Author’s Note: This piece was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Ramen, a handwritten paper zine published by students of Columbia College Chicago.
On my first day working at The LEGO Store, my manager said “we’re not all feminists around here, but it’s hard not to get annoyed when people ask for ‘girl LEGO.’ I just tell them that LEGO are gender-neutral.” This is both accurate and wildly off the mark.
LEGO are gender neutral because society generally accepts that girls play with LEGO. However, they’re also gender exclusive because, LEGO, as a corporation, seems to have decided that the proper way to appeal to girls is by releasing sets that are supposed to be “girl LEGO.”
There are several things that separate these sets–released under a line called Belleville–from the other Lego sets. The boxes are pink or purple. They consist of horse stables and pet shops. But the most frustrating thing about Belleville are the minifigures.
Even if you’ve never played with Legos, I’m sure you know what a minifigure is: those little people with blocky legs and “C”-shaped hands. The minifigure is as classic as a Lego brick… but not in Belville. Belville minifigures are the product of an unholy alliance between Mattel and Play Mobil. They look like weird, hard plastic Barbies.
This alienates girls who want to play with Legos. They may see their brothers or cousins playing with Legos, and this ignites a desire for sets of their own. Their parents walk into the store, tell a sales associate that their daughter likes horses, and get directed to Belville. Instead of getting a set compatible in size to their brothers’, these girls get a stable that is comically huge to accommodate what basically amounts to a Barbie doll.
To their credit, LEGO is trying to move past the foxhole that Belville dropped them into. Several popular lines include female minifigures–characters that are strong, tough women. The ninja line includes a female warrior named Nya, and Pharaoh’s Quest (Indiana Jones meets “The Mummy”) includes an intelligent treasure hunter named Helena.
The problem is that when it comes to Legos, there’s a disconnect between the girls deemed “girly” by society and the ones who prefer action/adventure. The “build-a-mini” bar, which allows customers to build their own minifigures, doesn’t include skirt bottoms. It’s a simple thing, often overlooked, but the impact is huge.
Little girls used to ask me about skirts because they want to make princesses. Instead of giving them that option, LEGO is telling them that female minifigures should be tough–like Nya or Helena–and “girly” minifigures should look like Barbie.
For a company built off colorful plastic bricks, LEGO seems to have a hard time seeing the grey area of gender politics.