Image by Alatariel’s Atelier
A new LEGO play set is coming soon to a store near you. Called “Research Institute,” it features three minifigure scientists – a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist – in their respective labs, each of which is outfitted with all sorts of cool science lab accessories, including a LEGO dinosaur skeleton.
Oh yeah, one more thing: all three scientists are female.
The ubiquitous toy company made the announcement earlier this month.
Apparently, a Swedish geochemist named Ellen Kooijman came up with the design and pitched it to LEGO Ideas, a website where people submit and vote on such things; get 10,000 votes for your set and it moves into an official review phase where it gets considered for development.
Kooijman’s concept – originally titled ‘Female Minifigure Set (Research Institute)’ – beat out seven other projects and met LEGO’s criteria for stability, playability, safety, intellectual property and market fit.
Final design, pricing and availability of the renamed set are still being worked out but it’s expected to hit shelves this August, at which time I plan to buy the shit out of it. (LEGO DINOSAUR SKELETON, PEOPLE.)
It’s been a while since I’ve played with LEGO but, like many other people, I have fond memories of it.
In particular, I remember my dad and I spending a ridiculous amount of time creating a stop-motion short film of a LEGO house building itself up, brick by brick, from the square, nubby green ground as if by magic. Good stuff.
I don’t think I ever had a special LEGO set. I did have a few minifigures, however. Those delightfully boxy LEGO people with the little wrench-like hands and the interchangeable haircuts that popped on and off (that feature being the best part of playing with them, obviously).
It seems LEGO has come a long way since the rectangle bricks of my childhood.
Today, all sorts of special sets exist, each one catering to a different interest – from military combat to Harry Potter to, now, paleontology, astronomy and chemistry.
What makes this latest release noteworthy is that, unlike the vast majority of existing LEGO sets, this one features female characters exclusively*.
This is a rarity – the world of children’s toys mirrors the real world, which means female characters, if included at all in ostensibly ‘gender-inclusive’ sets, are almost always relegated to token status (Smurfette being the quintessential example of this phenomenon).
In child’s play, as in pop culture, as in life in general in a patriarchy, male is default human and female is special exception.
For this reason, I am especially delighted about the decision by LEGO to change the name of its new set.
We all know that toy sports figure sets featuring all-male characters aren’t called ‘Male sport star sets.’ Similarly, there’s no need to use a gender qualifier here – these aren’t ‘lady scientists’ – they’re scientists.
Equally noteworthy, I think, is the fact LEGO is bringing an exclusively female scientist set to market without making a big deal out of it.
Oh sure, media coverage of the company’s decision, this blog post included, has focused entirely on the gender angle – whether the spin was positive, negative or somewhat confused (as demonstrated by one local story which called the set “a celebration of women in science” before noting: “This isn’t just women going shopping or wearing the latest fashions.” UM OK THEN.)
However, there was no gender talk at all in LEGO’s official announcement, which instead chose to gush over how the winning design “is an inspiring set that offers a lot for kids as well as adults.”
Nor, as far as I can tell, will this collection be marketed exclusively to girls – another refreshing (and rare) move – albeit a move that no doubt comes as a direct response to some rather unfortunate recent history concerning LEGO and female-coded toys.
Remember when I mentioned market fit? Remember when I mentioned that female characters, if included at all in ostensibly ‘gender-inclusive’ toy sets, are almost always relegated to token status?
Well, there’s a whole other market within the toy world (and, for that matter, within the pop culture realm and within life in general in a patriarchy): the girl market.
In this market, there’s not even a pretense of gender inclusivity — mainly because it’s socially acceptable for girls to play with ‘boy’ toys but completely unacceptable for boys to play with ‘girl’ toys. GEE DO YOU THINK THE FACT THAT OUR CULTURE HATES WOMEN AND THEREFORE DEVALUES ANYTHING ASSOCIATED WITH BEING FEMALE HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THIS?
In this market, the product being sold to girls is girly stuff – girly stuff being obnoxiously pink, sparkly stuff that usually concerns household tasks and/or shopping and/or physical appearances and/or heteronormative relationships.
You know, girl stuff.
In this market, it’s all-female characters, all the time, with male characters, if they appear at all, being the ones relegated to token status (Barbie’s Ken being the quintessential example of this phenomenon).
LEGO is no stranger to this market.
In January 2012, it attempted to court girls with the release of a new line called LEGO Friends. Though commercially successful, the set drew immediate criticism for several reasons, one being that the classic minifigures were redesigned to be taller and slimmer and far more doll-like (WHAT A SURPRISE). Dressed in short skirts, it was as if LEGO and Barbie and Bratz had a baby.
Five babies, to be exact. As the always awesome Anita Sarkeesian noted in this ah-maz-ing two-part video series on LEGO and gender (seriously, watch it, it’s so good), Friends concerned five BFFs living in Heartlake City, “a pastel-coloured, gender-segregated, stereotypically female suburban paradise.”
The line dripped with retrograde gender stereotypes as much as it dripped with pink and purple; the five friends got to go to the bakery and make milkshakes, get their hair done at a salon and pet horses.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with play that encourages traditionally female-coded activities. Milkshakes are delicious. I like a nice haircut as much as the next person. Horses are cool.
But exclusively targeting girls with a design so off-brand that it can’t easily be integrated with existing sets? That I do have a problem with because it others its consumer in the same way that it others the toys it’s selling that consumer.
Male as default human. Female as special exception. As if men and women exist in parallel universes, with no room for anything in between.
The goal shouldn’t be LEGO sets featuring female characters doing stereotypical female things marketed to girls and LEGO sets featuring male characters doing stereotypical male things marketed to boys.
The goal should be LEGO featuring characters doing things, marketed to children. Because children are humans and humans are a diverse bunch with diverse, overlapping interests.
Riley gets it:
“Some girls like superheroes, some girls like princesses! Some boys like superheroes, some boys like princesses! So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-coloured stuff?”
Decades ago, the folks over at LEGO used to get it. It’s encouraging to see them getting back on track.
*Because the final design has not yet been released, a possibility exists that the ‘Research Institute’ minifigures set will not feature female characters exclusively when it comes out.
I really hope the powers that be at LEGO stay true to the intent behind this set’s creation and resist the urge to add a dude, but I would not be surprised if they don’t, because I am cynical that way.