Last weekend, we went to a big Lego event in Raleigh. We took Mae (2 years old) along with her aunt, uncle, and three cousins. The main reason we went is because my nephew (9 years old) looooooves Legos. But we thought we’d all enjoy it and were curious, so we signed up. I didn’t think Mae would be too into it. I was wrong, of course. Motherhood likes to prove you wrong all the time. Mae loved it. She went into the Duplo section and forgot I even existed. She enjoyed just watching others build.
And while I enjoyed myself and my family, I was a bit consumed by the separation of gender at this event and the lack of young girls. My nephew and niece participated in a little competition while there. They gave you something to build, for instance “a robot,” and you had five minutes to build one. I watched this competition for at least four rounds and didn’t see a single girl win. The odds weren’t in their favor as the boy numbers heavily outweighed the girls. My rough estimate would be 1 girl to every 6 boys.
Within this entire Lego World, there was one area designated as the “girl” area. This small area was all pink and purple with hair salons made of legos and pink airplanes from Legos’ Friends collection. Mae didn’t even stop when we passed by this area, and I noticed that this area was not only populated with girls. There were lots of boys playing with the “girly” toys and vice versa. Of course, if you were a girl and didn’t want to play with the “boy” toys, well you wouldn’t have had much to play with since every other area was geared toward the masculine, mainly war themed.
The very first exhibit when you walked into the convention center were different wars. There was an amazing Lego display of Vietnam with such detail, down to a monk on fire. Right beside this display, were portraits made of Legos. All of the battle scenes, all of the portraits, all of them were men. There was one mermaid in the water in a war scene, if that counts as a female presen
So what came first? Legos love of men or men’s love of Legos?
Turns out, Legos stayed pretty gender neutral until the 1970s, when they came out with the Homemaker series. Before this launch, Lego used boy and girls in their advertisements and didn’t use heavy gender coloring on products. In the Homemaker series, we see that girls are encouraged to build the kitchen, a living room, a baby’s room–the domestic arena. I also found in my research that many think Lego made “girl” toys less rigorous when it came to building. Toys marketed to girls were more style than substance. This is NOT okay.
However, even in the 1980s, when Lego became very popular, the mini figures stayed rather gender neutral. Though, I would argue they are more masculine than feminine.
The 1990s were when Lego really started to create different products for boys and girls. Female figurines were made with lipstick on and the girls were more likely to be relaxing (sunning or surfing) or doing a hobby or fun activity (horseback riding) compared to the men who held jobs (life guard or pilot).
It’s interesting to note that Lego began to separate boys and girls toys in the 1970s, after the Women’s Lib Movement. It’s like a backlash to what was actually happening in the world. Women were about to join the workforce in large numbers in the 1980s, yet Lego was launching the Homemaker series?
The Homemaker series and other attempts to market to girls didn’t really work. Up until the Friends series (the one I saw at the event) launched in 2012, 90% of Lego consumers were boys. However, Friends has worked to get girls interested in Legos. Lego says their research showed that girls like to finish building something and play with the inside of a structure while boys like the outside. Also, girls like more details in their structures. These changes seemed to work because sales to girls tripled the year Friends was launched. However, the Friends figurines are not capable of much movement as compared to the traditional, more masculine figurines, which says to me that girls don’t need to be as physical as boys. Girls, just look pretty.
Of course, I can’t answer what came first here and what is the true difference between boys and girls. Has Lego just tapped into the way in which society constructs gender for girls? Have they become a perfect part of the equation that reinforces girls should be inside the house?
I’ll just say this. The kids at that event didn’t seem to care what was meant for boys or girls. It was a free for all. There weren’t any parents between them and the Legos. Parents are the consumers really, right? We are the ones who make the purchase. So how much of the increase in sales is due to what little girls want or what mom and other members of her family think she will want?
I can’t figure this all out, and I don’t know the answers to these big questions, but it’s my job as a parent to think about them. I do know that I can’t stomach a dumbing down in terms of skill level for the girl Lego sets. That’s not acceptable. A woman can wear lipstick and be an engineer. These two things are not contradictions.
And I swear we had fun too. I was a friendly feminist.