One big difference between the Lego blocks that I grew up playing with and the Lego toys the company sells today: My Lego bricks never yelled anything at anyone, much less catcalled women on the street.
Josh Stearns, the public media campaign director for the Free Press, found a set of stickers featuring Lego construction workers. The stickers depict Lego construction workers doing Lego construction worker stuff, including operating heavy equipment, using a jackhammer, and street-harassing women. Among other innocuous sticker phrases like "I dig dirt" and "I love the smell of concrete in the morning" is one sticker of a Lego guy in shades yelling, "Hey babe!" The catch-phrase is certainly sexist, but something about the sunglasses renders the familiar sexless yellow Lego figurine into a threatening creeper.
Stearns smartly points to the Hollaback website, which notes that “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences" constitutes the most prevalent form of sexual violence for U.S. women and men alike. Non-contact unwanted sexual experience is also the least fun building toy ever. What could Lego be thinking?
Ms. Magazine helpfully illustrates that sexism is hardly isolated to the boy side of the Lego aisle. Lego figures meant for girls now have slimmer waists and actual busts. The strict, bold, primary palette of the Lego bricks I remember from childhood has been replaced by the pinks and blushes that characterize the girl aisle of the toy store. The boy aisle doesn't fare much better: While I like the sound of a Tower of Orthanc set as much as the next guy, in fact, I came to Lego as a kid not for the Marvel or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tie-ins, but for the unlimited possibility that a bucket of bricks represented. Even outside the commercial sets, the situation is dire: Lego City is filled with Lego men; Lego Friends is the province of Lego girls. There is a specific category on Lego's website for "Girls"—a lavender ghetto—whereas "Boys" must be the default. What's so shameful about Lego's regression into gendered domains of boydom and girldom is that its classic building blocks represented a progressive alternative for so many for so long.
The company's saving grace may be its Mindstorms EV3 line, a do-it-yourself kit of programmable robot building blocks and the subject of a feature in Smithsonian's May issue. As Franz Lidz explains, Mindstorms is a "jumble of parts," nearly 600 pieces in total, that allows users to assemble, program, and control robots. In the U.S., Lego robotics drive the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) competitions founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. "The younger contestants are about half female," Lidz explains. "In the [more advanced] Robotics Competition, girls are few and far between."
The article describes the Lego toys we were always promised: gender-free, kit-of-parts blocks blocks, albeit ones that can be manipulated with an app. Read the story of an all-girl team of coders and makers that fell just short of advancing to the FIRST Robotics Competition championship in St. Louis and it's easy to see how Mindstorms could serve as a gateway to LilyPad Arduino or the Society of Women Engineers or NASA—or other fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
How cool are the Fe Maidens? (Get it?) Lego should embrace the approach to toys that encourages girls to participate and succeed in fields where they aren't, instead of the approach that sets such a low bar for expectations for boys.
UPDATE: Stearns gets a response from Lego. "To communicate the LEGO experience to children we typically use humor and we are sorry that you were unhappy with the way a minifigure was portrayed here," it reads in part. The sticker line has been discontinued.