Spotlight TEDx Talk: Hey LEGO®, give every figurine two genders

(Photo: Mikey Mack/TEDxAuckland)

Scientist and LEGO® enthusiast Siouxsie Wiles at TEDxAuckland (Photo: Mikey Mack/TEDxAuckland)

When scientist Siouxsie Wiles had a daughter — Eve — she was reintroduced to the world of children’s toys. In particular, LEGO®. Wiles noticed that these colorful sets of bricks and figurines had changed a lot since her own childhood and — ever the scientist — wanted to know more.

She noticed, she says in a talk at TEDxAuckland, that LEGO® Minifigures (Minifigs), the little yellow people that populate the LEGO® universe had become a lot more gendered than Minifigures of yore. What had once been a nondescript yellow smiling head was now a yellow smiling head with a beard or one with eyelashes and lipstick, with typically gendered features.

The Minifigure family has grown in spades since its first member in 1978, she says, sharing records of Minifigure faces added over the years:

Siouxsie Wiles's graph of LEGO® minfig growth since from its introduction to 2000 (Graph: Siouxsie Wiles)

Siouxsie Wiles’s graph of LEGO® minfig growth since from its introduction to 2000 (Graph: Siouxsie Wiles)

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Siouxsie Wiles’s graph of LEGO® minfig growth through the 2000s (Graph: Siouxsie Wiles)

Unfortunately, this explosive growth of Minifigure toys has not been gender balanced, Wiles says. The number of female Minifigures is dwarfed by that of male, leaving less options for Minifigure fans who want to engage with female characters. “About 20% [of Minifigures in the 2015 LEGO® catalog are female] … about one in five.”

Siouxsie Wiles's graph of female LEGO® minfig characters available the in 2015 catalog (Graph: Siouxsie Wiles)

Siouxsie Wiles’s graph of types of female LEGO® minfig characters available the in 2015 catalog (Graph: Siouxsie Wiles)

To combat this imbalance, LEGO® released an ultra-feminine line of LEGO® toys, LEGO® Friends, separate from the normal LEGO® universe. This is not the answer, Wiles says. Rather, it reinforces gender stereotypes, she says, or the idea that boys must like one thing, while girls must like another, and rarely the two shall meet.

Instead, Wiles has an idea to make the main LEGO® world more equal. Hack a feature LEGO® already has — Minifigure heads with two faces. This was launched in 2001 to celebrate the release of a Harry Potter movie, creating a Minifigure that you could switch from evil Lord Voldermort to bumbling Professor Quirrell with just a flip of the head. Since that figure was released, a wealth of two-faced Minifigures have been created, says Wiles, mostly centered on allowing players to switch their Minifigures facial expressions — from happy to sad, surprised to angry, etc.

Wiles has a suggestion. Release every Minifigure with two faces: one feminine, one masculine.

To learn more, watch her whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker is a scientist who uses the tenets of scientific discovery and research to look into the problem of gender imbalance in children’s toys and search for potential solutions. She is passionate about her subject, deeply acquainted with its ins-and-outs and makes a case for productive change within the industry. While this talk is just a start in tackling gender in toys and does not get into unpacking the pitfalls of the idea of a “gender binary,” it is a thought-provoking introduction into further studies into the subject and a unique way to use an existing feature of an item as a potential solution for something else.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting my talk. I made a mistake (I’m putting down to nerves…): Lego introduced the 2 headed Voldemort/Quirrell minifigure in 2001 not 2011. Can you correct this in your piece?

    Thanks!

  2. James

    LEGO Friends wasn’t made to counter anything, it was made to sell girly type sets to girls who wanted girly type sets (girls who don’t can still buy the space shuttle sets etc) Friends is its own separate thing with the exact opposite problem, not enough male figures.

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