Post by Rohmteen Mokhtari, Former HRC Coordinator, Family Project
“I’m a fifth grade girl at Shorewood Hills Elementary. I’m not going to lie… I think Lego is pretty cool, but seriously?”
This is the opening line of a letter to LEGO. The letter is one of many from students at Shorewood Hills Elementary School in Madison, WI who are troubled by what they found during a class project on marketing and stereotypes.
Now it appears LEGO may be ready to acknowledge the problem.
It all started when the Madison Metropolitan School District turned to the HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program and Gender Spectrum to help its schools become more gender-inclusive and address bias and bullying. In the three years since, educators and administrators at six pilot schools have received intensive training, support and lesson plans.
One of those schools is Shorewood Hills, where 4th and 5th graders picked LEGO for their project on gender stereotypes in advertising to children.
After compiling extensive data from over 600 LEGO sets, students found that most Lego sets were marketed almost exclusively to boys and included very few female mini-figures. And, as one student wrote, “if there is a lego girl, she is either covered in make up or a Damsel in Distress”.
Among the exceptions were the “Friends” and “Princess” sets which were almost exclusively marketed to girls, included few male mini-figures and lots of gender stereotypes.
As one 4th grader put it, “Lego Friends has tooooo much pink and purple”.
They were also troubled by the lack of cultural diversity, finding that in a sample of 407 human mini-figures only 27 represented non-European cultures.
Having done the research, the students at Shorewood Hills were ready to take action.
Inspired by Lego’s famous 1981 “What it is is beautiful” ad, they decided to create their own versions of the ads to remind LEGO that “diversity is perfect” and all children can play with LEGOs.
But the students didn’t stop there. They also came up with suggestions for more inclusive LEGO sets and even tracked down the girl featured in the 1981 ad.
Then they decided to share their findings and concerns with LEGO CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp through letters and artwork:
Michele Hatchell, an art and social studies teacher at Shorewood Hills, worked with students on the project and collected the student’s research, letters, artwork and photos to create www.WhatItIsIsBeautiful.com.
“This project is lovely because it gives the kids a voice as they talk about this and communicate via art, writing and research.” Hatchell said. “They have learned so much and will learn by being teachers, too, as people look at the site.”
Last week, it became clear that the students’ efforts, along with those of many others raising concerns about stereotypes in Lego sets, are not going unnoticed.
Last Wednesday, Lego announced a new set that included female scientists.
The next day, students at Shorewood Hills received a letter from LEGO.
“It’s true we currently have more male than female mini-figures in our assortment” a representative from LEGO wrote. “We completely agree that we need to be careful about the roles our female figures play - we need to make sure they’re part of the action and have exciting adventures, and aren’t just waiting to be rescued.”
Welcoming Schools and Gender Sprectrum recently recognized Shorewood Hills’s outstanding work with a Leadership Award. Their efforts remind us that when students are allowed to think critically and express themselves without fear of stereotypes, what results is beautiful.
And if we adults listen, there’s a lot we can learn.
Read LEGO’s full letter below and find tools to avoid gender stereotyping from Welcoming Schools!
Dear Michele and the children at Shorewood Hills Elementary School,
It’s amazing to see the outcome of all the time and effort you put into your analysis of gender and culture in LEGO® sets. I enjoyed reading the letters you posted on your website. We know we’re lucky to have so many loyal LEGO fans around the world and we’re always pleased to get feedback.
When we develop a new LEGO set, we use customer feedback like yours – and most importantly, we ask children for opinions on every little detail. You’re the best play experts in the world and the toughest judges of what’s fun and what isn’t.
It’s true we currently have more male than female minifigures in our assortment. We completely agree that we need to be careful about the roles our female figures play - we need to make sure they’re part of the action and have exciting adventures, and aren’t just waiting to be rescued.
You say we should make female minifigures and sets for girls that look more like our other play themes. You’re right: we don’t expect all girls to love the LEGO Friends sets. We know that each child is unique. That’s why we offer more than 450 different toys in various themes so everyone can choose what matches their building skills and links into their passions and interests.
Our designers spend all day dreaming up new sets and ideas, and new roles continue to appear and old roles evolve for both male and female characters. Lots of strong women and girls live in LEGO City. They work as businesswomen, police officers and fire fighters. And THE LEGO MOVIE™ features Wyldstyle as a main character. She’s an awesome, inspiring character who’s also one of the best builders around!
We originally chose yellow for the color of minifigures so they wouldn’t represent a specific ethnicity in sets when there were no characters represented. In this way, LEGO figures would be acceptable all over the world and fans could assign their own individual roles. However, in some products where we want figures to be as authentic as possible, such as movie characters, and others we plan in the future, some minifigures won’t be yellow to stay true to their characterization.
We put a lot of effort into creating a variety of new and exciting characters for the Minifigures Collectibles line: so far we’ve had a female surgeon, a zoologist, athletes, extreme sports characters, rock stars, and a scientist – just to share a few examples. They cover a lot of everyday professions, but we’ve also developed heroic characters like a female Viking, Amazon warrior, space explorer… as well as fantasy and mythical female characters such as Medusa, mermaids, fairies, robots, aliens and super cute characters dressed up as bumble bees, or in national costumes depicting the countries they’re from.
Here at the LEGO Group we’re also having many conversations about the topics you raised, so your comments will be shared with our Marketing and Development teams. After all, we want to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow: that means both boys and girls, everywhere in the world!