Two and a half years ago, the LEGO Corporation made a move that set into motion a chain of events that has led, circuitously but unambiguously, to the following exciting announcement, released yesterday via YouTube: In late summer or early fall of 2014, the company will release to the public an official set of female scientist minifigures – a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. Watch the announcement at the video below:
If the news sounds humdrum, believe me when I say it is not! In fact, one wonders what discussions must have sounded like behind closed doors in Billund, Denmark between the 2012 release of the immediately controversial LEGO Friends line, the ensuing decision to release the first female lab scientist minifigure last September, and now this most recent development: an extremely rare all-female set made with regular LEGO minifigures, depicting scientists doing what scientists do (hopefully without too much pink).
When Friends went public on January 1, 2012, the company line seemed to be: We’ve done our research and product testing, thank you, so leave us be because we know what we’re doing. Of course, to the extent that Friends has been a financial success, they had a point. But they clearly hadn’t counted on many thousands of people taking to blogs and social media to present their concern that LEGO’s marketing of a new stereotype-laden girls’ line would do little to change the fact that the bulk of their products severely underrepresent females in sets depicting cerebral careers like those in the STEM fields, fantastical adventures and everyday life. For a company that outwardly promotes inclusivity and equality, it sure felt like it was going out of its way to do the exact opposite with its products, both within the Friends line and elsewhere.
In the months and years since then, legions of LEGO fans have spoken out, and it is clear that our messages have been heard. I’m proud to have made early calls suggesting LEGO-sanctioned females in STEM like those in my minifigure set of real-life scientists. I loved watching Anita Sarkeesian grill LEGO in her two-part video series on the company’s history of gender-based marketing. I and others compiled minifigure gender data and circulated colorful infographics. Two years ago, Dutch geochemist Alatariel Elensar (a.k.a. Ellen Kooijman) challenged LEGO to produce a set of 13 empowering female minifigures via the CUUSOO fan-based design incubator site. If a design on this site gets enough upvotes from the community, LEGO will consider it for a limited edition set for public release. Meanwhile, rumors began to fly that a female scientist might appear in a future Collectible Minifigures set.
“Numerous sources suggest you will be releasing a scientist in Series 11 (gender as yet unspecified),” I wrote in an open letter to the company around this time last year. “For the love of the FSM, please do the right thing.”
They did, and on September 1, 2013, the company released the first-ever female lab scientist, a clear nod to calls for more female minifigures in regular LEGO offerings outside of the Friends world.
The pressure didn’t stop there. In February, a 7-year-old wrote an adorable message noting LEGO’s gender issues and asking the company to “make more lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!” After this year’s popular The LEGO Movie drew criticism for including a very small minority of female characters, the director acknowledged the issue and seemed committed to addressing it in the sequel. And just recently, a clever elementary school photo project took LEGO to task for moving away from their earlier gender-neutral sets and suggested the company create more minifigures that better represent the true diversity of gender and culture.
Topping everything off, we now find that Elensar’s female scientist minifigure set will actually get made, after it received a flood of support from around the Internet. I’ll be honest here: I had been skeptical that the set would be chosen for production. So the fact that LEGO is giving boys and girls alike a positive new image of what women can do and be in the STEM fields—and beyond—speaks wonders to the company’s willingness to consider that they might have missed something critical in all of that pre-Friends product testing.
I’ve written before that media and toy companies have an enormous power to shape what children are socialized to accept as “normal,” especially when it comes to gender roles. And to be sure, LEGO still has a way to go: It’s a reality that their sets almost always contain more males than females, and they could definitely use more minifigs of color! But in taking this important step, I’m confident that everyone’s favorite brick company is beginning to address these issues head on. I can’t wait to see what the final scientist minifigure set will look like – and to buy one for every kid I know!