The Evolution of Lego

Image description: Lego sets including the flower bouquet, Easter-themed bunnies, a cat, orchid, bonsai tree, and The Starry Night are lined up on a shelf.

Image credit: Amber Phung

Like many other kids in our generation, my childhood was saturated with Legos. As a kid, I would spend hours on the playroom floor building intricate buildings with my siblings – complete with authentic Lego sets and random additions from old sets. In front of an elaborate bank building that Lego engineers and designers had spent months on would be a meticulously outfitted male minifigure with a cowboy hat, fairy wings, and a sword. All those hours assembling silly minifigures and asymmetric buildings with Legos cultivated the creativity and curiosity that drives my learning experiences today. 

Yet behind all the common happy childhood memories and creative construction that Lego has come to represent over the years, there exists an intriguing representation of the shifting of cultural paradigms. While the Legos of the late 20th and early 21st century emphasized stereotypical gender norms and a noticeably capitalistic perspective, it has evolved in recent years to encapsulate the inclusivity of the world we now live in.

It all began in 2012 when Lego received torrents of criticism for its promotion of gender-divisive content with the creation of the Lego Friends series. This series centered around best friends Andrea, Mia, Emma, Olivia, and Stephanie who lived in the fictional suburb of Heartlake City. The girls were only portrayed doing leisurely activities traditionally used to disparage women – for instance, visiting the hair salon, shopping at the mall, baking, or being in the kitchen.

To make matters worse, the sets were sold in packaging that leaned into gender conventions, adorned with bright pink or purple boxes, curly font, and an excess of hearts and other “feminine” symbols. Friends was also the first Lego line to introduce mini-doll figures that were the same size as typical minifigures. This new design was specifically constructed to appeal to young girls because of the widely-held sexist stereotypes surrounding dolls. 

The Friends Lego set releases were accompanied with the launch of the “Lego Friends” television series on YouTube. The coupling of these two mediums quickly bolstered the Friends to become one of the Lego Group’s best selling themes for nearly 10 years in 130 countries. The popularity of Friends and its one-dimensional portrayal of girls fueled controversy for an extended period of time. Fairplay, a nonprofit organization committed to dismantling overly commercialized child-targeted content and education, nominated Lego Friends for the “Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children” (TOADY) Award in 2012. They even went as far as to describe it as “so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush.” 

Not only did Lego once openly popularize gender biases to impressionable youths, but their exclusive movie collaborations illustrated their primary capitalistic motivations for their builds. Growing up, I remember going to the Lego store at the Glendale Galleria to only see either sets of Friends or Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel, or other movie franchises. These exclusively franchise-based partnerships demonstrated a solely capitalistic mindset from the Lego company, as their past products’ intersection with different fanbases would earn them higher amounts of money and require less effort in designing novel sets.

However, in recent years, the Lego group has realigned their ideals to support gender inclusivity and even inklings of anti-capitalism. In 2018, the Friends series underwent a number of positive changes to include diversity and depth. The girls that the series was based around were originally all marketed as white with Eurocentric features like blond hair and blue eyes. But, after receiving feedback from the children who consumed their content, Lego altered the appearances of three of the five of the Friends to represent people of color. Albeit long overdue, this receptiveness to consumer opinions – specifically the impressionable children whose perspectives were being shaped by Lego – indicated a conscious, progressive effort toward better representation.

In addition to superficial physical changes, Friends has recently made strides to encourage push feminist mindsets, racial representation, and diversity in career paths for girls. In 2020, Lego Friends partnered with National Geographic and released construction sets that centered around animal protection. And recently on May 1, 2022, the Lego Friends partnered with NASA to design and launch a handful of construction sets focused on the Space Academy. By motivating children to “develop creative solutions for real life environmental challenges” and explore a multitude of interests, Friends moved beyond its sexist past and began promoting a more ungendered worldview.

Along with advocating for increased inclusivity, the Lego company has recently shifted away from appealing solely to franchised content. Instead of only producing movie and brand collaboration sets that reinforce exclusive partnerships and appeal to select groups, Lego has recently been designing more aesthetic sets that audiences of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy building. Although these efforts may not be entirely anti-capitalist, non-franchised sets allude to Lego’s commitment to, and original purpose of, innovation and originality, which should still be commended in a time in which most modern media is swallowed up by franchises. The Lego Botanical Collection encapsulates this new approach to creative construction, as the series encourages builders of all types to “create, decorate, and celebrate.” The Architecture, Creator Expert, and Ideas Collections further exemplify this move toward aesthetics and invention: one can build a Lego Statue of Liberty, a Lego Porsche, a fully functional Lego typewriter, and a Lego version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. With this wide variety of options, anyone interested in Legos can easily find something they are passionate about building. I myself own a handful of the new Lego sets, like the orchid, flower bouquet, bonsai tree, and smaller animal-themed Creator Expert ones. Being able to build things that I’m actually fascinated with and can decorate my room with has been a giant change from the types of Lego sets I grew up with. 

Last but not least, my favorite part of Lego’s evolution was the release of “The Lego Movie”  in 2014. Grossing $469 million worldwide, the movie was seen and loved by people everywhere, including me: I still know every word to the song “Everything is Awesome.” So when I recently rewatched it for the fifth time during spring break, I realized something very humorous but also surprising about the beloved “Lego Movie” – it promotes anti-capitalism. And after doing some research, I found out that I found that I wasn’t the only one who noticed this

Shortly after its release in 2014, Fox News made a dramatic uproar about how “The Lego Movie” was brainwashing the youth of America with its anti-business messages. And for once in the history of Fox News, they were somewhat right.

American essayist and far-leftist political commentator Emmett Rensin investigated Fox News’ claim in his article “‘The Lego Movie’ Isn’t Just Anti-Capitalist. It’s Anti-Fox, Too.” He extricates the plot of the movie and delves into particular instances of denunciations of modern consumer culture. To condense Rensin’s research, below are a couple of the examples of “The Lego Movie”’s anti-capitalist rhetoric & criticism extracted from his article along with my brief explanation of it:

  • The protagonist, Emmet Brickowski, is a construction worker Lego minifigure devoid of interests and passions outside of his career. – Emmet symbolizes the ideal blue-collar employee whose sole purpose is to work within the confines of a dystopian, capitalist society.
  • The villain of the movie is named Lord Business and hates “hippie-dippie” stuff. – Lord Business represents the intertwining of plutocracy and capitalism as well as the role of big corporations in government.
  • Lord Business sets strict rules for how citizens of the city of Bricktown are allowed to behave. – Lord Business represents a “corporate oligarch” in a system of brutal capitalism; this type of extreme capitalism favors the rich and suppresses democracy.
  • Citizens of Bricktown, Emmet included, all drink “Over-Priced Coffee™” that is $37 per cup. – This is satire of how inflation, specifically with regards to expensive coffee, has become normalized; if an oat milk latte can be $7-8, then anything can happen in the Lego world.
  • One of the billboards in the busy intersections of Bricktown explicitly says “Conform. It’s the Norm.” – Although protection of individual rights is the underlying ideology of capitalism, capitalism promotes homogeneity under the illusion of free choice. With the rise of commodified labor, individualism is often thought to be “corrosive of the communal and social ties” that propel consumerism. 
  • Everyone in Bricktown’s favorite song is “Everything is Awesome.” – This also refers to the dissolution of individual identity under capitalism. 
  • As the prophesied “Special,” Emmet wields the Piece of Resistance to thwart Lord Business’s evil plans to rule the world with a robot militia. – Emmet is leading a proletarian class revolt against capitalist practices.

And these are just a few instances of anti-capitalism in the “The Lego Movie;” there’s so much more I could have listed. However, it’s important to address that many have criticized the movie’s anti-capitalist and consumerist messages as being subversive and specifically fabricated to appeal to the left. This is a fair and valid point, because at its core, the Lego group is the #1 most successful toy manufacturer in the world and relies on capitalism to maintain its success.

However, the sole presence of satirical critiques in the movie represent a conscious awareness of the shortcomings of capitalism. By spreading and popularizing these ideas to a widespread audience, Lego is still contributing to the dismantling of elitist mindsets.

Founded by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1932, Legos were named after the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well.” And throughout the past decade, Lego has worked hard to universalize this statement to their fans, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. While they still have room to grow, the company has gradually transformed itself into a clear champion of intersectionality and progressive ideals, while also maintaining their core mission of promoting creativity and inspiring young minds everywhere. So the next time you get an ad for Legos, buy a Lego set, or even rewatch “The Lego Movie,” remember to appreciate the Lego evolution and leg godt.

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