Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

No Laughing Matter: 10 Year Old Girl responds to LEGO’s gender stereotyping

lego building instructions from 1970's

Image by Joakim Lind via Flickr

I was showing my 10-year-old daughter the different LEGO lines on the LEGO’s website. We looked at the City line, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Kingdoms, Pharaoh Quest, and then the new Friends line.  We talked about the different things that were in each one and what you could do with them.

She got upset and almost teary when she was looking at the different lines. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of gendered toy marketing, but I actually hadn’t discussed the new Friends line with her. I wanted to have her see it with an open mind along with the other LEGO lines.  When I asked her what was upsetting her, she said, “Girl lives do not revolve around going to the salon and getting their nails done and looking at flowers and stuff! Why can’t girls have the action things too? This separate “girls” line makes girls appear stupid, like all they do is sit around. The boys get to be police officers and stuff and look smart.”

She said, “Look at Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Kennedy, they were amazing, and they weren’t boys! I think that LEGO should make a set about pilots and have Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham and other famous female pilots.”

I asked her what she would rather see, as a LEGO’s customer, and she thought it made more sense to expand the City Line and add the salon, café, and so forth to that line so that both boys and girls could add to their city as they saw fit. She really liked the tree house and the inventor’s workshop in the Friends line, but she noticed that there didn’t seem to be as many pieces in these sets as there were in the lines that we have (Harry Potter/City).  She also pointed out that she didn’t think all the girls should be wearing tank tops and short skirts (I should point out one girl was wearing pants) since that’s not the way real people dress. She suggested that LEGO add more female characters but make them a rock climber, doctor, police officer, athletes, and so forth.

As a psychologist, I always ask questions about why people feel the way they do. Why would this upset a girl her age? What was it she was feeling? I believe that she was experiencing a negative reaction to a perceived threat. And, there’s a name for it, it’s called Stereotype Threat. Stereotype Threat is a very real psychological response that demonstrates the ways that the stereotypes that we believe that others hold about us (due to our sex, race, appearance, or other factors) affect us in everything from our intellectual functioning to our stress reactions. I’m going to be following this post up with a more detailed one about the dark side of stereotypes, they are very real and they do impact our performance and our behavior. Unlike Matt Lauer and several of the “professional” guest panelists who discussed this on the Today Show, I do not think stereotypes are a laughing matter.

15 comments on “No Laughing Matter: 10 Year Old Girl responds to LEGO’s gender stereotyping

  1. jenniferscoullar
    January 5, 2012

    Great post and so true!

  2. Derek
    January 5, 2012

    The Friends sets have as many, if not more, pieces than a comparative size City set. The $70 doll house has over 700 pieces, while the $70 rocket pad from City has less than 500. Say whatever you wish about these sets, but stop with the ignorance of how many pieces they have and the lies that the set construction is “dumbed down” just so you can forward your socialist and freedom of expression destroying agenda. Go worry about real problems in this world. I feel Terri lenfor our daughter, who isn’t allowed to create an opinion of her own because she is mind warped by her mother.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 5, 2012

      Actually, Derek, I didn’t say anything before she looked at the sets, as I mentioned in the post. We looked at several different sets together without me commenting at all except to answer questions about lines that she doesn’t know as well. She commented on the sets that she was specifically looking at as not having as many pieces as the ones that we already own, as I also mentioned. I think the sets in the Friends line would be a great addition to the City line, but there’s no need for this separation by gender. Interestingly enough, the beginning work on stereotype threat, which I’ll be discussing in detail in my next post, comes from some work that started at the University of Chicago. All parents teach their children about the world, it’s called parenting.

    • saradraws
      January 6, 2012

      Sexism and sexual stereotyping is a real problem. Maybe not to you, But it’s very real, all over the world. And the number of pieces in a Lego set doesn’t mean it’s not a travesty of marketing.

    • KS
      January 17, 2012

      I’m not sure it really counts if the extra pieces in the “girls’” sets are things like flower petals that can only fit on stems. The “girls’” sets we’ve gotten have an awful lot of pieces that really can’t be used in any other way than the one clearly intended by the manufacturer. But then again, I don’t really like ANY of the LEGO “sets.” I am a fan of the basic blocks.

      • Jennifer Shewmaker
        January 17, 2012

        Agreed, KS, the basic blocks are great for stimulating imagination and creative play.

  3. MaryLynn P
    January 5, 2012

    My grandson loves the little people in his sets better than the sets as wholes. He changes the heads and hair and hats and makes women/girls out of many of the others…I don’t see that his sets are really that gender biased. Thanks for making me think about it…Interesting line of thought.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 5, 2012

      Yes, MaryLynn, that’s one cool thing about LEGOs is that kids can do so much with them. That’s why I say there doesn’t really need to be a separate “girl” set so much as marketing that helps girls see it as for them instead of just for boys. Since 2005 LEGO has marketed many of their lines directly to boys. Girls have gotten the message and many (though certainly not all) see LEGOs as only for boys. Thus the new line. I just think there are better, more inclusive ways to market this great product.

  4. MTFF
    January 5, 2012

    Wow, that Derek. It’s amazing how expressing an opinion about gender stereotyping which in this case affects girls can lead a grown man to make wild accusations about socialism (eh?) and the destruction of freedom of expression. Isn’t that what this post about? Freedom of expression? That girls AND boys are allowed full freedom of expression without being told what is ‘appropriate’ for their gender, and that bloggers/psychologists/human beings in general are allowed to speak up when they see something happening that does not sit well? Perhaps a dictionary is in order (in the angry mens’ aisle, perhaps)

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2012

      I agree, I find it interesting that someone would be so offended by a young girls response to a product that is targeted specifically to her. Why the anger? I also find the whole argument that freely expressing one’s own opinion about a particular product is somehow limiting someone else’s freedom silly. That’s not a logical argument. Gender stereotyping is a very real issue that causes significant changes in female performance and behavior. I’ll follow up on that soon when I talk about stereotype threat a bit more.

  5. naomi
    January 6, 2012

    She has a point and I agree stereotypes are no laughing matter. I think it is very interesting her perspective on the lego. I doubt all children see it that way. Good on her for having her own opinion and seeing that what they have produced is not quite right.

  6. Pingback: Lowest Common Denominator

  7. Tee
    January 10, 2012

    When my 5 year old son saw the Lego Friends set he said, “those aren’t real Legos. Those are Barbies”. Just sayin’…

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 10, 2012

      Interesting….

  8. Pingback: LEGO Friends: Feminist Frequency responds | Don't conform Transform

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