While discussing the art for last week's OKCupid post on the preferences of different races, guest artist, Chris "Powerpig" McVeigh dropped an astonishing fact: "Almost all non-white faces in Lego are scowling." Easy now: It's not Lego's fault.
"The yellow-headed minifigure was a conscious choice," says Michael McNally, Lego's brand relations manager. "Because of their ethnically neutral skin color, Lego people can be any people—in any story, at any time."
It's been that way since 1978, when third-generation company boss Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen invented the Lego man. Grandson of the company founder, Kristiansen grew up playing with the plastic blocks, and always wanted a way to bring people into his plastic fantasies. Shortly after taking over the company, he made his dream a reality: The minifig was born.
Fast-forward 21 years, to 1999 when Lego produced its first Star Wars-themed set. Though pegged to the release of the Phantom Menace, the kits were based on the original trilogy. (Smart move.) And your favorite characters were in full effect: Darth V, Luke, Leia, and the gang—all rendered as canary-faced citizens of Legoland. Not being a central character, Lando Calrissian wasn't invited to this party, but customers started reading more into his absence. "They asked 'where's Lando?'" says McNally. "They saw the yellow-faced Han Solo and figured that we had omitted Lando because he couldn't sport a yellow head." This got the company thinking.
Four years later, In 2003, Lego acted: The Lego NBA Series featured completely off-base representations of popular NBA players. Off-base with one exception: Some players were black, just like the flesh-and-blood ballers they represented. Though these NBA "stars" aren't worth much money today, they were an important shift in Lego's policy. "From that point forward," says McNally, "we started portraying characters from our partners' storylines as accurately as possible."
In 2004, Lego followed with another flight of Star Wars kits. These new sets featured characters from the prequels—including Jedi councilman Mace Windu, whose plastic surrogate bore a strong resemblance to his celluloid cousin. Though one of the good guys, Mace wore Samuel L. Jackson's stern expression.
If you're not familiar with themed Lego sets or the Expanded Universe, it's not hard to misinterpret Windu's scowling brown face as the cruel countenance of a threatening enemy rather than the battle-hardened visage of a legendary general. Especially because most of his minority minifigure compatriots aren't smiling either. But, again, don't blame the Danes; direct your ire at California.
Hollywood has a well-defined predilection for white protagonists in big-budget films, while most minority roles go to bad guys. One particularly egregious example: Indiana Jones movies, where Indy's globe-trotting exploits bring him into contact with a veritable Rainbow Coalition of ethnically diverse anti-heroes.
That's not to say there aren't mean white dudes in Jones' adventures—Indy kicks plenty of Nazi ass—but Powerpig, who has more than 54,000 bricks and 541 little plastic dudes, estimates that 85-percent of his scowling minorities come from the 15 Indiana Jones sets, which include sour-looking Arabs, fierce-faced Asians and clearly cranky South Americans.
The Prince of Persia kits—based on a movie that's set somewhere in the Middle East but stars white guys who sound distinctly British—don't help much either. There's almost no diversity, with the only non-white head belonging to Prince Whatever's buddy Seso. For some reason, he's frowning.
So how many minority minifigures are there? "I dunno," says McNally. "Nobody here has ever bothered to count, because nobody cares." But McNally does have one figure easily at hand: 4.5 billion. That's the global population of Lego people. If you counted the minifigure itself as an ethnic group it would be the largest in the world.
I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, I was definitely part of the Lego race: lending my voice and volition to countless lemon-headed adventurers. And, given the opportunity, I'd play a little Mace Windu, too—even though he's black and I'm white. Now: I want you to go in that bag and find my lightsaber... It's the one that says 'Bad Motherfucker' on it.
Original art by guest artist Chris McVeigh (AKA powerpig). You can catch all his work at flickr.com/powerpig, and follow him on Twitter. (@Actionfigured) Original minifigure image provided by Lego.