12:00 pm EST, February 23, 2014

Pieces: What ‘The Lego Movie’ taught me about toys and equality

Funny and charming, The Lego Movie also illuminates a dark trend in the toy company’s designs on women – literally.

Lego is awesome, right? It’s a creative toy, with endless possibility. It’s challenging, but it’s also relaxing – one of the ultimate modern experiences of play. But you know how it feels when you step on a Lego brick, right? It hurts like hell.

That’s pretty much how I feel, after having seen The Lego Movie.

You see, I laughed at the jokes. I marveled at the effects, the creative use of the toys I grew up with. I wept with awe every time Morgan Freeman had a line. The dialogue was clever and the twist intrigued me. I left The Lego Movie feeling like I’d seen a positive children’s film with solid messages about creativity and individuality.

Sticking point

But something tickled at me every time I got a good look at Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks.) There was something unusual about her, a jarring element I couldn’t quite identify.

That is, until the lights went up. I took off my 3D glasses, drove home, and – still humming “Everything Is Awesome” – turned to Google for pictures of the tough Lego lady with the heart of gold.

The problem became immediately apparent.

Wyldstyle feminism

Allow me to focus your attention on Wyldestyle’s torso. Check out that curvy physique, right? No boxy, standard Lego core for this lady; our heroine has the breasts and hips to go with her sassy personality.

Now, I haven’t played with Lego figures in a very long time, and before I allowed my outrage to get the better with me. Maybe all of the rectangular figures from my childhood had been replaced by well-defined midriffs.

So I looked at the guys.

The-LEGO-Movie-Minifigures-Emmet-1
Emmet

The-LEGO-Movie-Minifigures-President-Business-2
President Business

The-LEGO-Movie-Minifigures-Scribble-Face-Bad-Cop-1

Bad Cop

Only Batman appeared with his characteristically exaggerated musculature; the rest of the male figures were painted right to the edge of their plastic torsos, with nary a rippling abdomen in sight.

The other female characters in The Lego Movie, however, were determinedly contoured into womanly shapes. Some, like Wonder Woman, and Marsha Mermaid were sharply outlined and prominently boob-ified…

Wonder Woman Marsha Mermaid

Others, like Gail the Construction Worker, Mrs. Scratchen-Post, and even the non-human Calamity Drone were nipped more subtly at the waist. Darker shadows were painted onto the rectangular torsos, assuring everyone might see that these plastic figures were appropriately feminine.

gmd Lego Movie

Aghast at this treatment, I investigated further. I had vague memories of playing with androgynous mini-figures as a child, male and female figures identified mostly by the length of their plastic hair. Was this campaign of figure-contoured females a new development in Lego’s designs?

Alas, it was not. Observe Black Widow and Catwoman, figures already several years old.

cwbw

The same fate plagued female minifigures from earlier sets at well. These nipped-and-tucked figures include – but are far from limited to – the Zookeper, Alien Villainess, Swimming Champion, Librarian, Viking Woman, Downhill Skier, Flamenco Dancer, Surgeon, Surfer Girl, Medusa, Tennis Player, and even the muggle-clothed version of Hermione Granger.

legogirls copy

Even the scientist released last year, to much approval, was given a pertly defined waist.

sci-minifig

Precious few female minifigures escaped this fate; among them, Bumblebee Girl, Kimono Girl and the Hogwarts version of Hermione. In contrast, the male and generic minifigures, while occasionally painted with defined muscles or rumpled clothing, were almost unanimously painted to the edges of their boxy torsos.

So why is this a problem?

I understand why some may not see this as a problem; they may view it as an artistic choice on Lego’s part, or a simple attempt to add realism to their figures.

But therein lies the rub. Lego’s minifigures are designed to be unrealistic. Their heads are tubular. Their torsos are trapezoids. Their legs and joints are patently incapable of complex movement, as The Lego Movie demonstrated with some humor. The simple design of minifigures are part of their function as caricatures, imaginative toys, and choking hazards for children under three. Minifigures embody the message of The Lego Movie – imagination, not realism or physical perfection, is what is key.

In fact, the beautifying of female minifigures, is a comparatively recent development in Lego history. Though the switch does not seem to have occurred all at once, figures from 1988, 1990, and even a “vintage” set from last year are free of this contoured influence.

Little girls are inundated with toys that tell them how they ought to look. Lego themselves participate in this nefarious trend with their uber-girly “Friends” sets, designed and marketed specifically at the female demographic. Is it too much to ask that at least these messages of slender success not come from the classically contour-free minifigures?

Sta-brick-stics

Unfortunately, Lego does not seem capable of preserving the un-sexified vision that was so much more common in years past. And even worse, the company seems uncomfortable asserting the role of women in their franchise – in spite of curvaceous designs. The Lego Movie, alas, is no exception.

Now I’m just going to throw some numbers at you.

35 voice actors made up the cast of The Lego Movie.
6 of those actors were women.
13 new play sets were inspired by the movie.
6 of those sets include Emmett.
3 of those sets include Wyldstyle.
23 other minifigures are included in the sets.
7 of those are female.

But most egregious of all: While the collectable minifigure set made up of characters from The Lego Movie has a better male-to-female ratio (six female figures out of sixteen) they do not sell Wyldstyle in her standard, practical, “I can kick anyone’s ass in this getup” outfit.

Nope. They offer only “Wild West Wyldstyle.” You know. In this costume.

Wild West Wyldstyle

End of the brick road

I’m not going to stand on a pulpit and cry for a boycott of The Lego Movie and all things squarish and brick-like. Go see the movie. It’s funny, and Morgan Freeman is great. And as I said above, Lego itself is fun! It’s educational, frustrating, and, innovative and enlightening.

Unfortunately, with their apparent intent to physically minimize female figures with busts and waists, and the sad lack of parity in their male-to-female ratios, the Lego corporation is anything but enlightening. And if Lego can’t recognize that girls and women are more than merely pieces in the stories of men, they might just as well be stuck in an ocean of Kragle.

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