LEGO started its journey 85 years ago as a small carpenter’s workshop in Denmark. Today, LEGO is a global household name, a mega-enterprise and the largest manufacturer of toys worldwide. Being adored globally by children and adults alike and proudly named “Toy of the Century” twice, it is no surprise that LEGO is the ultimate example to look at when exploring the evolution of toys – and gender neutral toys in particular.
The concept of LEGO has always been extremely powerful. It symbolises universal imagination, endless creation and hours and hours of fun. LEGO’s iconic concept of modular and interlocking bricks cross the barriers of culture, age, race, language and gender. LEGO is all about building, creating and is the ultimate activity for logic and creativity working in tandem. What could be better for young minds? Everyone loves LEGO and for good reason.
LEGO is the ultimate medium for the creational essence of young minds, and is educational in so many senses. If our values in society had the same intrinsic principles of the LEGO bricks themselves, with their universal and inclusive nature, things might have looked different in our world today. In their neat and interlocking harmony, they could certainly signify a brighter future we all wish for.
Through this classic toy, we can learn a lot about the evolution of toys. Let’s have a look at the timeline of LEGO through the lens of gender, to get an understanding of how things have been over the past century and till this very moment.
LEGO was established in 1932 in Denmark. Founded by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, this small carpenting company produced items such as ironing boards and wooden toys. In 1934 the name LEGO was coined, formed from the Danish words “LEg GOdt” which means “Play Well”. Later, it was discovered that this phrase means “I put together” in Latin. Looks like this was meant to be.
The 30s-70s – LEGO is Marketed as a Gender Neutral Toy. 100% Unisex.
For the first few decades, LEGO was marketed for boys and girls and mostly consisted of bricks only. Over the years, small additional pieces were slowly introduced such as letter bricks and the LEGO Wheel. There was no “double-marketing” strategy for girls and boys, and no divisive understanding of how the two genders play. On the contrary. The ten company characteristics defined by the company included its gender neutral stance black on white.
10 Principles as Outlined by LEGO in 1963
1. Unlimited play potential
2. For girls and for boys (right up there at number 2)
3. Fun for every age
4. Year-round play
5. Healthy, quiet play
6. Long hours of play
7. Development, imagination, creativity
8. The more LEGO, the greater the value
9. Extra sets available
10. Quality in every detail
The 70s-80s; The Start of Gender-Based Marketing from LEGO
In the 70s, the first gendered products were introduced, for example the “Homemaker line”. While this toy was targeted to girls, it didn’t differ much in its coloUr palette or its ability to interlock with the other types of LEGO. Also in the 70s, the first LEGO minifigures as we know them today were introduced. At first, these minifigures are blank, but very soon male figures are created (astronauts, crossing guards) and the first female one shortly after (a nurse). Naturally, these mini figures created a natural divide between boys and girls, sparking the profound change from gender neutral toys, to girls’ toys and boys’ toys. When presented with a minifigure, a child will relate that figure back to themselves. It wasn’t strictly about the bricks anymore, but about people, genders and roles. This could have been a golden opportunity to capture principles such as equality, parity and inclusiveness, but things took a very different turn and LEGO got the heat for it (read on).
The 90s; Fully Fledged Gender Divisive Marketing and Toys
In the 90s, there is a clear divide in marketing as “LEGO for Boys” and “LEGO for Girls”, clearly marked on the boxes and throughout the toyshop isles. LEGO was not a gender neutral toy anymore, and was not marketed as such. Lines such as Belville were introduced for girls, which were non-buildable; simply toy figurines, complete with a kitchen, baby and of course – a husband. This seems to be light years away from where LEGO started.
While girls were being marketed pink princesses, kitchens and babies, boys in the 90s were targeted by products which were STEM oriented. LEGO Technic is one example. Math, physics and spacial awareness are the original benefits of LEGO as an educational game, and sadly girls were distanced from this core essence in the 90s. This divide created a gender layout that was even more divisive than the 50s!
What about LEGO Today?
This little girl’s letter sums it up. In 2014, this went viral:
Dear Lego Company:
My name is Charlotte. I am 7 years old and I love legos but I don’t like that there are more lego boy people and barely any lego girls. Today I went to a store and saw legos in two sections the pink (girls) and the blue (boys). All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. I want you to make more lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!.
This little girl’s letter went viral and for good reason. There was absolutely no perceivable reason why girls should be denied the same substance, depth and sense of adventure that the boys were invited to have. Of course, this echoes a large issue of gender inequality we are currently facing as a society, and we wish to spare the next generation from the same pattern of illogical and detrimental division of men and women, boys and girls.
We aren’t anywhere close to how LEGO set out to be, and the company doesn’t resemble the gender neutral toy, and gender inclusive company it did up until the 80s. The only thing that is more important than the content of this letter, is the fact that it went viral. People shared; people thought it was important. This clearly shows that the collective feelings towards LEGO are taking a turn and demanding a more gender neutral approach. What reason on earth would there be for the girls to be just “sitting at home, going to the beach and shopping” while the boys “went on adventures, worked and saved people”. Something here isn’t right.
There has been some modest improvement in the past few years due to some heat that LEGO had been getting over this topic, such as the male to female minifig ratio gap closing a little (5:11), and introducing female minifigs that are astronauts, scientists, mechanics and more.
In 2012, there was a petition by Change.org which was signed by 47,000 against the new line of toys “Friends”, which was supposed to appeal to girls. The petition called for stopping to distinguish between girls and boys as there’s no reason to do so.
LEGO started out as a gender neutral toy, with principles of universal, equal and modular interlocking blocks. Gender was treated just like the iconic blocks themselves. Things took a turn for the worse in the 80s-90s, and we are still only recovering. LEGO of course isn’t the only toy which took this course, as this is a universal problem fuelled by retail considerations of profitability, and fanned by stubborn old prejudices about gender.
In 1975, only 2 percent of toys in the Sears catalog were targeted specifically to boys or girls, but today a majority of toys are marketed to a specific gender.
We think this phenomenon was best summed up in the Atlantic:
This “feedback loop” is one that we as parents should try to break. It won’t be our kids who seek to even out the crooked gender situation we have before us today, and it won’t be the toy manufacturers who go by demand only. So, let’s create demand and vote with our wallets. Toys which are steered specifically towards girls or boys, and limit their scope, play and their very own identity, should not be chosen. As busy parents, we survive on patterns. Some patterns are worth looking into and forcefully breaking for a better future for our kids. It’s a pity our parents couldn’t do so when we were kids in the 90s, as we are still feeling the effects today as adults.
We on the other hand, can make a change. It is very much in our hands.