Girl Legos

It seems that the old debate on the virtue of gendering toys has sprung up again. My facebook queue has been overrun with articles, podcasts, videos all decrying the girlie-girl culture we find ourselves a part of. This most recent debate seems to have been sparked by the outrage over a new kind of Legos designed and marketed specifically to girls–legos, not in traditional primary colors but in pastels and pink.

Protesters fought back with a picture from another Legos marketing campaign. This one has a cute redheaded girl holding a magnificent Legos creation with the tag line, “What it is is beautiful.” This picture made me catch my breath, it is so reminiscent of my own delightful copper-haired imp. I look at this picture and think yes, this is what I want for my daughter. 

But I think mine and so many of my feminist peers reaction to girlie-girl culture at least merits some self-analysis. I am certainly sympathetic to the outrage that I’ve seen expressed on this subject. As a parent, I work incredibly hard not to fall prey to the princess culture being marketed to me and my daughter and I feel angry that one paradigm of girlhood is being sold to her as the only way to be a girl. But I also wonder if the moral indignity that so many of us feel at the princess-ization of little girlhood fails to acknowledge fully the complexity of gender.

I believe the new “girl” Legos provide an excellent opportunity to do just this. Let me begin with a personal anecdote. I played with and enjoyed Legos as a little girl. I’m sure that at times I looked quite like the little girl in that picture. But I never felt any sense of ownership over my legos. In fact, if somebody would have asked me at eight, I probably would have said that Legos were a boy toy that girls could play with too. I never felt as if Legos were designed for me and the truth is, they probably weren’t.

So much of Western culture is based on the male experience; it has been up to women and girls to shoehorn ourselves into what society considers normative.  As an adult I can say of course primary colors and even Legos are gender-neutral. But are they really? As a little girl I understood that bold, saturated colors were masculine and this was well before girl culture was painted pink. I have to wonder that if our insistence that Legos remain as they always have actually perpetuates the male experience as normative and in so doing, subtly discourages girls from pursuing occupations like engineering.

Think of what it would mean if girls really felt like it was appropriate and desirable for them to play with toys like Legos. What would happen if young girls felt like Legos were designed for them just as much as they are for boys? If the color pink invites girls to play with Legos, to use their imagination, express their creativity and develop their spatial skills can it really be such a bad thing?

In no way am I saying that I approve of where the pendulum has swung. I emphatically do not. But expecting little girls to think that regular Legos were made for them when everything they are presented from the moment they are born says otherwise is asking a whole lot. It is up to us as adult women to get over the baggage that comes with pink and princesses and think critically about what toys and experiences will best shape our daughters into the assertive and empowered women we want them to be.

And if you visit our home you are welcome to play with our big bucket of mixed primary colors and pastel Legos.

 

Mraynes

Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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33 Responses

  1. Olive says:

    I am very excited about the new line of girl-themed legos. My 8yo daughter asked for legos for Christmas and then said “why does my brother always get legos, but I don’t?”. It was hard finding a suitable set that she would enjoy…we finally decided on Harry Potter. But the new girl legos? Already at the top of the list for her birthday next month. She was thrilled over them, and my 10 yo son was looking over our shoulders at them, too. He thought they were pretty cool also! The cafe/bakery is really cute, and I love the tree house and the grand piano.

    I agree that even if its saturated with pink and purple and cupcakes and flowers, at least it gives the girls something. Yes, the big bucket of random lego blocks are fun, but nowadays its all about the boxed sets, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them have been geared towards boys up until now.

    • mraynes says:

      You make an excellent point, Olive. At least when we’re referring to the themed box sets it isn’t as if Legos aren’t gendered, they have been marketed exclusively to boys. I’m glad that there’s an option now that you and you’re daughter are excited about. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Janell says:

    Back in the early 90s I received girly legos for Christmas one year. I had asked for legos, yet had apparently failed to specify that I wanted the pirate ship. Santa, being figuring I was being subjected to the latest commercials, brought the Lego doll house variety instead.

    There were two problems with the product. First, it felt like half the pieces were pre-formed walls rather than bricks. Second, the colors were ugly: mucky pink, gray-purple, and white. I think I would have been thrilled if they’d been predominately building blocks in bright pastels.

    Alas, Lego’s latest attempt at girly sets still seems to have improved the colors, yet still doesn’t appar to be a building and construction set in the same way as the “boy” Lego sets.

    • mraynes says:

      I have to admit my ignorance about Legos specifically. When I was little they didn’t have girl Legos or the themed sets and my kids are still little enough that we only have the Duplo blocks that are made for toddlers. You’re experience adds a lot to this conversation. I was working from the assumption that the girl and boy sets were equal in quality. I think it’s a big deal if the girl sets are a lower quality or don’t allow girls to build as much as the boy sets. That sends a message every bit as loud as the “boy colors” that girls aren’t capable of building and playing with Legos like boys are. I hope that these new sets have improved since you got a girl set in the 90’s.

      • Olive says:

        Well, if she had received the pirate ship, she would know that the entire hull of the ship is only two preformed pieces, too. Then there’s all the little pieces on top. So its not just the girl sets that have big pieces in them, however, I haven’t used or seen any of the new girl sets in person to know if they have preformed pieces, too.

        I agree though that they should be equal in difficulty and building skills, but from what I’ve seen, they probably aren’t, so its a good point. But if Lego realizes there is a market for girl legos, the sets will only get better and more detailed and varied. So I will putting my cash down to tell them we want MORE!

  3. LovelyLauren says:

    I played with legos very frequently growing up and even had “my own” set (which got quickly dumped in the box with all the others.) My problem with the girl lego sets isn’t that they’re in pastels and feature girls, it’s that they feature girls at a salon, in a boutique, at a cafe, etc. and that the lego minifigures are curvy and wearing mini-skirts. This causes problems with compatibility (because you can’t switch their bodies with the traditional lego minifigures) and oversexualizes the toy.

    I loved legos and never thought of them as a boy toy (especially because I adored Harry Potter). My problem wasn’t the color of setting, it’s that I wanted to be a girl and there are hardly any girl minifigures in the regular boxed sets. Even the Harry Potter set came with one Hermione and never included Ginny Weasely. One set included Professor McGonagall. When I first started playing, I would find a plain smiley-face lego head and put a hat on it and tell everyone it was a girl with short hair because there were no heads with female features.

    To me, the problem isn’t the girly lego sets, it’s that the regular sets don’t include girl characters and aren’t marketed to girls. I know plenty of girls who would love the Pirates of the Caribbean set or the “Knights” set, but neither are marketed to girls or include a significant amount of female minifigures. A pirate set could have mermaids, female pirates, etc. and the knights set could include princesses, queens, female knights, witches, etc.

    Even the “lego city” series, which is one of their longest running and most popular series of sets has mostly male minifigures, which is ridiculous because the sets includes places like “a pizza shop” and ” a police station.” I can understand why the Star Wars sets are mostly cast with males, but most cities I’ve been in are at least 50% women.

    • mraynes says:

      I just got back from a trip to Target where I took the opportunity to look at the Lego sets in question. I get what you’re saying about the clothing and the settings but to me, they don’t look any worse than Polly Pockets and are much less objectionable than Barbies and Bratz. Plus, legos offer the added benefit of children using their imaginations and spatial skills to build structures. So I think what I said in the post still holds true, if this toy is comparable to other toys being offered to girls and it has the added bonuses, is it really that bad? I acknowledge it isn’t ideal but what toy for girls is? Now in an ideal world, you’re right there should be more female characters in the Lego sets being marketed to boys. I think this is the issue to push harder with the Lego company rather than complaining about girl sets that are no worse than any other girl toy.

      • mraynes says:

        I was just thinking that if Lego could be persuaded to add more female characters to their “boy” themed sets, start marketing them to both sexes and keep their “girl” Legos that would be the best of both worlds. That would recognize the differences that naturally exist among girls. Some girls will not be interested in pirate ship Legos and will be drawn to the girl cafe legos instead and vice versa.

    • spunky says:

      I am 100% with you, LovelyLauren! I loved playing with legos and didn’t care at all about the limitations of primary colour-only blocks. I honestly didn’t like the kits, mostly because I enjoyed being creative with the Legos, and didn’t like the limitations of the helicopter-only kits. (I wanted to make a flying house– who needs a helicopter only kit? sheesh!) I always thought the lego people looked pretty androgenous, so wasn’t bothered too much with that imagination-wise. I suppose if you handed the 7 year old me a bakery lego kit that I would like it, but I would likely grab my brother’s legos to make it a boat-bakery or whatever was possible before he took back his legos to make his kit.

      I also played a lot with my brothers’ Linkin Logs (I think that is what they were called)– where you could make log cabins. It never occured to me that the wood pieces were masculine or feminine, though I suspect that at the time it was marketed as a masculine toy. Perhaps that is the issue with lego and otherwise– if it is marketed as a girl legos, then boys might not want to build the “girl” kits, and vice versa?

    • alex w. says:

      I feel the same way.

      My sister & I had one “girl” set of Legos growing up (I’m 22 and she’s 16) but mostly we had generic Legos and Indiana Jones Legos and probably some Harry Potter Legos. I liked the girly set well enough because I liked to build towns and the set included some much-needed flowers and a lot of lighter colored bricks to add some variety, but I think it’s safe to say my favorite was turning my Indiana Jones set into crazy vehicles to wreak havoc with. 🙂

      I would love, love, love if instead of making Legos for girls and Legos for boys (which is definitely where Legos has gotten itself), they’d incorporate more female minifigs and even more Lego flowers and pink bricks and whatnot into the general sets, and made the more specific sets more girl friendly without being pinkwashed.

      One of the problems I have with the new curvy minifigs is that you don’t have as much versatility with the bodies, and one of the great things about Legos is that the hairdos and heads and bodies and legs were interchangeable.

      Also, all this thinking about Legos is really making me wish I had the Lego Millennium Falcon.

  4. mraynes says:

    I just learned about a new film project called “Pink & Blue” that is relevant to this conversation. Here’s the description and URL:

    “‘Pink & Blue’ is a PSA-style short film project, using whimsy to promote gender equality at playtime. The universe of kids’ toys is the setting we chose to power a simple idea: It’s healthy for girls and boys to share EQUAL access to imagination during their developmental years – and beyond.”

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1031476088/pink-and-blue

  5. Janell says:

    Browsing through the Lego catalog, I thought their new pink brick box does deserve a shout-out. If they’re going to make girl-specific products, that’s closer to what I’d like to purchase rather than their “Friends” line. Now if they’d just make a bigger box…

    Likewise, “Friends” does deserve a nod of approval for including Oliva’s Invention Workshop. Likewise, the design studio, bakery, tree house, stage, and vet are all good ideas. It does show they were thinking of something more than splash pools, beauty shops, and convertibles.

    I still have the complaint that zooming in on the structures (e.g. Oliva’s House) that there are a disappointing number of pre-fab walls and limited build options.

    Still, between the diversity of the Friends sets and the Pink Box it does seem that Lego wasn’t being as careless and princess-culture as other blog sources are saying.

  6. Jessica says:

    I had the same feelings as the original post. But as a mother with 4 daughters (all daughters) ages 3-9. I am so excited because the Primary President last year told my 5y that Legos were boys toys. She still loves legos and told the PP that she likes to build x, y, z all the time. But at least they a toy that actually requires active play and imaginative play, and my husband and myself like to play too so that is a win. So more for all the silly people who think legos are for boys than for anything else, although that is another sad commentary, I say YES!.

  7. hplc says:

    The Lego website has a “pick a brick” shop where you can buy female minifigure heads and hair. Buy a few, and you can convert any all-male set into something more reasonable. We did this when our boys were starting out with Lego and our boys now include female minifigures into whatever they’ve got going on, miners, astronauts, jedis.

  8. Alisa says:

    It was in the Little House on the Prarie books where I learned that pink was associated with boys and blue for girls for a longer time than pink has been associated with girls. Pink (a light red) was considered bold and masculine and very appropriate for dressing little boys. This is hardly an academic source, but here’s an idea: “An American newspaper in 1914 advised mothers, “If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” [The
    Sunday Sentinal, March 29, 1914.]”
    http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=238733

    I know plenty of little boys who like pink. In solidarity of one nephew who loved pink and was teased for it, my husband requested a pink-frosted cherry cake for one of his birthdays. So who knows, there may be a little boy in my life or yours who loves the new Legos just as much as a little girl.

    • christine says:

      my 4 yr old is a pink loving boy, and my husband bought himself pink underwear to show his support. If I didn’t love him enough already, that sealed the deal.

  9. MissRissa says:

    I loved Legos as a kid but it is true all the ones we had (and we had a TON) where technically my brothers. I dont really have a problem with the colors of the new sets- I love pink and I have two little girls who do also. That’s not new, my brother got a pastel bucket of bricks for his birthday years ago (he didn’t care one bit that they were pink!).

    However, I do have a problem with the fact that Lego seems so be making a whole different product for girls and they don’t even seem like Legos any more. The girls look different than original Legos (the curves and the miniskirts make my eyes roll) and from what I can tell the sets lean towards the beautician, pop star, waitress sort of work fields (which are fine but are the epitomey of stereotypical “girl” work). (Don’t even get me started on the girl set whose whole theme is “the smart one”.) It’s like they are saying girls can’t play with Legos but here’s some fun, shiny ones that aren’t too complicated to distract you from the fact that we think that.

    I think Lego should add girl faces to their original sets. There are after all girl pirates, astronauts, construction workers, doctors, etc. I feel disappointed by Lego, they provided me hours of entertainment and imagination but now they seem to be selling out and trying to become more like the Barbie/Polly Pocket brands (which I hardly ever played with).

  10. Miri says:

    As a little girl I understood that bold, saturated colors were masculine and this was well before girl culture was painted pink.

    Pink has been considered a “girl” color since the 40s, so it’s not surprising that you would have grown up with that concept. But why does that mean we need pink Legos? Making things pink so that they can be “for” girls just tells girls that there needs to be a separate version of the world for them. It specifically continues the idea that boys are normative and girls are “other,” because you’re taking something that began one way and turning it pink so girls can use it too. If I remember correctly, Legos were only specifically marketed to boys in the last six or seven years. That’s a problem in itself, but the solution isn’t to make a new version just for girls. Of course, a parent can’t do anything about the way Legos are advertised… Which is why I hate television and won’t let my kids watch much of it. (Movies are my savior.)

    What LovelyLauren brought up is the real problem–it’s not just about the color, but about the “girly” sets being salons and boutiques. How does that steer girls toward engineering and architecture? Sure, ADD pink to the Lego sets, and add more girl figurines. But a new line exclusively for girls? Lame, lame, lame.

    • mraynes says:

      I think you’re misreading me, Miri. I never came down on a side of whether girl legos should be made, I was taking issue with the argument that legos were ungendered before they started making the girl sets, because they weren’t. I said in my post that in my own home I have mixed “boy” Legos and “girl” Legos so that my children have a multidimensional play experience. Are the girl sets ideal, no and hopefully there are lots of mothers out there who combine girl and boy sets so as not to pigeonhole their daughters. Which was the whole point of my post, we as adults need to take a step back and really examine whether the playthings of our children are fulfilling their needs. I don’t believe sets marketed towards boys meet the needs of my daughter or many other little girls so I go the extra mile to make sure those needs are met. But I can think of many worse things than Legos marketed for girls, foremost among them being the almost complete lack of female representation that currently exist and have existed for decades in the non-girl legos.

    • mraynes says:

      I think you bring up another interesting point in saying that girl themes of salon’s and boutiques won’t help girls become architechts and engineers and I would tend to agree with you. But at the same time neither has the “ungendered” or boy Lego sets. The rates of young women in engineering programs at universities is abysmal as are the rates of women in these male-dominated professions. So we’re in the middle of a huge socialization experiment right now and we shall see if the girlie-girl culture produces better results than the previous one where little girls were invisible.

    • Miri says:

      I think I did misread you, Mraynes, although now that I think I understand you better I’m still not sure I agree. Closer, though. 🙂

      If the color pink invites girls to play with Legos, to use their imagination, express their creativity and develop their spatial skills can it really be such a bad thing?

      Of course I could be wrong, but yes, I think it can. I think it’s wonderful to get girls to express their creativity–I just wonder what good things we can possibly accomplish by taking everything and painting it pink “so” girls can like it. I definitely see where you’re coming from, and I agree that it’s equally as damaging to have girls so under-represented in the regular sets. But I think about things like the study Peggy Orenstein mentions in Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and talks about on air in that podcast you linked), about how as soon as girls are reminded of being female, their performance goes drastically down. I suppose it’s possible that trying to use pink to associate their gender with typically male-dominated fields could help overcome that… But doesn’t it seem like it could just as easily perpetuate the problem instead? Particularly when the pink is also accompanied–as it is–by the sexism inherent in having their sets be salons and clothing design schools, having their figurines in miniskirts and tops with flowers and hearts on them, accompanied by purses, lipstick and barrettes? I think you’re right that we’ll have to see how the grand social experiment turns out, but I’m not especially hopeful that girlie-girl culture will any produce better results.

      P.S. I found myself watching old Lego commercials and some of them are really fun; thought you all might enjoy. There are more girls in the ads from the 50s and 60s than from the 80s and 90s, but the older ads themselves aren’t quite as… special. 🙂

      • mraynes says:

        I actually think we’re in agreement on the big stuff, Miri. Personally, I think the color thing is fairly insignificant. We live in a color-coded society and eventually we all grow up and learn to look at these things more critically. But I agree with you’re doubt that the girlie-girl culture will produce any better results, the research you cite is pretty hard to dispute. In the end I doubt we’ll start to see more women in male dominated fields until we have had a generation of kids who don’t view the world as boy vs. girl. When Legos makes a set that includes primary and pastel colors and equal numbers of boy and girl minifigs and it is no big deal to the kids playing with them, that’s when we’ll start to see progress.

  11. Jessawhy says:

    Great post, MRaynes!

    As a mother of boys, this is harder for me than I’d like to admit.
    I didn’t realize how gendered I raised my boys until my 9 year old got hot pink bands on his braces. I was a little taken back and wondered why the dentist didn’t encourage him to change them. Perhaps she’s more of a feminist than I am (Jaxon did think they were reddish-orange, actually).

    But as far as toys, we’ve been pretty open. Our 3 year old got a stroller one year. He also got a doll the same year. It’s nice that our boys like legos (this is new) but I would love to have them play with more girl figures, just to establish their existence!

  12. Caroline says:

    Mraynes, thanks so much for bringing this issue up.

    What bothers me m ore than legos getting pink-washed (I can see how doing so could invite some girls into this kind of constructive playing, as mraynes suggests) is the fact that most boys are trained to be turned off by such toys. I think there’s a good chance many girls will play with the primary color legos, but the boys with the pink? Not as likely. Seems unfair that society expects our girls to cross gender boundaries and play with male lego figures but there’s often little expectation that our boys will do the same.

    This is why, as I was training to be a high school English teacher, 90% of the books our department chose to read throughout the year were male authored and male dominated in terms of characters — the idea being that girls are used to dealing with male oriented stuff, but the boys would be disgusted by books that delved into worlds of females. Something seems very wrong with that.

    So I’m glad to hear you’re mixing your legos, mraynes, and encouraging all your kids to play with the male oriented and female oriented legos. I need to be better about doing the same.

  13. For me, it seems most of the characters are pretty gender neutral. Legos don’t have a lot of options in making things gender-specific in minifigs. For male, you have stubble or other facial hair. For female, you have lipstick, defined eyelashes, or hair (but no hat). If you want it to be -really- female, you add cleavage. Its when you get into the theme sets (star wars, harry potter, etc) that you get into male/female imbalance, and that because of the imbalance in the themes themselves.

    My main issue with the new “girl” sets is that they don’t really combine with the other, regular sets, unless all the girls get to date are midgets. Did they need the extra size just to the figures could be especially curvy? Suddenly you have an all-female world, where boys dare not intrude, which kind of increases the wall between the genders playing together.

    I look forward to when my toddlers are old enough to use my large box of legos; my daughter can then show her younger brothers how its done.

    • mraynes says:

      When I was a little girl my Legos set had one girl minifig and it was highly fought over between my sisters and me. I never believed for a second that the minifigs without masculine traits were androgynous, at least to me they were always men. Other girls, including some of the commenters on this post, felt differently but I’m sure that my experience is not unique.

      I totally get what you’re saying about how the girl sets cannot be interchanged with the others, thereby creating a male-free world. But I think you can make that very same argument about the boy sets. By basically ignoring the existence of female characters in the boy sets, Legos has created an all-male world where girls dare not intrude.
      I find it ironic that people are so up in arms about the exclusivity of the girl sets but barely acknowledge that the same problem exists on the other side. I think this, more than anything speaks to the larger problem in our society of the othering of the female and the normalization of all that is male.

  14. Annie B. says:

    It’s so awesome this was posted. We bought our niece and nephew legos for Christmas, as well as our daughter. And yesterday my husband remembered that he had a whole box of legos at his mom’s house, so we went and got it to add to the small stash at our house. I loved playing with legos as a kid. I thought of the colors as boy-ish, but that never stopped me from playing with them. I usually built houses and castles while my brothers built helicopters and jet fighter airplanes. When shopping for my niece and nephew this Christmas I ordered a regular building set for them to share, and then ordered a small themed set in the $10-$15 price range for each of them. The only girl sets I could find were the horse stable one, which seemed sub-par as far as construction features went and it cost as much as the regular building set I was getting for the both of them. There were snow villages, and beach villages that I would have loved to have as a girl, but all out of my price range. So i got my niece a Harry Potter set, and ordered a Hermoine minifig online to add to it, since the only female figure in that set was a villain. For my daughter we got the same regular building set, and ordered a female snowboarder minifigure. I was annoyed that there were no comparable quality specifically girl sets, but with a little planning I think I made it work. After reading this article it made me wonder about past sets and if they even had any girl figures back in the day, because I certainly never had any. Then going through my husband’s old legos I was happy to find a girl pirate that was part of his pirate set.

    • mraynes says:

      Good for you for taking the initiative to make sure the gifts you gave the children in you’re family were gender inclusive. The solution to the problems highlighted in this post and the comments lie in people like you making thoughtful choices in the toys they give their children. Thanks for letting us know how you did it!

  15. Christi says:

    I LOVE the girl lego’s. Don’t get me wrong, I hate shoving pink down little girls throats, and I HATE the princess mentality, but pink lego’s have been the only way I have been able to get my 8 year old step daughter to play with anything other than dolls and make-up and clothes. I have nothing against said dolls, make-up and clothes (well, maybe the make-up part), but I think being well rounded and not buying into the whole princess mentality will benefit her in the long run. Since she’s my step daughter my influence is somewhat limited, so I take my wins where I can get them.

    • mraynes says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Christi. And thank you for being thoughtful about what’s best for your step-daughter, I’m sure it makes a big difference!

  16. April says:

    I went shopping with a friend and her toddler daughter once and there was a bin full of toddler-sized baseball bats for sale. My friend, who is athletic, was thrilled when her daughter reached into the bin and claimed a pink and lavender floral print baseball bat. She bought it for her. I like that the bat gave a clear message, “Girls play baseball.” My husband came home one day with a pink and white soccer ball for our own daughter. I don’t remember ever seeing girl-themed sports equipment when I was a kid, so no wonder I got the impression that sports were for boys and grew up into the pathetically clumsy, unathletic person I am today. (Of course, lack of natural talent was a big factor, too.)

  17. Libby says:

    In regards to the original color pallet; I believe, had Lego included orange, green, purple and brown, the gap between it being considered a gender specific toy would be significantly smaller.

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