Building Blocks: Are Legos A 'Boy Toy'?

Illustration for article titled Building Blocks: Are Legos A Boy Toy?

Interesting post on Feministe about the "gendering" of Legos. (Okay, that may not sound that interesting, but bear with me.) Apparently Lego's on the carpet for alleged gender stereotyping in its catalog... interesting, as legos have traditionally been gender-neutral toys. The writer of the piece, Holly, is a former Lego employee, so she has the inside scoop on the scandale:

The Swedish org "Trade Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising" (ERK) (because the actual Swedish words are presumably different), decries the Lego photo spreads thusly:


As the post recounts, the Danish company started out in the 70s as deliberately gender-neutral and high-mindedly concerned with cognitive development. When the stridently gender-specific toy market of the 80s came around, Lego started a girly pastel line called "Paradisa." In this regard, Feministe's Holly points out, they were right on trend with ideas about gender differences and similarities, which waxed and waned throughout the 80s and 90s.

One interesting thing I noticed during my tenure in the land of plastic bricks — when someone’s watching them, peers or adults, kids are much more likely to adhere to stereotypical divisions of play, and gravitate away from what’s clearly labeled as “for the other gender.” When we looked at statistics from the Lego website, however, where kids of a certain age range were often playing by themselves in front of a computer, we often found that the gender division of who was playing little online web games was much more gender-neutral. In other words, girls on the Lego website were playing the sports and (Lego-sanctioned, relatively non-violent) combat oriented games. This wasn’t a huge surprise, since the conventional wisdom was that of course there were some girls who liked “boy stuff,” and nobody bothered to market to them separately. More surprisingly, there were plenty of boys who also played the princess dress-up games. I always though that spoke volumes about the role of social observation in many kids’ adherence to gender rules.


What's funny about the whole controversy is that, were there ever a toy that seemed like it didn't require the bells and whistles of boy/girl marketing, it would be Lego. At the end of the day, after all, it's always blocks. Its limitless creative potential and essential plainness is probably what devotees love and what I, as a child, found unspeakably dull. The case raises several questions, none of them new: is this sort of "gendering" inherently offensive; is it based on anything but societal construct (as Holly seems to suggest; having been a wholly stereotypical small child myself, I will self-recuse); are the kids who find Lego intriguing already a subset; and, is this kind of marketing even effective? Lego's an interesting test case because the toy is itself so very neutral, in its appeal and presentation, that the sex-specific trappings are wholly superficial and, as such, make for an interesting control of sorts. (It's also why, ironically, it can be such a good medium for weirdness.) That "cognitive development" has become less a touchstone for marketers than its more commercial corollaries is probably a comment in itself — although more on the buying public than a company that, at the end of the day, has always just wanted to shill plastic blocks.

Gasp! Kids’ Toys Are… Gendered? [Feministe]
JC de Castelbajac's Lego Fashion Show [Shopping Blog]
Cultural Issues On Color & Sex [Colour Lovers]

[Image via JeongMee Yoon's Pink & Blue Project]

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Erin Gloria Ryan

Does anyone remember those building blocks that felt like the surfaces of hairbrushes with very dense, unmovably stiff plastic bristles? Or did I just hallucinate that those used to be my favorite and that occasionally when my mom wasn't looking I would use them to brush my hair?