buy? And Lego Friends are definitely better than Bratz dolls.

  11. Cookie's Mom January 12, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Amazing that we keep coming back to this. The reality is that this sort of thing wouldn’t exist if consumers didn’t want it. What are we as parents doing – or perhaps more aptly, what is it that we are failing to do – that is perpetuating this cycle? Thought-provoking post, Deborah.

  12. Jamie January 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    Last line is the best line. You are RIGHT!

    My girls pick up trio-blocks put together by their brothers and make shooting sounds. My boys build ships in a pink house. It works.

  13. trc February 10, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    completely agree with you and your musings/thoughts.
    and yes, found you via feministfrequency/Anita’s excellent analysis.

    my question : who buys *this* lego-stuff ?
    because, e.g. i am and have been woman-cotting whatever gendered toy-crap out there.

    • Deborah Quinn February 10, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

      I also wonder who buys this stuff…I would never in a zillion years insult the intelligence of any girl I know by getting her this ridiculous nonsense.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  14. trc February 10, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

    dito Deborah
    and thank you. i will continue browsing your blog 🙂

    btw, a propos sales ./. buying did you e.g. see this :


  15. Azara January 11, 2013 at 11:38 pm #

    Ugh. I think the only gender-based toys my daughter has are the ones other people have bought her. I don’t even have an issue with many of them, but I find myself passing them by because, well, they suck. Like you said, just because it’s pink or purple and has hearts on it shouldn’t mean it’s less complex or interesting than the “blue” version. Sadly, that’s what I’ve found too.
    Azara recently posted..The cashier’s recurring nightmareMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn January 12, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      Exactly. If toys that are supposed to be “for girls” were interesting, challenging, complicated, then that would be fine. But they seem so clearly to suggest that girls play inside, want to be sitting down, like small pretty things that aren’t scary…these toys just reinforce all that we’ve spent decades trying to UNlearn and UNdo. Makes me crabby.

  16. Kristin @kdwald January 12, 2013 at 5:20 am #

    That ad is amazing. I remember it! My son got his first sets of legos for Christmas this year, and they are SO AGGRAVATING. He’s a pleaser, so he wants to make sure he does them correctly. I really, really hate that. No matter how much I tell him it’s okay to create something different and unusual, he wants to follow what the picture shows. Sigh.
    Kristin @kdwald recently posted..Morning Story – Fiction for The SpeakeasyMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn January 12, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      The legos that come as specific sets are aggravating that way b/c the kids want their creation to look JUST LIKE the box. But give your son a little time – the way it works in our house is that in those early lego years, the parents built and the kids “helped.” (And boy wasn’t THAT a shitload of fun). Then the boys started doing it themselves–the big huge zillion piece sets stay intact for a while…and then slowly, slowly, pieces get cannibalized for ideas out of their own minds…it’s as if they need to see how the pieces work & can be configured before they can cut loose… He’ll get there. There are also lego sites you can look at where kids (mostly boys, alas) display their creations…my boys often see that as inspiration. AND there is a big book called like the Lego Book of Ideas or something…have fun…

  17. Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms January 12, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    I can definitely weigh in here. My daughter, who is 12, loves Lego. She really is the only one of her friends (girls) that do, but her friends all love looking at and playing with her creations because they do cool things. These same girls are beyond playing with doll houses, by the way.

    She is offended by the girlie Lego and thinks they suck because they are boring. She is really indignant about it. And she has the Holy Grail of Lego – the Death Star – thanks to a benevolent childless uncle. If the Legos don’t “do” something she has no interest. And the “girlie” Legos have way less pieces than the “boy” sets for the same age range. It is offensive.

    I’m so glad you linked this piece. Ellen
    Sisterhood of the Sensible Moms recently posted..The Best of 2012 Link-Up Par-TayMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn January 12, 2013 at 10:31 am #

      Exactly. A toy should *do* something or, at very least, not preclude a child using the toy to do something with her imagination. So dolls that come with minimal apparatus are good that way, too, like a lego. It shouldn’t be the toy dictating to the child but the child to the toy, if you see what I mean. These girlie legos just reinforce the idea that girls aren’t good at building or engineering or anything “hard.” Phtooey.

  18. Larks January 12, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    First of all this a great post with some great, insightful comments and I really do appreciate that. I’d not seen the 1981 Lego ad before either which is a pity because it’s pretty much the best thing ever.

    On a broad level I object to the whole trend of making everything either pink or blue. I get that companies do it because it almost doubles the amount of stuff people feel they have to purchase (god forbid little Johnny inherits his sister’s pink car seat or precious Susie is forced to ride the bike her cousin didn’t want that has hot wheels on it even though it’s state of the art and has never been touched.) Being so blatantly milked irks me as a consumer so I shoot for gender neutral stuff whenever I can.

    That being said we have a whole lot of pink around here and that’s because, whether due to nature or nurture, my daughter prefers pink shit and there are only so many battles I’m willing to fight over color palettes. She got the pink Legos from both sets of grandparents for Christmas probably for this reason. Our personal experience with them so far has been fine. I mixed them in with the rest of the Legos and now all the cities and skyscrapers she builds have pink detailing and the main characters have Mia or Stephanie’s hair because she is hell bent on the good guys saving the city being girls. So I guess there’s a whole other gender discussion to be had over why girl Lego person = Lego person with big hair.

    At any rate my point is that I think there are multiple issues happening here. 1. The unnecessary pinking and bluing of toys solely to squeeze more money out of parents 2. The notion that girls will not want to build or create in a non-Kardashian-Esk style and 3. An odd inability on the part of companies looking to make a buck via gendering to decouple ideas 1 and 2. All are maddening to me as a parent and feminist but the 3rd is what kills me. a pink Death Star would be one thing but a pink beauty parlor smacks of disquietingly of Don Draper.
    Larks recently posted..Ten things to do before you have kids.My Profile

    • Deborah Quinn January 12, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      This lego thing strikes me as a version of what happens when you walk into kids’ clothing stores: there’s a brightly colored sparkly side and a drab navy blue & tan side. Guess who gets to shop where? But the real discomfort happens when I start to think about *why* companies do this sort of gender-splitting: because they make money. And that means that there are enough consumers who shop this way that we are, even against our own self-interest and better judgement, supporting precisely that which we abhor. I love that legos in your house are now all mixed together, just the way I loved it when my older son first discovered Star Wars & decided that actually Princess Leia was the Queen of all the Jedi, and basically the ruler of the entire universe. My feminist heart was thrilled.

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