If Girls Like Legos, Who Are We to Call It Sexist?

The Lego Group is now the bestselling toy manufacturer in the world but continues to take heat for catering to female interests.
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The Lego Group is now the bestselling toy manufacturer in the world but continues to take heat for catering to female interests.

The holiday season is approaching, and already Lego is reporting that it may not be able to fill all of its orders in time. Spokesman for the Danish company, Roar Trangbaek, said this week that Lego will be able to fill existing orders but, due to the sheer volume, may not be able to keep up later in the year. Lego is now the world’s bestselling toy manufacturer, recently surpassing Mattel, which makes Barbie. “It is really extraordinary, and it has exceeded both our and our customers’ forecasts,” Trangbaek said.

Lego’s recent growth is due partly to The Lego Movie, which came out last year, but that’s not the whole story. The growth is also due to Lego’s recent efforts to broaden a historically male-dominated toy’s demographic to include girls. And although Lego’s recent marketing efforts have been wildly successful, not everyone is excited about what the company has done.

In 2014, Lego released an ad titled “Inspire Imagination and Keep Building.” The ad depicts a little girl playing with her various Lego creations: playing doctor over a Lego hospital stretcher, watching her pet hamster navigate a Lego maze, etc. While some praised the ad for encouraging young girls to think creatively, others feared that the ad, by “dismissing the gender clichés that often overwhelm the children’s toy market,” discouraged femininity.

To be honest, until I started reading about Lego’s recent marketing moves, I did not realize that the toys were considered a “quintessential boy’s toy.” I spent so much time playing with them as a child that I just assumed all little girls did. Apparently, although they were never marketed specifically to boys, and despite Lego’s best efforts over the past few decades, Legos have been historically unpopular with girls. Until now.

Lego’s efforts certainly merit discussion. Any time you try to popularize stereotypically male activities among women, you run the risk of effectively sending the message that traditional femininity is somehow “less than.” Or in this case, that being a “girlie girl” isn’t good enough. But I really don’t think Lego has made that mistake with this ad, particularly because the ad showcases pieces from its new Lego Friends line—which, complete with a pop star recording studio and tour bus, is very specifically marketed to girls.

And, of course, not everyone is happy about these “Legos for girls” either. Pointing to a Lego ad from 1981 that depicts a redheaded girl playing with regular Legos and the caption, “What it is is beautiful,” detractors say that the toys, which used to be universal, now impose gender stereotypes. Among naysayers is the original redheaded girl from the famous ad, Rachel Giordano, who claims:

“In 1981, Legos were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: The toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.”

In my opinion, that’s not entirely fair. The fact of the matter is, despite that 1981 ad, the universal Legos were failing to attract the female demographic. And despite popular opinion, Lego Friends is not merely a manifestation of the tired girlie-girl stereotype but the result of the company’s in-depth market research. According to Adweek, Lego research reveals that whereas “males tend to build things in a ‘linear’ fashion—rushing to replicate exactly what’s on the box—females prefer a more personal, less rigid approach. Girls create their own environments, develop personal stories around them, and even imagine themselves living inside the things they build.” Both genders enjoy the building aspect of the toys, but whereas boys tend to prefer a strong and predictable narrative, girls prefer the freedom to role-play. This kind of female creativity should not be squelched or ignored but encouraged.

This is why I’m a fan of Lego’s recent changes. The company is not simply trying to spin an already existing product in a way that girls find interesting (although there is nothing inherently wrong with that either), but it’s actually producing a Lego—though functionally the same as every other Lego set—that caters to them. To create a product that draws more girls to innovate and build, that caters to the kind of creating girls tend to like, that utilizes the unique feminine imagination, is a good thing.

I doubt anyone is saying that girls ought not to play with or prefer regular Legos. But the fact that not as many girls are into Legos as boys is not something we should be lamenting. Nor is the fact that the type of Legos girls enjoy is different from the type of Legos boys enjoy. The goal of gender equality is not to make girls and boys indistinguishable but to encourage everyone to develop their natural gifts and pursue their personal interests.

When it comes to breaking down gender barriers, the message is key. Are we telling girls to be more like boys? Or are we encouraging girls to be themselves? I think that what Lego has been doing for girls lately does the latter.

Photo Credit: The Lego Group