A foray into consumer activism has students at Madison's Shorewood Hills Elementary School pretty pumped. Last week, the students received a letter from the maker of Lego blocks in the wake of news that a new play set with stereotype-busting women scientists will be available soon.
"My heart was beating hard as my teacher read the letter. By the end of the letter, 'YES!' had run through my head many times. I'm so glad more females have important roles in Lego,” one student wrote in a collection of comments shared by Michele Hatchell, a social studies teacher at the school.
The Cap Times reported two weeks ago on “What It Is Is Beautiful,” the website that third, fourth and fifth graders had created — with research, pictures, letters and drawings — to tell Lego how disappointed they were in the lack of strong female characters and racial diversity in the company’s play sets.
Hatchell said the students received supportive letters from around the world and last Thursday, the Denmark-based toymaker responded to them in an email.
“It’s amazing to see the outcome of all the time and effort you put into your analysis of gender and culture in LEGO sets. I enjoyed reading the letters you posted on your website,” wrote Steve Clines in the customer service department.
”It’s true we currently have more male than female mini-figures in our assortment. We completely agree that we need to be careful about the roles our female figures play — we need to make sure they’re part of the action and have exciting adventures, and aren’t just waiting to be rescued,” Clines wrote.
The Shorewood Hills students also had complained about the lack of African-American figures in the play sets and the odd, brightly colored yellow figures. Clines told them that the company used yellow-colored figurines in the play sets “so they wouldn’t represent a specific ethnicity” and would be acceptable to people all over the world.
Clines’ letter doesn’t mention it, but the company announced via YouTube video last Tuesday that the proposed project selected from a worldwide contest to be produced included female scientist mini-figures.
The announcement follows a surge of criticism of recent releases from the toymaker that reinforced gender stereotypes, noted blogger Maia Weinstock in Scientific American.
“For a company that outwardly promotes inclusivity and equality, it sure felt like it was going out of its way to do the exact opposite with its products," Weinstock wrote.
The project idea was submitted by Dr. Ellen Kooijman, a geochemist in Stockholm, The Guardian reported. In her project proposal, Kooijman wrote: "The motto of these scientists is clear: explore the world and beyond!"
Back in Madison, students were pleased at the coming changes, but feel the company still has more work to do.
“I am so happy that Lego agreed about female mini-figures. But they're all wearing lipstick and purple and pink. Still, THANK YOU LEGO!” one student wrote.
“I think it's nice that they admitted that they do have more boys than they have girls. I'm still a little mad because if really you were black or African American and you were in a Lego set, you will kind of feel offended. I think you still should make different colored people like in real life,” wrote another.
One student added a more positive critique: “I am also glad you made the Lego Movie because there is an AWESOME girl!!!”
Hatchell said the exercise helped the children “to think critically, listen, and speak and write their thoughts and feelings about the messaging they receive from toy companies such as Lego.
“To have the opportunity to engage in a direct dialog with Lego is an incredible learning experience for the kids and it is providing them with life-long skills regarding activism, global citizenship and the power of communication, ”she said.
And as Lego presumably understands, the move toward gender equity may mean more sales of its products.
“Yay,” one Shorewood Hills student wrote one. “Now my Mom will me buy Legos more often.”
The new sets are scheduled to be available in August.