Little Girl From 1981 Gender Neutral Lego Ad Tells the Story in Her Own Words

By Lori Day

In mid-January, this article on The Huffington Post hit my Facebook newsfeed like a Justin Bieber deportation petition—it was everywhere. In it, HuffPost Family News Editor Jessica Samakow writes:

Pay attention, 2014 Mad Men: This little girl is holding a LEGO set. The LEGOs are not pink or “made for girls.” She isn’t even wearing pink. The copy is about “younger children” who “build for fun.” Not just “girls” who build. ALL KIDS. In an age when little girls and boys are treated as though they are two entirely different species by toy marketers, this 1981 ad for LEGO — one of our favorite images ever — issues an important reminder.

Something about this piece with the iconic 1981 ad tapped the zeitgeist and it became one of HuffPo’s more viral articles in recent memory, receiving over 60,000 shares. And along the way, the small world of Facebook led to a comment thread on my wall where someone, upon seeing the little red-haired girl holding her LEGOs, wrote, “Hey, I know her!” And now I do too, because that’s the serendipity of social media. Her name is Rachel Giordano, she is 37 years old, and she’s a practicing naturopathic doctor in Seattle, Washington. Giordano agreed to talk to me about her childhood and the ad, and to pose for a new Then & Now photo meme, which you see above in the lead image.

As I was planning my interview with Rachel Giordano, I saw this blog post by Achilles Effect,and knew immediately what Giordano should be holding in the new version of the photo. Enter the Heartlake City TV news van, one of the latest additions to the LEGO Friends line. Advertising copy lets us know what being a news anchor involves for minifig Emma:

“Break the big story of the world’s best cake with the Heartlake News Van! Find the cake and film it with the camera and then climb into the editing suite and get it ready for broadcast. Get Emma ready at the makeup table so she looks her best for the camera. Sit her at the news desk as Andrew films her talking about the cake story and then present the weather to the viewers.”

Cake? Seriously? And what-the-what is that when you look inside the news van? Where is the equipment? Is it behind the gigantic makeup vanity?

As Achilles Effect blogger Crystal Smith notes, “This toy had so much potential to inspire young girls who think journalism would be a cool career. Instead, they get the same message delivered just about everywhere else in the culture that surrounds them: look pretty and smile for the camera.”

Children haven’t changed, but adults who market to them have… What do we have to lose, besides stereotypes?

So what did Rachel Giordano have to say about the LEGO news van when it pulled up to her medical office in Seattle via Amazon and UPS? First things first: she told me what it was like to be a child model for the Ford Agency in New York City, posing for print ads and performing in commercials. On the day she went into the studio to make the 1981 LEGO ad, she was given a set of original LEGOs and an hour to play with them and make her own creation—it is what you see in the ad. (And those were her own clothes—the comfy jeans and blue striped t-shirt and sneakers without a hint of pink that she wore in off the street.)

The news van kit struck her as really quite different. She does not have children, so the change in LEGOs represented by the Friends line was startling: “In 1981,” explains Giordano, “LEGOs were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.”

The original 1981 ad has been making the rounds in my girl empowerment blogging circles for the past few years now, symbolic of the nostalgia that ain’t what it used to be when it comes to children’s toys. The stereotyping of girls in their world of play is an issue close to my heart and one that I address in my book Her Next Chapter , because, as Maria Montessori notably said, play is the work of the child. [Editor's Note: What most recent articles about this inspiring ad have left out, is the equally inspiring woman who created it. According to a January 21, 2014Mashable piece, “The ‘What is Beautiful’ ad was created by Judy Lotas, who was the creative director at SSC&B, a now-defunct ad agency… She had two young daughters at the time, and gender equality was a big topic."]

Over at Princess Free Zone, Michele Yulo has been writing about the change in LEGOs since the new LEGO Friends line dropped anchor in girls’ toy aisles all around the world. “Last year,” says Yulo, “I did my own homemade version of the ad to show that it is not that kids have changed, forcing companies to adopt ‘separate but equal’ and ‘pink marketing’ strategies—in fact, it is the other way around. I didn’t change the tagline except to say that ‘What it is is stillbeautiful.’ Because it is.”

That’s Yulo’s daughter on the right side of the meme, holding her own unique LEGO structure built with regular—I mean boys’—LEGOs.

What’s the problem with girl LEGOs? Why is everyone against pink?, ask many parents. I’ll let Rachel Giordano answer that question: “Because gender segmenting toys interferes with a child’s own creative expression. I know that how I played as a girl shaped who I am today. It contributed to me becoming a physician and inspired me to want to help others achieve health and wellness. I co-own two medical centers in Seattle. Doctor kits used to be for all children, but now they are on the boys’ aisle. I simply believe that they should be marketed to all children again, and the same with LEGOs and other toys.”

I couldn’t help being curious about how Giordano’s renewed fame first came to her attention and how it was affecting her. “I did so many advertisements as a kid that this LEGO ad did not stand out in my memory,” says Giordano. “When it resurfaced on the Internet all these years later, I was totally surprised, and some of my friends asked, ‘Is that you?’ I’m super excited to tell my story!”

Giordano has grown up, but she’s still the same cheerful and creative person you see in the original ad. As Yulo’s meme suggests, children haven’t changed, but adults who market to them have. And LEGOs? They sure are different. How about this? Let’s give all children a world of play that includes all colors and all possibilities, and let’s market it that way. What do we have to lose, besides stereotypes? Gender-segmented toys may double corporate profits, but always seem to result in for-girls versions that are somehow just a little bit less. I say, let’s give girls more. Any reason not to??

This post originally appeared on Women You Should Know.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant, and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. Her new book Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More will be on shelves May 1, 2014.

Lori is also a co-founder and Board member of the Brave Girls Alliance, a global think tank and consulting group of girl empowerment experts who advocate for healthier media and products for girls.

Photo Credit: 2014 image of Rachel Giordano was shot by Anita Nowacka