If you build a lot of Legos, you need a lot of parts, and the minifigure collection in Maia Weinstock’s Cambridge apartment is impressive: Stacks of heads and hairstyles, torsos and legs and arms, a pint-sized Frankenstein’s workshop stored in little plastic bins.
You can learn quite a bit from collecting Legos this way. Such as: There are far more faces with beards than faces that look like women. And it’s exceedingly hard to find African-American heads, which are necessary to, say, build a Lego version of Neil deGrasse Tyson or Mae Jemison.
Weinstock, 38, found a way: The longtime science writer and editor has made a name for herself by creating a series of custom minifigures, made to look like real-life scientists. She’s one of many artists who use the plastic toys as medium and muse, a pursuit that shows all that the company can do — and also, what it doesn’t.
Last month, Weinstock entered a contest called Lego Ideas, which encourages fans to create their own dream sets. If Lego posts your prototype on its website and it wins 10,000 votes from viewers, the company might produce a limited edition.
Weinstock modeled her set after the US Supreme Court and called it Legal Justice League. It had a courtroom bench and columns, a law library with books, and mini versions of the four female justices: Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
It looked amazing, and when Weinstock circulated pictures online, they went viral. But Lego declined to post them on its website, saying they violated one of the project’s ground rules: Nothing political.
Weinstock appealed. She pointed out that these justices had been appointed by presidents from both parties, that it would be nice to offer historical figures of women and that this might just send a powerful message to young Lego fans.
She also offered a compromise: a generic courtroom, with generic female judges. Lego agreed. (The company didn’t answer my requests for comment.) The photos are on the website now. It’s called Legal Justice Team, and while it lacks a certain thrill, it’s still pretty great.
That’s because it represents what’s best about Lego — the endless creative possibilities — while gently pointing out the company’s chief failing: the way it so often steers kids toward a predetermined end. Scan any big-box toy aisle, or enter the holy grail of the Lego mall store, and you know that Lego offerings are almost completely divided by gender. Boys have their choice of bulldozers, Star Wars action sets, and ninja action figures. Girls are offered Lego Friends, a special line created in 2012 that amounts to its own parallel universe, awash in purple and pink, with a whole different set of figurines that have pug noses and tiny breasts.
Some of the sets are impressive, but there have been stumbles. Last month, the New York Times pointed out a Lego-themed magazine for kids, in which one of the Lego Friends characters offered hairdos tips, to make girls feel better about the shapes of their faces.
The original minifigure doesn’t invite those kinds of conversations; its shape is so generic, its face so simple yet evocative, that you can accessorize it straight into a story about anything. Lego Ideas has proven how much is possible, with a classic Lego set and the right imagination. Weinstock points to a Lego Ideas set called Research Institute, which features a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist, all of whom happen to be women. Its first run, produced in August, sold out, and the company reissued the set.
Weinstock isn’t calling for Lego quotas. But she understands how subtle messages creep into the ether, and that’s where Lego has power. “They are tastemakers . . . offering visions of what kids can do and what kids can see,” Weinstock said.
Not all girls gravitate toward ninjas, it’s true. But it’s also true that the world isn’t binary, with ninja on one side and pink on the other. Some girls might prefer black robes and gavels.