My daughter turned four at the beginning of February. She’s interested in building things, pretend play, super heroes, and animals. Between those interests and the twin gift-giving holidays of her birthday and Christmas, my partner and I have had a lot of conversations about Legos in the last couple of months.
We try to be a household with a wide expression of the gender continuum. Although he works in an office and I stay home to be with our daughter and prepare our food, we pretty evenly divide everything else. He wears his hair long and I wear mine short. We both use the power tools, we both work on the cars, we both know how to sew and how to draw. We encourage our daughter to try everything, climb everything, say what she means, express her feelings and follow her interests into whatever subjects she’s curious about.
So even though our daughter’s favorite color is purple, buying the box of Legos that came in pink and purple still gave me pause. I dislike marketing that is aimed solely at girls (or women, for that matter). It feels limiting, distracting. “Here are the toys for you, little girl. Leave those other ones for the boys.” Even the hint of that message being aimed at my strong, smart and impressionable daughter makes my inner feminist mama bear come out snarling. The girl-targeted sets start to look like a soft and floral fantasy world where girls can play with cute little bunnies, in contrast to the more realistic world presented for the boys.
And yet… Many of the “regular” Lego lines also include weapons, or figures with unnecessarily scary faces. And I haven’t found many that include female figures. Or animals. The superhero sets are predominately male figures except for a couple of of bad-guy females (which admittedly is a larger issue with equal gender representation in the superhero world - this article delves further into that issue). The Lego Junior Fire Emergency set? All male figures. The Knight’s Castle? All male. Even when they could have easily put a princess in there, still all male.
But the sets that come in pink - The Pony Farm, The Beach Trip, The Princess Play Castle - those don’t have any male figures. There are no pink firehouses or police stations with female figures. In the pastel-heavy Friends line, there is a Vet Clinic, a Hair Salon, a Cat Walk (!!), a Juice Bar and a Farm. All of these have female figures, but not male. But they do have animals.
We weren’t the only ones talking about this issue this winter. I saw this cartoon in my Facebook feed at least 3 times in the month of December and it sparked debates in the comments each time. Back in 2013, a letter to Lego from a 7-year-old girl in the UK went viral. She had noticed the male/female figure issue and it bothered her.
I eventually realized that my real issue with Lego sets marketed separately for boys and girls was that it was doing a disservice not just to the girls, but to the boys, too.
Kids learn from what they see. When girls see male figures (but not female) in fire station sets and female figures (but not male) at the hair salon, they are given the message that fire stations are where men belong and the hair salon is where women belong.
And the boys are getting that message, too.
Our girls need to see women in a variety of professional (and strong fantasy character) roles. And so do our boys. It is still a fact of our culture that there are more men in positions of power - politics, management, the courtroom - than there are women. They are the ones making the rules. Things are changing toward more equality, and I’ve seen that shift in my lifetime. But we need our children - the girls, but especially the boys - to see more equality so they will create more equality. Women should keep fighting for those rights, but men also need to stand up for it for it to become a reality.
My ex was a foreman (“fore-PERSON” she would say) in a local sheet metal worker’s union. She installed gutters, flashing, metal siding and metal roofing materials. Most of her day was spent on a roof or a tall ladder. There were one or two other women in her local, but they worked in HVAC, not on the roof. None of them were in leadership positions. Almost every week she would come home with a new story about the subtle but pervasive gender bias she ran into in her job. Job sites with no women’s toilet. Forms where all the pronouns were “he/his.” Jokes about her period or her sexuality. Rumors that she’d lost out on good job calls because the superintendent didn’t think she was strong enough (she was).
Would those superintendents have had a different perspective if they’d played with Lego builder sets with female figures? I don’t know. I hope so. Would there be more female firefighters if kids got play with fire station sets that came with female figures, so little girls had the aspiration to get trained and little boys grew up to hire them, and maybe work for them? I hope so.
The bottom line is that Legos are good toys. They foster engineering skills, creative play, and imagination. They strengthen tiny finger muscles and increase eye-hand coordination. I think Lego is misguided in their current marketing, but I don’t want to boycott their toys entirely for those decisions.
So this is what we did for our daughter. We chose a couple of sets that appealed to our daughter’s general interests. We chose a Lego Junior Fire Emergency set, because she’s very interested in helping people and animals in need, and a Lego Friends Jungle Bridge Rescue set, because it has vehicle like her dad’s Jeep and a helicopter like the one he trained with recently for his search and rescue team. This also happens to be the only Friends set that includes a male figure and the box depicts Mia, the female figure, flying the helicopter. We also got a huge Lego Technic Remote-Controlled Wheel Loader to build over several months with her dad because construction sites fascinate her and because he’s an engineer and can teach her all about those motors.
And we bought some ponytail hair pieces to turn one of those firefighters into a girl.
What do you think of Lego's girl-targeted sets? Would you buy them for your girl?
Doña Bumgarner blogs about creative self care and mindful mothering at Nurtured Mama. She lives on the Central Coast of California with her partner, their 4-year-old and a collection of cats and chickens and gender-neutral building blocks.