Lego's beauty tips reinforce gender stereotypes

Lego Club magazine sparks controversy with "Emma's Beauty Tips!" column that suggests haircuts based on a girl's face shape.

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Lego Friends—a toy that many parents love to hate, or hate to love—had many parents in an uproar this week over the March/April issue of Lego Club magazine, which included a column titled “Emma’s Beauty Tips!” It seems that the normally karate-loving Emma has some haircut advice for her human fans. And though it appears the page has been removed from the online version of the magazine, with an approximate circulation of 3.2 million, the free print magazine is already in a lot of homes.

The controversial column is focused on “tips and tricks on how to get the best haircut for the shape of your face.” Now, you’d think Lego would be a fan of square heads, but no. The advice to little girls with square-shaped faces is to “soften the edges of your face” with short, curly bobs, though the column notes that long straight hair can also make “pretty square faces even prettier!” Girls with heart-shaped faces need side parts to accentuate their eyes, while those who have a long face might need curls and waves to “help your face appear shorter.” But girls with oval faces are in luck: they can wear any haircut.

This beauty column is, well, ugly. It sends a subtle but dangerous message that an oval face shape is ideal, while any other face shape needs to be fixed so that girls can be prettier. As if girls need another source of body image pressure.

Research has shown that half of girls ages six to eight are already thinking about their body shape and how they look. Toys are supposed to be empowering, not be part of the overwhelming critical narrative of female bodies. Can you imagine a similar article aimed at boys?

Lego’s apologies on Twitter come off feeling more than a little shallow:

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When Mashable asked Lego about the controversy, here’s what senior director of brand relations Michael McNally had to say:

“We appreciate the reader comments on the latest LEGO Club Magazine. Our Club team is always striving for new ways to engage with LEGO fans based on insights we gather from our Club audience. One particular thing that readers asked us to include was an ‘Advice Column.’ In the most recent magazine, we attempted to deliver against this request by elaborating on a current LEGO Friends story line. We sincerely regret any disappointment it may have caused. We value this feedback and have already shared with the LEGO Club team in order to positively impact future stories.”

Personally, I’d think an advice column in a Lego magazine should be more along the lines of “How do I turn my beauty salon kit into a superhero lair?” or “Can I mix the Friends line with my Minecraft set?” (Yes, you can.) These options would be far more preferable to beauty secrets from a toy that can’t even brush her own hair.

The Lego Club magazine debacle reveals an incredible amount of tone-deafness from a major company that regularly comes under fire for not fairly representing gender diversity. The female scientist minifig set sold out in days, and was only produced in the first place after vocal support from a large fanbase.

The Lego Friends line has been criticized for their curvy minifigures and stereotypical girly sets like beauty salons. Lego execs say their research shows that girls like to create storylines in their creative play and that Lego Friends is as challenging as their mainstream sets. I’ve never been a fan of the pinkified blocks (though I was warming up because my daughter loves it), but the line has been a hit for the company.

I don’t think the beauty column was an oversight or even a misfire—it suggests that Lego wants to appeal to the lowest denominator when it comes to how girls play. It’s easy to choose to create pet stores, beauty salons and catwalks. It’s a lot harder to be a leader and create toys that will appeal to girls without falling down the gender stereotype wormhole.

Maybe I’m being a little hard on Lego—we don’t bat an eyelash when Barbie Magazine offers up beauty tips. But parents expect more from Lego. We want the company to lead, to help shape the next generation of imagination builders, dreamers, architects, scientists and STEM advocates.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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