In January of this year, a proud dad shared a letter written by his 7-year-old daughter to the makers of LEGO toys. He sent the letter to the excellent Sociological Images blog, and its criticism of LEGO’s girl figures read, in part,
All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. I want you to make more LEGO girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun, ok?
The letter quickly went viral, as the kids say. LEGO responded to the uproar and agreed, saying they were already working on a new project to set this right. Said project turned out to be a female scientist set, proposed on LEGO’s community-vote supported site, formerly LEGO CUUSOO, recently rebranded to LEGO Ideas.
The minifigure set in question featured three female scientists -- a paleontologist, a chemist, and an astronomer -- working in a “Research Institute,” and the original design was proposed by geophysicist Ellen Kooijman. It received enormous support and sufficient votes to win production by LEGO, and the result was released on the LEGO website yesterday.
I know, you’re excited and you want to buy it, but sorry -- it’s already sold out. LEGO expects to have more later this month.
To clear up a bit of confusion on this point, 7-year-old Charlotte’s letter did not spur the creation of this set. The set was originally added to the LEGO Ideas site in April of 2012, and reached the necessary 10,000 votes in June 2013. The set was already slated for production at the time the letter was published in January of 2014. Still, Charlotte’s letter was a helpful reminder that girls are not being served by toy companies, LEGO only being one such offender.
The resulting toy is marvelous for lots of reasons, not least because it brings LEGO, once one of the better toys for avoiding gender stereotypes, back up to its formerly high standards of awesomeness. It’s also a small but potentially powerful step in helping young girls to find a place for themselves in STEM fields, an area where women are dramatically underrepresented.
It seems unthinkable that anyone shouldn’t be thrilled by this, right? Like what kind of weirdo would actually complain about a toy that specifically highlights women working in science?
Of course, the Internet has an answer. It genuinely didn’t occur to me that this could be controversial. This may be why I found myself idly reading some comments on one of the articles about this. And then, because I couldn't believe it wasn't a fluke, on a couple other articles as well. A few of those comments, as seen in the wild:
Um, maybe women don't like STEM as much as men.
IDK all those female Lego characters look very bossy to me…
Soooo lego toys will change girls' interest in science and computer stuff? what prevents them from reading science stuff now? i had many female science teachers.
yeah, LEGO is a TOY COMPANY
what a VICTORY for those poor ignored girls everywhere
how about you go out a make an actual difference
You are all too hypersensitive. The male/female roles with toys offend both ways. How do you think i feel when i take my young son to the toy store and his only options are guns, soldiers, tools or cars?
What's next, illegal immigrants play set.........fence not included, oh yea, never mind........
They need to have all the scientists be blacks and women, just like in real life.. Lego should reflect real life. All the computer geniuses should be black men and white women, just like in real life.
I’d like to say that these were glaring exceptions in comment threads that were overwhelmingly positive -- or at least neutral -- about these toys. But that’s not the case. They vastly outnumbered any other comments. And they weren’t happening on fringey websites, but mainstream news organizations. I consider myself pretty jaded on these matters yet even I was surprised. They’re toys. Toys that promote science as a potential future career choice for young girls. Who opposes that? Who argues that it’s a dumb idea?
I mean, I know the answer: People who don’t believe that pay inequality exists, that sexism and misogyny are feminist mythology, that more women don’t go into science and math simply because there is some aspect intrinsic to femaleness that means women “don’t like” these subjects. That we already live in a world where women are empowered to make fully independent choices unburdened by cultural expectations and it's just a huge coincidence that lots of them choose things that fall in line with established feminine gender socialization. And, even more bafflingly, that caring about gender is a zero-sum proposition in which promoting science professions to young girls means you cannot also simultaneously feel concern that toys for boys tend to adhere to stereotypes rooted in fighting and violence.
Girls and women are actually saying to the world, as 7-year-old Charlotte does in a literal sense in her letter, that they do not relate to the existing stereotypes, and it still doesn’t count, somehow -- one commenter even stated with unshakeable assurance that surely Charlotte’s mother was the one who wrote that adorable letter, I guess because a hypothetical adult woman who wants her daughter to know she can do anything the boys can do is a suspicious, untrustworthy vagina villain with an ax to grind.
I’m going to continue to feel happy about this freaking LEGO set, and I’m going to take the fact that interest in it is so high as a positive sign that people are interested in sharing these toys with their daughters (and sons). I am hoping it’s not simply the novelty of it that people are finding appealing, because let’s be honest: In an ideal scenario, a “female scientist” would be a redundant term. It’s a sad state of affairs when a small plastic figure in front of a small plastic dinosaur skeleton represents a huge leap forward, but I suppose we have to start somewhere.
And if these commenter reactions are anything to go by, we still have a long way to go.