Guest post: The toys that you build your own dreams with

Originally a comment by Ilyris on Just children.

30 years ago Lego had a space range. I always played with my brother’s Lego, and eventually my parents started buying me Lego too. One of the changes seems to be the faces. The Lego faces of my spacemen were very neutral, just 2 dots and a gently smiling mouth. I hear that they are getting angrier, and the characters are more geared toward conflict. I don’t understand why they can’t leave them neutral and if the child wants to play cops and robbers or whatever they can use their imagination. That seems to have really disappeared, the toys that you build your own dreams with.

From the article: “Research conducted for the company found that children, especially boys, enjoyed playing out conflicts between characters.”

So they’ve pushed their range toward boys deliberately, and then decided they need something fluffy to market to girls, both perpetuating gender stereotypes and also encouraging boys to engage in conflict.

And you know, apparently tricycles do need to be gendered. We went looking for one for a 2 year old a couple of weeks ago; the choices were pink and covered in princesses, or blue and covered in trucks and masculine wording. How about a plain green one?


  1. says

    Didn’t Lego originally have a “no weapons” policy? I believe that changed when they made their most popular item: the pirate ship. I was disappointed when they started making custom parts instead of just abstract blocks.

  2. says

    I hadn’t twigged about the faces being more aggressive. What has always bothered me about the shift in faces is that they had used to be neutral, and now they aren’t.

    Which meant that kids had to use their imaginations in a way that they don’t now. The minifigs have personalities ready-made in a factory in Billund. And they’re gendered, of course – but even if they weren’t, it’d still be a shame to have them ready-made in a factory in Billund.

    I don’t think you can even get the old-fashioned heads any more. I had a look last time I was in the Lego shop here in Manchester. Maybe they’d just sold out.

    It’s not much, in the grand scheme of things; but it’s a small dent in kids’ having to make a world for themselves.

  3. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    I have mixed feelings about the Lego Friends toys. I despise gender-targeted toys and the aspects of society that think it’s a good idea. Working in child care, I have often seen the confused, sad, withdrawn, look of a child who has been told they are playing with the “wrong” toy for their gender. And the infuriating “you don’t know what you’re talking about” look of the gender-policing children when they are corrected. At least in the child care environment we can make rules that being non-inclusive is as serious as physical attacks.

    But… thinking specifically of the animated companion show, Lego Friends (on Netflix in Canada, at least) actually does a pretty good job of empowering girls. In one scene, a boy is having difficulty with his remote-controlled airplane and one of the girls in the group knows how to fix it. When preparations for a big event in the town start to unravel, the mayor freaks out and one of the girls steps up and takes charge (it is a bit annoying that she was bluffing about her level of experience). They also do some science in another episode (granted, it’s to help dolphins).

  4. Richard Davies says

    I am of an age to remember space lego from that era. The one thing that stood out about was how much was left to the imagination. There was only the vaguest sense of goodies and baddies (I think some were dressed all in black) but beyond that it was up to the child to decide what to do. Good open ended sandbox stuff. I’m sad to hear about the more aggressive faces, I think some had them then, maybe if they were a bankrobber or other villainous type. The main sad thing is that they hae abandoned pen ended imagination for tie ins with franchises such as star wars, which constrains things a little more.

  5. Katydid says

    One of the many things I appreciated about my kids’ daycare center was that they had a variety of toys including a puppet theater with gender-neutral puppets and a “housekeeping” station with wooden sink, refrigerator, and table, plastic dishes and a solidly-made plastic vacuum cleaner that all the kids played with. Then again, that was 15 years ago an who knows what they have now.

  6. karmacat says

    I was helping my 7 year old with his legos. The people in his set are actually two-faced, one pleasant, the other angry. It’s stupid to put expressions on lego people. He would make them fight no matter the expression. I am sure other children would just pretend what they want to pretend.

  7. says

    I was disappointed when they started making custom parts instead of just abstract blocks.

    Lego has had specialty parts since way back, such as model-specific printing (like signs or airliner windows on standard bricks) and boat hulls. Over time they’ve added a lot of new stuff, but for the most part they’ve remained reasonably generic. There are a great many primary-purpose small items, such as tools, furniture etc, due to the introduction of minifigs. One could argue that minifigs take away from the purity of a brick-only system, but they change Lego from a toy you can for building things, to a toy for building worlds.

    There was a point, I’m guessing, in the early 90s where they went a bit nuts with specialist parts that weren’t really reusable, which was disappointing, but they were trying all sorts of stuff to keep the product line viable, and it was relatively short-lived. (Outside of the main product line, there are a few junior sets with large premolded units — car bodies etc — but these are sort of a gateway product; brick-compatible play sets rather than construction toys.) If you look closely at most of the major sets, even the licensed ones, many of the weird-looking specialty pieces can actually be found in multiple product lines, with different colour plastic and printing.

    The thing that amazes me about Lego, even including the weird parts, is the elegance of engineering and geometry involved. The ratios of dimensions across the entire system just astounds me. This page illustrates some of the magic.

    I am disappointed the minifig faces have lost their neutral smile, though. You can’t project emotions onto a character who is clearly already expressing their own. It also unnecessarily genders every minifig; before they added custom heads, each figure could be anybody. I understand why it happened, but it saddens me all the same.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    When the really specialised sets came out, it made some parents Police their kids play.
    “Don’t mix the Star Wars with the Pirates!!!”
    As if the kiddies cared.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *