Lego’s girl trouble

As soon as I saw Lego Belville – the ’90s range designed for girls – I knew I didn’t want it. This in retrospect was a bit of a problem for Lego, because not only was I a girl (and so bang in the target market), I was also very keen on Lego. I’d built towns, castles, pirate forts. God damn it, I loved those little bricks.

I wasn’t resisting out of tomboy pride, either. My play repertoire involved a large cast of My Little Ponies, all various shades of sparkly pastels with glossy synthetic manes to be tended. Pinkness and girliness were in no way repugnant to tiny me. But I could tell when someone was taking the piss, and Belville was quite obviously not proper Lego.

There was barely any building involved, the colours were all wrong, the characters looked nothing like normal Lego figures, and the packaging – ugh! The horrible swirly Belville logo jostling against the blocky, certain Lego branding. Belville wasn’t a place I wanted to play in, it was a gender gulag, a reminder that my favourite toys weren’t really meant for me.

Belville is just one of Lego’s failed efforts to reach girls, catalogued in an excellent Bloomberg article on the company’s latest launch for the XX constituency. If you’ve read Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions Of Gender, then you’ll recognise the psychology at work. Children, exquisitely sensitive to the social word, are quick to recognise that the world is coded by gender – and quick to fall into line. Boys build, and girls (consistently schooled to be more empathic and relationship-minded beings) role play. Lego is a building toy, so girls who formerly played cheerfully with Duplo blocks will gradually drift away.

As children learn their gender grammar, they often also receive the strong, implicit lesson that girls are less important than boys. Female characters, for example, are shockingly rare in kids’ cartoons, though hopefully less so now than when I was growing up. (When this imbalance came into conflict with my own sense of importance, I’d often try to resolve it by designating characters as female just because I thought they should be. For a very long time, I was pretty convinced that both Dick Dastardly and Dogtanian were girls. It felt better that way.)

Kids learn to apply this boy preference for themselves: even as a girl, it’s obvious that the girl version of a supposedly unisex toy is a bit crap, and boys would almost never want to break character by playing with a girl toy. The only interaction most of my male schoolmates had with My Little Pony was singing the song about how she was “skinny and bony”. I don’t remember any opposing verses about how Transformers were shit. We knew they were cool, they just weren’t meant for us.

I can’t say, though, that I’m disappointed by the Lego Friends range. Yes, it’s frustrating to find that the same old stereotypes remain resonant, but at least the development of the toys seems to have been driven by a genuine effort to understand how girls play – rather than a nebulous suspicion that girls are different in a pinkish way.

Anyway, by the time these products are relevant to children, they’ve already had a brief lifetime of coaching for the part of “boy” or “girl”. Coaching from parents and other carers, coaching from the media, coaching from every passer-by who says “ah, typical boy/girl” and chucks them under the chin. The world isn’t built from Lego blocks. We can’t just break it down and start again, change the blueprint and remake it better. Instead, we have to work with the prefabricated parts we have, however flawed and frustrating they are.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo by fallentomato, used under Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Lego’s girl trouble

  1. I’d forgotten all about Belville. You’re right it was quite awful. In many ways it was the start of a lot of new lego kits. Less stuff to build and more pre-formed shapes etc. Hoping to get all my old lego out for my little girl when she gets a bit older. (well partly for her anyway)

    Elblondino (Mike)

  2. Yes, agree. I have friends who want their girls to play with Lego – buying them the most gender neutral sets they could think of just didn’t get their four-year-olds past the barrier that “Lego is for boys”. At least these new “Lego for girls” sets look like they have some buildability and might act as a gateway to a big box of plain bricks. Here’s hoping.

  3. Maybe one problem is that our idea of “normal” often means “boy”. I was adamant that my daughter (5) would play with unisex Lego — it was my husband who pointed out (as Lego’s “anthro” work found) that she really didn’t like the minifigs. They all looked like boys to her, and were no use to her play. Often, she builds something and then puts Playmobil or Sylvanians into it, so I can see the Friends range being really appealing to her.

  4. I can see that. I only have boys but we’ve been buying the Doctor Who Character building sets. The differences are subtle enough between the male and female figs but there and it does make a difference.

  5. Lego had a range of models targeted at girls in the early 1970s. One of my earliest memories was sending off for some special Lego offer and being perplexed and disappointed when they sent me what was obviously a girl’s Lego set (think it might have been a “mother and baby” model, can’t recall exactly). What had happened is they’d seen my first name, “Anindya”, and assumed it was a girl’s name because it ended in A. So that was an early lesson in both gender conditioning and the “outsider” status of Asians in early 1970s Britain.

  6. I have to say I think you are way too harsh on Belville — it was around for a respectable number of years, in many variations — and it sells at a premium now on ebay (maybe less so now that they are introducing a new “girl” line).

    I have some of it, as an adult collector (and bought quite a bit of it for my little neices). The girls I have given Belville to have loved it! Not just the dolls, which were very well designed and charming (much more so IMHO than the new Friends collection) but the pets, furniture and other items.

    I think the idea was to integrate the Belville figures and unique pieces WITH traditional legos, as far I could tell, that’s how my nieces played with my nephews more traditional legos.

    As a feminist (old school), I have often felt both despair and aggravation at the idea that BOY toys are superior and GIRL toys are inferior, ergo girls should play only with boy-type toys and engage in boy-type activities, lest they be too girly (“inferior”). This is as bad as ANY stereotyping!

    There is nothing naturally inferior about the color pink, nor anything gender linked about it (except our cultural memes) — in other cultures and eras, pink was actually a masculine color.

    I remember playing with my (male) cousins lego sets back in the late 50s; I was about 4 and they were maybe 11 or so. I was fascinated with it! but I remember the frustration that you could build all these cool things, but no people to populate the little world you created. I guess that’s why I give legos as presents today, and why I LOVE the many new variations — they only add to the world of lego and don’t detract.

    I miss Belville though. I’d buy more of it used, but it’s gotten quite pricey.

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