Advent calendar: 16. The changing face of the Lego minifigure

1975 – the minifigure has no face. Why would it? Kids are perfectly capable of imagining any face they can. The clothes come in four colours (red, blue, black and white), and there is pigtail hair, a sailor hat and a cowboy hat. All interchangeable. The figure has no arms, and isn’t really recognisable as the minifigure we know and love today.

1978 – The classic minifigure is born. Arms, legs, torso, head and hat/hair. The pigtails from 1975 remain, as do the hats, but this year marks the birth of the classic shape still in use. The face is remarkable. It is everyface. Imagination still rules.

2011 – The detail on the minifigures is astounding, and several series of collectible minifigures have been released. Almost every conceivably imaginable character under the sun has been released in one set or another – if you’re lucky enough to own it. Who needs imagination now?

In three short years, the classic Minifigure was developed, and is still in use 35+ years later. In the meantime, though the shape is still in use, so much detail has been added that the use of imagination is all but impossible. I do love the massive range of characters now – and they really are fantastic characters. Back in 1978 though, every single one was a girl, or a boy, or a man, or a woman, or a robot, or none of the above. It was whatever you wanted it to be. Now, as I explored yesterday, there appears to be a gender split whereby only 25% of characters are female. Yesterday I was thinking about avatar play, and being able to find a character to represent you in the world. This is almost by the by – why should a child of any gender have to imagine a world in which only 25% (at best) of its residents are female? It’s weird and it’s not representative.

At least the figures remain interchangeable. You can now take Cleopatra’s hair a pop star’s face, a windsurfer’s torso, a punk’s trousers and a pirate’s bottle of rum to make a remarkably accurate avatar for someone. If you have the cash to buy all five constituent figures, that is. Once upon a time the power of imagination could project the same identity onto any figure. That was pocket money toys – as they should be.

Later I will look at all seven (!) of the recent collectible minifigure series, and the gender/race makeup of each set. Just out of interest…

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7 Responses to Advent calendar: 16. The changing face of the Lego minifigure

  1. Only 25% are female? Are you sure? Are all the others obviously male? Because I’ve known a lot of people who assume that, for instance, all the characters in hats and helmets are male. As a child I always figured that my castle guards were about half and half, one just couldn’t see the difference when they were in uniform.

    • impeus says:

      I came to the 25% figure based on figures we own, which I admit is a fairly flawed premise to start with. Then, my rationale was basically based on hips and eyelashes. I’m currently collating data including these and some other characteristics, which will either challenge or justify/explain my assumptions. You can take the helmets and masks off though, and I’m pretty sure that the faces under the gorilla and dragon are male. However as a girl who never wears makeup, defining gender (mostly) on the basis of the presence of eyelashes is, admittedly, probably a bit off.

      The dataset for the analysis I’m doing right now will be a bit larger as I’m now including sets we got for Christmas too.

      I’m noting any which have the original generic face, as obviously in that case I need to have some other justification too.

  2. Dragonfallen 5 says:

    It all went wrong in 1989.
    Lego introduced the Pirates sets, containing the first non-smiley faces. The pirates had moustaches, stubble and scowls. The soldiers were mostly clean-shaven, although their leaders had beards. Here’s an example from that year:

    The following year they released the first Castle set with the maiden figure and lipstick face; while it was nice to have an obvious woman, it made it harder to assume (as Jennie Kermode did) that everyone else had arbitrary gender.

    Blacktron had been released in the Space theme in 1988, but they only became bad guys when Space Police appeared in 1989.

    The Castle fall was a bit more gradual, with generic factions slowly becoming defined as good and evil. Here in Australia, the 1987 ‘Forestmen’ theme were identified as ‘Robin Hood’, forcing roles and characters that could have been left to our imagination.

    So, in 1989 the wave of named characters, with fixed faces and defined roles, began. The Space theme went from blue and grey spaceships exploring the Universe to cops, robbers and victims. The Castle theme went from neutral lion and falcon factions, to an evil dragon-bearing faction facing good lions and forestmen. And, the Pirates introduced facial hair.

    Note also that:
    (1) All of those 1989 non-smiley faces were clearly male, with moustaches, beards and stubble.
    (2) Those faces were introduced in a theme that was 100% male. No Anne Bonney, Mary Read, Grace O’Malley or Ching Shih. In 1989, there were also no civilians. It was a (stereotypically male) fantasy world of endless violent conflict.
    (3) The faces defined the characters. The evil (but somehow cool) pirates scowled through their black stubble and eye patches. When soldiers had beards, they smiled through their ginger beards. There was a comic, naming some characters. Imagination? Who needs it?
    (4) The Pirates theme also introduced spring-loaded cannons and guns.

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