I do not understand how a company as large as Lego can continue, year after year, to fuck up this spectacularly and still have the enormous brand following that it does. I mean, okay, I understand, but it pisses me off, a lot.
When I was a kid, Lego was still primarily focused on selling building sets that encouraged imaginative play and creativity, and their themed sets were generic–City, Castle, Space, etc.–but as the company grew and time passed, Lego has increasingly shifted into the licensed merchandise market, with themed sets for enormous properties like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Marvel and DC comics. Along with that change in focus, Lego’s original sets have also changed and become more specific, with settings even being discontinued and replaced with new iterations on the old themes. In some ways this has been kind of cool, and there have been some interesting developments over the years. However, there have also been disappointments.
After years of facing criticism for their increasing marginalization of girls, in 2012 Lego introduced the Friends line of building sets, specifically (and sexistly) tailored to what they believe girls are interested in. It started with, basically, a Lego dollhouse kind of deal and expanded to include Disney Princesses, Pop Stars, and even Elves. While some of these Lego-for-girls themes have been fun, they largely play into and promote gendered stereotypes. More importantly, and to greater negative effect, by mostly merchandising these “for girls” products separately from the rest of the “regular” Lego sets in stores, the gender problem has been compounded rather than solved.
It was bad enough when the problem was just that parents and fans of the brand wanted the toys to be more inclusive, but now the company has decided on a kind of “separate but equal” approach–and like all “separate but equal” policies, it’s not equal. At all. All it has done is clarify that, though Lego may have begun as a toy for all children, the company’s evolving vision is of Lego as a toy for boys unless specifically marked otherwise. Lego Friends made it very explicit what Lego, as a company, thinks a girl’s place is.
Here’s the thing, though. I still kind of love Lego. I get excited about new theme sets when they come out, especially new original themes because it’s neat to see what they come up with. So when I first read, in passing, about Nexo Knights, I was intrigued. While Lego has definitely changed up its castle stuff over the years, it’s basically always been various flavors of medieval fantasy. Nexo Knights is much more sci-fi, with robots and mech-armor and war machines as well as castles and knights. Which sounds pretty cool.
Today I finally got a chance to sit down and look through the sets online to see if there were any that I might need to buy. It turns out that, nope, I don’t want any of these. With Nexo Knights, Lego once again shows how little they think of girls when designing their play sets: only about a quarter of the Nexo Knights characters are girls or women.
Of the actual knights, only one is a woman, Macy, who is identified by her large red ponytail and the feminine figure printed onto the body piece of the figure. Of course, on her character page, the first image we see of Macy is her in a dress, looking unhappy, and her backstory is all about how she hates being a princess and wants to be a knight and impress her father, King Halbert. Because we definitely, in 2016, still need to have toys normalizing the idea that girls always have to struggle for recognition and acceptance, not to mention the idea that to be “strong” a girl must reject femininity.
Unlike many fictional princesses, though, Macy does have a mother, Queen Halbert, who couldn’t even get her own name–she has to share her husband’s. We’re told on her character page that Queen Halbert “is quite capable at defending herself (and her husband),” and she’s pictured with a huge, rather badass-looking hammer. However, Queen Halbert only appears in one of the twenty Nexo Knights sets currently for sale, and the story line of the set? Is that you have to rescue Queen Halbert from Infernox, a sort of robot-y lava monster. It’s bad enough that the supposedly capable and tough queen only appears as a damsel in distress, but the other minifig included in the set, who is supposed to do the rescuing, is a man. Having her rescued by her daughter, Macy, would have neatly subverted the trope, but clearly Lego intends to stick with traditional, sexist gender roles as much as possible while still pretending as if they are creating strong female characters.
Ava Prentiss is the one female character in Nexo Knights that I don’t think I can complain much about. She’s a student at the Knight’s Academy, and is really into computers. I actually kind of love the idea of this character as a way to introduce kids to the common SF theme of magic vs. technology. I only wish that Ava’s story included a friendship with Macy or Queen Halbert. All three of the “heroic” female characters in Nexo Knights seem to exist totally independent of each other, and none of them are mentioned in the stories of any of the others in either the Lego website content or the marketing copy for the actual sets.
To balance out the three good female characters in Nexo Knights, there are likewise three evil ones. In a way, this is refreshing and a step in the right direction for the brand; I can’t recall another Lego line that had this many lady villains. On the other hand, they’re also a mess of gendered weirdness.
Whiparella and Flama aren’t too bad. Whiparella is a sort of fiery naga-looking thing, which is pretty rad, and Flama is straight-up awesome-looking, though I am a little confused about why fire monsters need to have visibly feminine figures. Whiparella even has actual drawn-on breasts. Are fiery naga things mammals? I wasn’t aware.
The character that has me spitting mad, however, is Lavaria. I liked that she gets her own set, but I definitely got some vague succubus vibes from the image included with the product listing. When you look closer, though, you’ll see that Lavaria–though she has a cool spear thing, a shield, and this mech-spidery vehicle–is wearing what amounts to a sort of chain mail bikini type outfit. I suppose this could be explained by the description of Lavaria as more of a rogue-like character, though I would argue that being a rogue still doesn’t eliminate the necessity of protecting one’s vital organs in battle.
However, the worst thing about Lavaria shows up on her character page on the Lego website. You see, Lavaria is basically the Harley Quinn of Nexo Knights–the thing she “truly wishes for” is “a kiss from her wicked master,” Jestro. I’d love to say that this is as deep as the awfulness of this goes, but that’s not the case. It’s like an onion of sexist bullshit. The character pages give us quite a bit of information about the characters, and while Lavaria is described in some detail as a confident, villainous woman, Jestro is, well, something else. Namely, an inept, unintelligent buffoon, who is still inexplicably a love interest of sorts for Lavaria and the dominant half of the pair (he’s the main villain, she’s his sidekick).
Sadly, this new line of building sets could be seen as a sort of progress for Lego. Though only about a quarter of the total minifigs in the set, women and girls do make up fully a third of the named characters, and there is some amount of diversity in their personalities and backgrounds. This actually makes Lego’s failure in this set that much more frustrating. The movement towards something closer to gender parity shows that there is some recognition that the products have a problem, but the continued reliance on sexist tropes and antiquated (and insulting) gender roles shows that whoever is in charge at Lego still doesn’t truly understand or respect (or maybe just doesn’t really care about) the criticisms that have been levied against Lego products over the years.