Saturday, 6 September 2014

Is LEGO Improving When it Comes to Gender?

I have written before and commented on the lack of female representation in LEGO, and supported articles that call on the company to re-balance its products for both genders. But for all the faults that LEGO has, and of course there are faults, LEGO does not exist in a vacuum and has actually improved in terms of appealing to both genders. So this article will be approaching the issue in support of LEGO, pointing out where they have improved and why aspects of the attacks are unfair.

The quote that instigates this article is from the Guardian’s Womens editor, Jane Martinson:
“Lego went from multi-coloured toys for every child to one in which girls had the pink sets with flowers to play with. Then, last month, complaints led the company to introduce three female scientists; it's a start or rather a return to the 1970s.”
This quote didn’t frustrate me due to necessarily disagreeing with the point Martinson was making, but the way that mainstream commentators have jumped on the bandwagon of LEGO bashing. The main criticism levelled at the company is that it encourages gender segregation by making girls products pink, girly and based around leisure whilst boys products are action focussed, include few female characters and portray males as protectors. But this ignores the context that LEGO operate in. The toy industry as a whole segregates the market into boys toys and girls toys.  The main reason that LEGO has been singled out for criticism is because of its recent success – as it has pervaded mainstream culture, it has become representative of the toy industry.

The other reason that LEGO is taking such flak, which is the particularly ironic one, is that LEGO Friends was introduced. Friends was the catalyst for this argument, with commentators jumping up and down with frustration that these sets didn’t represent women in the same way that City sets represent men, that these sets are full of pink and pastel ‘girly’ colours. But this misses the point that before Friends LEGO hasn’t had a girls’ line available for years. LEGO were aware that they were missing out on a huge slice of the toy market, and developed a line for girls. So a segment of the market that was ignored is now being catered for, but rather than being seen as a step in the right direction this is seen as the wrong sort of product for girls. This is where Jane Martinson’s comment, “Lego went from multi-coloured toys for every child to one in which girls had the pink sets,” incorrect. It was multi-coloured toys predominantly targeted at, and bought for, boys. 

To go back a little further than LEGO Friends, LEGO introduced a pink brick building bucket as a lazy stop gap to get a product out for girls due to consumer demand. It was loved by the AFOL community thanks to the different colour selection included. It was also loved by gift buyers – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles – who wanted a basic bucket of bricks ‘for girls’. It was usually sat on the shelf right next to the traditional LEGO brick bucket of standard colours, yet families picked a pink bucket for the LEGO loving girls. So whilst LEGO may be responsible for releasing the product, there is a demand out there for it. If there wasn’t demand for it, the pink brick bucket would not have become a mainstay product, back year after year. 

The issue of girls choosing pink products and boys choosing blue products is not going to change because a benevolent toy company decides to package everything in a gender neutral colour and forget tried and tested marketing techniques. It will only change when society decides to stop putting stereotypes on certain job roles, food choices, household tasks, and passing these down to children. There are already plenty of families where children are playing with toys that were not marketed at them, however the fear seems to be that the marketing is reinforcing ideals that create an unequal society. But these ideals come through in all marketing, not just that from the toy industry, and children see plenty of female gender stereotypes in advertising that isn’t targeted at them.  

This isn’t to say however, that LEGO haven’t made other mistakes in terms of gender portrayal in the product. Back in 2005 when City was rebooted, when the company was fighting for survival, the decision was made to go back to basics. Construction toys as a category is predominantly sold to, and targeted at, boys. Every character in LEGO City that year was male (and occasionally one wasn’t even wearing a red peak cap). It wasn’t until 2009 that a female mini-figure turned up in a main line LEGO City set. It wasn’t feminists, media commentators or childhood experts who were complaining back then – it was the AFOL community. Many hours were spent at the build-a-mini-fig station in the LEGO Store making females to redress the balance in a table top town. Fans didn’t want to build towns full of just men. It’s weird! LEGO eventually got the message, and in current LEGO City sets there are women in the Police force, fighting fires and driving trucks. There are still more male characters than female, but this is a huge improvement and all along it has been fans of LEGO who have been banging the drum for change.

The AFOL factor is clear when the modular sets are taken into account – these are designed especially for the adult collector, and include a greater number of female compared to male mini-figures than regular sets do. This is where the other part of Jane Martinson’s statement, “complaints led the company to introduce three female scientists” falls short. It was the AFOL community championing a project on LEGO Ideas that brought the Research Institute about. And proud the community should be of pushing LEGO to change for the better.

There are many frustrations for fans of LEGO when it comes to gender balance. An ideal scenario for many would be for the main line to be a world where sets were compatible that could be enjoyed by boys or girls, where the pet salon could be in the same style as the police station – there would be no necessity to buy both, but they would both be available and interlinked. This isn’t to say that many don’t enjoy Friends and appreciate the mini-dolls, which could be turn out to be a tentative first step in that direction. Fans and collectors have for a long time been championing a more inclusive LEGO, with better female representation and more great sets like the Research Institute. It isn’t necessarily right that LEGO market ‘girly coloured’ products to girls in pink and purple boxes, however it is better than LEGO remaining solely a boys toy. LEGO fans are aware that one toy line won’t change society in the Western world, but we will do our bit by pushing our favourite toy manufacturer to do better. One mini-figure at a time. 

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