By Stephanie Taylor
Editor’s note: Thanks to some terrific input from the AFOL community, it’s been brought to our attention that some of the data presented here may be incomplete. We’re reviewing that data and will change as needed, and then republish.
In mid 2018, for the 40th anniversary of their iconic minifigure, LEGO released a timeline of minifigures over the years.
This timeline, while interesting and informative, fails to make mention of many important steps in the LEGO character timeline, particularly in regards to female characters. Major exclusions are the introduction of female specific heads, heads in colors other than the classic yellow, and the launch of minidolls (most notably the Friends line). Because of the gaps in the timeline, we took it upon ourselves to document the chronology of specifically female marked heads and characters from their inception (1978) to the end of May 2020, when the data was collected (the timeline does not include June 2020 releases). Our findings are detailed below.
The following data was collected primarily from Brickset.com and Bricklink.com. We have included the full timeline at the bottom of this article, though the timeline can be broken down into four parts.
The timeline begins in 1978, with the first modern minifigure released. Although the first female figure was released in this year, it wasn’t until eleven years later that LEGO began production of a female coded head (1989). This head was coded as female through bright red lipstick and larger lips. This way of representing women (larger lips, generally exaggerated makeup) would become the norm for female coded heads. Later, as seen in 1992, LEGO began coding female heads with eyelashes and then, in 1997, adding eyebrows. Generally, as the years passed, LEGO used these three factors (make-up, eyelashes, expressive eyebrows) to signify female heads as opposed to their male or non-labeled counterparts.
Also released in 1997 was the first and only female head with a nose and updated eyes. This is significant not only because of the updates to the face but because this female, although in the Yellow fleshtone, was the first coded as a person of color. Specifically, this head was part of a LEGO subtheme called “Indians”, which was part of the larger “Western” theme. In the Indian subtheme, each minifigure was supposed to represent a Native American person, often completed with facepaint, headdresses, and weapon accessories. LEGO discontinued this version of the subtheme almost as soon as they had begun to produce it, in 1997. It is unclear if this was due to backlash from the Native American community, because the sets were not selling well, or some combination of the two.
In 1998, LEGO released the first female specific head with headgear or a helmet in blue. This fig was included in several sets and was supposed to represent a robot. Interestingly, the small amount of face showing seems not to be in yellow. However, LEGO did not officially release fleshtones until 2003, with the introduction of both the Star Wars sets and the NBA sets. It is unclear why this head is an outlier here.
The next important steps in female minifigure head development came in 2001. In this year, the first female head modeled after a character was released (Hermione, the Harry Potter series), as well as the first female head with glasses, marking an important step in further diversity of female heads. However, to date, there are still very few female heads with glasses, even though more than 1.4 billion people wear glasses around the world.
Also included in this timeline is the first female head pictured smirking (2002). Smirking, like makeup, would become a common occurrence among female heads, although very few male heads are ever pictured smirking. Also seen in 2002 is the first female head that was coded as elderly was released in 2002. To date, however, there are no older or elderly heads in any darker skin tone (including Medium Nougat, Reddish Brown, Medium Brown, Tan, Nougat, and Dark Orange), although there are multitude of older coded heads in both Yellow and Light Nougat. This is one example of LEGO struggling with being truly diverse in their minifigure heads. While they introduced fleshtones other than Yellow in 2003, and further released the first female coded head in a color other than Yellow in 2004 (Light Nougat), they still have yet to have a fully equitable range of heads in every available color, and this is shown partly by the example of older coded female heads.
Also in 2004, LEGO released the first female head without makeup, a full fifteen years after the release of female heads. This was an incredibly important step, and represented a recognition on LEGOs part that they could depict clearly female heads without any makeup.
A year later, LEGO began production on their first double-sided female head, which was, again, a representation of Hermione from the Harry Potter series.
In 2006, LEGO released the first female coded head without black and/or white eyes. This head was a representation of Katara from the TV show Avatar: the Last Airbender. Perhaps equally important was that this was the first female character that LEGO clearly white-washed – in the show, Katara is supposed to be Inuit, and has a significantly darker skin than the way she is portrayed in LEGO form. Again, this is several years after LEGO introduced fleshtones other than Yellow and Light Nougat, however at this point, all of the minifigures in other fleshtones were male.
2007 marked the first year that LEGO released several female heads that were not smiling – one that was scared, and then several months later, one that was frowning. This beginning of range of expression in female heads meant that LEGO was starting to more fully represent the female population. However, it is also important to note that these heads were only in Light Nougat and Yellow.
In 2010, LEGO released the first evil female face, in green. Particularly interesting here is that LEGO produced an evil female minifigure face before they produced a female face in a fleshtone other than Yellow or Light Nougat.
The timeline also includes important modified female heads (the first being in 2010) as well as the introduction of the minidolls series in 2012. Minidolls are a particularly important but equally under-represented entity in the original timeline. Not only are minidolls nearly all female coded (the opposite is true in minifigures), but they are far more ethnically diverse than minifigures on a whole (especially after the 2018 reboot), so it was especially important to include the minidolls in our timeline. Indeed, the first minidoll of color was released in at the same time as the other minidolls in lighter fleshtones. Interestingly, the first female character of color that LEGO produced was not the classic minifigure, but that brand new minidoll in 2012.
The first female head of color wasn’t introduced until 2013, ten years after LEGO introduced skin tones other than Light Nougat and Yellow in 2003. This character was an alien, however, so it was in 2014 that there was a human female POC face. Furthermore, while the first female without makeup (Yellow skin tone) was introduced in 2004, it wasn’t until 2016 that LEGO released a similar head in a darker skin tone, making it nearly thirty years before women of color were given a head that naturally represented them. Perhaps even more problematically, it wasn’t until 2017 that there was a WOC (woman of color) face that was not modeled after a character from a comic or book series. This face was in the Medium Nougat color, and it wasn’t until 2018 that a similar original face was released in Reddish Brown. But to date, there is no original head (not modeled after any character or person) in flesh tones other than Yellow and Light Nougat.
As represented by a further examination of the data, darker skin tones in female heads are still severely underrepresented, even considering all those modeled after characters. For example, to date, there are 2028 male minifigure heads, and 585 female minifigure heads released in total by LEGO. Of this female proportion, there are 249 Yellow female heads and 163 Light Nougat female heads. In comparison, there are 10 Dark Reddish female heads.
On the other hand, minidolls are surprisingly diverse when compared to their minifigure counterparts. As mentioned earlier, it took LEGO fifteen years to release a female head without makeup and another thirty years for a similar head to appear in darker fleshtones. In comparison, it only took one year from the release of minidolls for LEGO to produce one without makeup – and this was a character in a darker fleshtone. Similarly, while LEGO didn’t release a minifigure head with glasses until 2001, a minidoll with glasses was produced almost immediately after the introduction of minidolls (in 2013). And minidolls with smirks, such a standby in female minifigures, didn’t become available until mid 2020.
This is not to say that minidolls are without their issues. For example, in 2020, Bricklink (a third party created but now LEGO owned site) labeled a Mulan inspired minidoll as having “Asian eyes”. Similarly to the problematic “Indian” subtheme, this minidoll had significantly different eyes and facepaint than her other minidoll counterparts.
It seems clear from this data that LEGO prioritises male minifigures over female minifigures, and further gravitates towards young, non-WOC skin tones with make-up. LEGO thoroughly proves this through their 40 year anniversary timeline, which, as shown above, is woefully incomplete in several important areas. Although LEGO has made certain positive strides towards equality through their introduction of female heads of other fleshtones, minidolls, and heads without makeup, there are still some areas, especially within the female heads, that are woefully incomplete and biased against many minority groups. This suggests that LEGO does not value their female characters as much as their male and likely, by extension, their female contributors, including employees and WAFOLs (Women Adult Fans of LEGO). Thus, throughout this timeline, we are able to gain insight into what LEGO, as a company, prioritizes in their female heads and contributors.
Below please find the vertical representation of the female minifigure timeline.