Anthropology: Cultural Impact of Gendered LEGO Set Themes

Introduction

LEGO Friendship Bus (41395) / Lego.com
LEGO Friendship Bus (41395) / Lego.com

LEGO Friends is not the first theme targeted towards girls, though it is arguably the first to have opened up wider discussions on gender and race representation. As early as 1955, LEGO has advertised its products to both boys and girls, though the boys are often featured as having more prominent building roles in otherwise gender-neutral products (Madrid 2015).

This continued into 1973 for LEGO and DUPLO, formerly known as pre-school LEGO (Madrid 2015). In fact, the first female minifigure, a nurse, was designed only two months after the first male minifigure was introduced in 1974 (Madrid 2015).

LEGO Scala, Belville, and Paradisa

LEGO Belville / eBay
LEGO Belville / eBay

The introduction of the Scala jewelry theme arguably began LEGO’s long-lasting, gender-specific marketing. However, this trend didn’t set in right away; a 1981 ad showcased Rachel Giordano as a young girl holding up a non-theme and gender specific LEGO creation (Madrid 2015).

Around the same time, Zack the LEGO Maniac gained popularity, and it is here that some see an increase in LEGO’s efforts towards gender-specific marketing, differentiating between “boys” and “girls” LEGO (Madrid 2015).

Credit: GirlTalkHQ
Credit: GirlTalkHQ

The later 90s LEGO Paradisa set began a related trend of “pinkification”, where accessory pieces in a set feature in rosy pink, purple and white colors (Madrid 2015). That said, Paradisa still featured LEGO men alongside LEGO women in tropical resort settings (Madrid 2015).

“Pinkification” of LEGO

LEGO Scala / Brickset
LEGO Scala / Brickset

Later on, two themes in particular, Belville (1994) and Scala (resurrected 1997) morph into indisputably girl-specific, pinkified dollhouse playsets, veering away from LEGO’s characteristic modular building, and becoming accessory-heavy with many pre-made parts (Madrid 2015). In between these two themes, the 1995 STEM-oriented Technic, model mechanics-themed set with cars and robots came out as a boys theme.

Ironies of LEGO’s marketing

"LEGO

The effects of girl-specific themes such as Friends on increasing female interest towards LEGO are varied and come under scrutiny from parents. However, using Michelle Zimabalist Rosaldo’s analytical framework regarding the detriments of apathy towards femininity, I will argue that if there has been a decrease in female interest towards LEGO, it was due to LEGO’s own route of gender-specific marketing.

The girls’ sets heavy in accessory parts could have rendered LEGO targeted towards girls redundant to dollhouses and other popular girls’ toys, which of course are deserving of discussion about themselves, thus causing girls to shy away from other, boyish LEGO brands which to this day remain emblematic of the true essence of LEGO in unlocking the creative potential of its consumers.

Increasing “Accessorization” of LEGO

LEGO accessories / eBay
LEGO accessories / eBay

Here, accessories are pieces specially molded and sold in particular sets. These can include objects such as animals and/or minifigure utensils. In addition, accessories can include pieces made to better reflect iconic people or things in franchise-themed sets. These include famous characters, such as Gollum, the hologram of Leia, and Smaug.

Before we dive into this, it is worth noting that LEGO in general is becoming heavy in accessories across many different themes, “boyish” and “girlish” alike. This will likely continue to be the case as LEGO continues to sustain and increase its market appeal based on the creation of themes associated with hit-movies. This practice necessitates the manufacturing of highly idiosyncratic accessory pieces, such as Harry Potter wands, Lord of the Rings Elven buildings, and Marvel weapons.

Politics and Culture in LEGO

Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo / Alchetron
Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo / Alchetron

In Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo advances the long-held claim that anthropology and ethnography has traditionally been apathetic towards women as the other, “second sex’, assuming them to be passive sexual objects: mothers, wives, listeners (Rosaldo 1974).

Rosaldo then presents many instances from societies all around the world to showcase the arbitrary and diverse nature of rigid, socially constructed and enforced gender norms; she specifically focuses on how women exert power in different ways among different societies (Rosaldo 1974).

What’s more is that avenues for female agency and presence are manifold; what we think of as behind-the-scenes, political intrigue is as significant to overall social order as it is criticized, and female domesticity, as well as female roles in general, are often the most important social support women encounter through participation in extended kin networks, if not also their greatest means for ascent to power (Rosaldo 1974).

LEGO Friends

Emma and Ethan (Friends) / Sie Telecom
Emma and Ethan (Friends) / Sie Telecom

All of this points to LEGO Friends for similar reasons that any other space is a topic of interest for gender studies: female agency and presence. LEGO Friends claims a benevolent purpose in boosting female interest towards a creative toy, all while some of its consumers accuse it of perpetuating naturally assumed sex-based gender behaviors and acitvities.

Here, we will examine the specific ways in which LEGO Friends affects in three main ways: in its aesthetics, its play features, and its character demographics.

Demographics of LEGO Heartlake City

Heartlake City, the fictitious metropolis of LEGO Friends / Pinterest
Heartlake City, the fictitious metropolis of LEGO Friends / Pinterest

LEGO Friends is a theme released in 2012 featuring leading female minifigure doll characters in a fictitious metropolis named Heartlake City. The minifigures in Friends are larger than standard LEGO minifigures, and are supposedly more body-realistic. Similar “minidolls” have been used in other, notably feminine themes, such as Elves. LEGO claimed to have released Friends, and other related themes, as a way to boost appeal to girls.

Back in January of 2012, there was a cast of 5 leading, racially diverse female characters who are best friends: Mia, Emma, Andrea, Stephanie, and Olivia. Since then, Emma and Olivia have in fact had their races changed: both were white, now Emma is Asian, and Olivia is the second black character in addition to Andrea.

From left to right: Andrea, Emma, Mia, Olivia, Stephanie. Emma and Olivia had their races and character traits changed over time. / The Rambling Brick
From left to right: Andrea, Emma, Mia, Olivia, Stephanie. Emma and Olivia had their races and character traits changed over time. / The Rambling Brick

Methods & Materials

LEGO Friends FB page
LEGO Friends FB page

In order to source opinions, I will primarily look at the LEGO Friends Facebook page. It features posts of newly released sets from the Friends theme and custom builds from fans of Friends. This page did not feature activity related to the Friends animated show, video games, or other merchandise.

We can see that an overwhelming majority of parents gift LEGO Friends to their daughters, whenever the gender of the child receiving the LEGO is mentioned (these comments were made under the page’s postings of newly released sets or popular builds):

FB Comments on LEGO Friends

LEGO Baby Elephant Rescue / Target
LEGO Baby Elephant Rescue / Target

John Khan “Oh wow. My little one wants this set really badly. Looks like so much fun. She loves this jungle series right now. LEGO Friends Baby Elephant Jungle Rescue (set #41421) – PART 3 of 3 https://youtu.be/Bq-k06Xa1TY (20w)”

Kerry-Ann Booles “Are there meant to instructions in it? My daughter hasn’t got any! Just worked out what today’s was by looking at the picture 😂 (19w)

Elisabetta Braconi “My daughter received Arendelle castle by Lego, it is absolutely fabulous🤩 (1y)

Bill Rabe “I need this I am a girl name aryanna on my papa’s phone (1y)

(I’ll give this one the benefit of the doubt and not suspect it’s a man posing as a girl.)

Milacha PF “Yo lo tengo … mi niña de 9 años lo armo en 6horas .. le encanto (16w)

Martin Spörri “My Daughters Set https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jelKPSgyGeM (4y)

Tina McClure “Awesome is all I can say. My daughter loves them and its something she shares with her daddy. (8y)

Ana Júlia “this would interested Ana Júlia for my daughter” (7y)

No Single Cause or Effect

Ghost Train / Amazon
Ghost Train / Amazon

Rosaldo’s comment about the flexibility of behavior with respect to biological sex comes to mind as we look through these comments (Rosaldo 1974). Why are Friends sets not being gifted to any (visible) sons? Does being sexually female dictate their suitability for LEGO Friends?

A father on the r/lego thread disagreed with this, based on his own personal experience with his daughter’s fondness for LEGOS that were not targeted specifically towards girls, who in fact preferred a diverse selection from both boyish and girlish themes:

Draeth Op · 6y “and then you have girls like mine who last time she had a pick she grabbed the Ghost Train and Spiderman and his car. This time Jungle Rescue from Friends. She loves pink just as much as any other girl but she couldn’t pass up those other sets. :)”

Different People, Different Tastes

LEGO Heartlake City Mall with families and friends / www.politecsaude.com.br
LEGO Heartlake City Mall with families and friends / www.politecsaude.com.br

This comment both addresses and bypasses Rosaldo’s endeavor for mutual gender appreciation. It addresses it in that it shows girls having interest in boyish arenas, while her father shows interest in her choices which are unconventional and of course, interesting to behold (Rosaldo 1974). However, it also bypasses Rosaldo’s efforts by showing a man who is able to appreciate a female outside (LEGO) domestic sphere (Rosaldo 1974).

We should revisit Rosaldo’s claim that true gender egalitarianism and equality between the sexes can only occur when men take interest in traditional feminine roles; in the western context this means that not only should women augment their publicity, but also that men should actively seek to indulge in domesticity (Rosaldo 15, 42). None of the comments collected for this paper reflect Rosaldo’s sentiment in the lay-feminist world than this one by Seelen Sturm, in response to a post on the page opening up conversation on whether Friends is sexist (Rosaldo 1974):

What Other People Find Lacking in LEGO

"Friends" Peter (apparently the only male for a time?) / LEGO Friends Wiki - Fandom
“Friends” Peter (apparently the only male for a time?) / LEGO Friends Wiki – Fandom

“But I actually wish more boys would live in Heartlake City (the fictitious, rosy metropolis setting of Friends)! Lego Friends suffers from the same flaw as Barbie: Men and boys are underrepresented. Peter is afaik the only male in the whole town.”          (8 years ago)

(In some of the sets and the animated show, each of the girls seem to have acquired a boyfriend. Some of their fathers are shown too.)

Despite all the adventurism and well-roundedness of recreational activities portrayed in Heartlake City, it is ultimately a feminine space. There are also concerns that are not specifically about the sexism in LEGO Friends, but instead seek to address the related, accessory-heavy dollhouse nature of the theme, and other girlish themes. This is exemplified on the Facebook page by Claudia Chen’s comment:

Other Problems.

Friends hot tub / Amazon
Friends hot tub / Amazon

Claudia Chen “Dude. To hell with creative freedom on these Lego Friends nonsense. What is creativity and imagination IF THE PIECES FIT TOGETHER TO MAKE HOT TUBS AND DREAM HOUSES? Doesn’t that completely defeat the point of Legos?” (7y)

Her comment addresses the limited nature of Friends as a creative toy, let alone a LEGO theme. In other words, Friends makes her lose interest in LEGO as “nonsense” with no room for creativity and imagination (Rosaldo 1974). In our attempt to fulfill Rosaldo’s request to take more interest in womens’ roles, perhaps we must also acknowledge the possibility that society has constructed roles which are boring, based on their assumed impressions of activities which surely must be different, in order to be suitable for girls.

Other Perspectives

LEGO City cops / LEGO.com
LEGO City cops / LEGO.com

There are a few commenters who have attempted to defend LEGO Friends against accusations of sexism, such as:

Stefan Rodbjerg Jacobsen Peeps “concened with this issue, should focus on getting brooms, pots and flowers into the ninjago and star wars sets!!! (9y)            and

Rory Mowle “Lego ‘Friends’ teaches about young friends getting together enjoying baking cakes and so forth, while Lego ‘City’ teaches about diversity and there being female bus drivers and policewomen.” (9y)

Stefan’s comment seems to do two things: advocate for greater “femininity” (through socially constructed female accessories: brooms, pots and flowers) into traditionally male LEGO spaces, such as Ninjago and Star Wars. His comment also seems to sidestep the issue of feminine appeal altogether, essentially asking why girls just don’t buy the popular boyish LEGO sets, which is bold on one level, but somewhat lazy on another.

Tokenism in LEGO?

It doesn’t address LEGO’s gender-specific marketing, its redundancy to dollhouses, and its politically correct ideas of tokenist female presence in an otherwise exclusively female space that is viewed as second-rate in its LEGO potential to boyish themed sets. Rory’s comments in particular attempt to delineate yet another level of space; both are fitting for female representation, but Friends is suitable for female sorority, City is appropriate for female action and publicity.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

We should revisit Rosaldo’s claim that true gender egalitarianism and equality between the sexes can only occur when men take interest in traditional feminine roles; in the western context this means that not only should women augment their publicity, but also that men should actively seek to indulge in domesticity (Rosaldo 15, 42). None of the comments collected for this paper reflect Rosaldo’s sentiment in the lay-feminist world than this one by Seelen Sturm, in response to a post on the page criticizing Friends as sexist:

“But I actually wish more boys would live in Heartlake City (the fictitious, rosy metropolis setting of Friends)! Lego Friends suffers from the same flaw as Barbie: Men and boys are underrepresented. Peter is afaik the only male in the whole town.”                              (8 years ago)

What Do You Want Everyone to Do?

LEGO in Target / All Things Target
LEGO in Target / All Things Target

There is a more literal way recognition of traditional femininity will continue to be less-than-optimal through lack of male appreciation, in Rosaldo’s view (Rosaldo 1974). This comment by Jennie Barclay states:

Jennie Barclay “In one Target I found it in an end cap of a random ‘boy aisle’. In another Target they had it on an end cap of the Lego aisle and they also had it in the girl aisle, next to the Polly Pocket – it was at the beginning of the aisle, so you could see it when walking past the aisle.” (9y)

Up to the Kids

Technic / LEGO.com
Technic / LEGO.com

In this much more physical aspect of marketing, boys will not enter, and may even avoid sections with girls’ toys. This gender-specific aisle stacking permeates LEGO, and vice versa. And yet this is but an effective symptom of gender-specific marketing, not the cause. Rosaldo’s utopian vision, while sensibly hopeful, unfortunately does not tackle the toy store with its rows of Barbies and LEGO Friends, vs. its rows of LEGO Technic and Marvel.

It is up to kids like the redditor “Draeth”’s daughter to cross-exchange tastes and preferences between genders. Or, to at least let us see that it may not matter in the end after all.

Works Cited

Facebook Friends Homepage

Madrid, Isis, “From Gender Neutral Beginnings to Pink Princess Themes and Today’s Female STEM Minifigs: LEGO’s Messy History of Marketing to Girls.” The World from PRX, www.pri.org/stories/2015-07-02/gender-neutral-beginnings-pink-princess-themes-and-to ays-female-stem-minifigs.

Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist. 1974. “Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview.” In Woman, Culture, and Society , edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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