My earliest memory of Lego is my brother winning a Lego-building contest. The prize was Flipper (1996) on VHS. The tape went unwatched — there had been some mix up, and they sent us the Spanish-language version — but his galactic battleship stayed on display in his room for months. While my brother completed feats of elegant engineering, I was drawn to the people of Lego’s world. I liked the way their hands hooked around tiny accessories, and that the hairstyles could be snapped on and off. A stray male hairpiece, when sunk into the carpet, was easily mistaken for the carapace of a foreign invader.
These are my primary associations with “Lego hair.” So, when I heard the term bandied around Twitter in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, I sat up and took notice. “Why does everyone in this administration look like they have snap-on Lego hair?” read one tweet. “America has to stop trusting people who look like they have Lego hair,” read another. The cabal of conservative, white men accused of having Lego hair in 2017 includes Vice President Mike Pence, Sean Hannity, Paul Ryan, and President Donald Trump himself. Even national treasure and patron saint of horror Stephen King weighed in: “Not to belabor the point, but how can you look at Pence's hair and not get the willies? It doesn't even look like hair.” And this is a man that knows the willies.
The term is also used in reference to women with a seemingly stiff bob (think: Jessie J), but it doesn’t have the same political connotations. Which begs the question: How did Lego hair — a stalwart of childhood creativity — become a synecdoche for untrustworthy politicos?
As it turns out, the internet’s history of Lego hair references is a bit more complex. A 2006 Urban Dictionary entry defines Lego hair as “a particularly shitty male haircut in which the sides cover the ears and the hair appears to be ‘snap on’.” Related tags include “hair burns,” “bowl cut,” and “tupperware hair.” 2008 saw dozens of references to Lego hair on Twitter, but the term really picked up in 2009 when Jermaine Jackson took heat for a particularly flat hairstyle at the MTV Video Music Awards. In 2010, Justin Bieber and One Direction burst on the scene, and Lego hair Twitter went wild. Despite the roasting that black celebrities like Jackson, Will.i.am, and even Drake endured for particularly plastic hairstyles, the term predominantly came to mean a dome of straight, white hair parted to the side. This was reinforced when In Touch ran a photo spread titled “These Stars Have Lego Hair!” featuring Ed Westwick, Orlando Bloom, Pink, Matt Damon, and Ginnifer Goodwin with identical sweeping side parts.
In the early days of Twitter, Lego hair was primarily a term of pop, rather than political, culture. But now its usage seems to ebb and flow with the election cycle. In 2009, over 50 people signed a petition to “save” (dye) Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “Lego Hair.” In 2012, as American Twitter’s Lego commentary turned to Newt Gingrich and John Kerry, nations collided in a tweet that read “Imagine getting Stephen Harper and Mitt Romney in the same room together. Discussing lego hair product, finishing each other's sentences.” Indeed. Imagine. In 2015, the Young Turks asked simply, "Why do all Republicans need Lego hair?"
However, not all references to Lego hair happen on Twitter. The term got a major signal boost from The Colbert Report in 2009 when Stephen Colbert referred to disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich as a “Lego hair model.” That same year, Lego released the video game Lego Rock Band, and Queen guitarist Brian May was reportedly very involved in shaping his character. Kotaku wrote that May “insisted that his flowing tresses get a pristine Lego sculpt.” Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott later called May to say he was jealous he didn’t get his own depiction.
In 2014, The Lego Movie showcased a plethora of hairstyles, but the most prominent was that of the main character, Emmet. After trying out 150 other options, the directors went with a look right out of the Urban Dictionary definition (with the addition of a double-pronged cowlick.) A DVD extra reveals that the directors landed on the style that makes Emmet appear most like a normal, regular guy-turned-hero. Which, let’s face it, is the platonic ideal of the politician.
The Lego Group was founded by Danish toymaker Ole Kirk Kristiansen in 1932. In 1949, Kristiansen made the first iteration of the now-iconic Lego brick. 1978 marked the introduction of the minifigure, and Lego hair was born. “The minifigures still remain remarkably true to their original 1978 design, while also reflecting styles and designs of today,” says Lego minifigure designer Tara Wike, adding “We do our best to provide a broad selection of characters to inspire all kinds of kids (and adults!) to build and play.”
The world of Lego hair is surprisingly sentimental. On the Lego fan forum Eurobricks, there is an entire thread devoted to Lego hair and Lego hair collectors. “I am bald in real life so this is like torture,” writes one user, “My favourite is the new Pete Venkman/12th Doctor Who hairpiece because you'd be surprised how many characters from film and TV have that receding hairline and haven't had a good approximation in Lego.”
When it comes to the diversity of Lego’s offerings, most of the focus has been on skin tone. Jody Fernando, who blogs about raising a multicultural family, started a Change.org petition to increase the number of non-yellow Lego figures. “We need to ask ourselves if all children encounter representations of themselves in what they play with or read,” she writes in a blog post, and wonders whether most white children “ever encounter representations of children who aren’t like them.”
Answering questions for Gizmodo readers, Lego explains why yellow is Lego’s default skin tone: “When the minifigure was first introduced 30 years ago, it was given the iconic yellow skin tone to reflect the non-specific and transcendental quality of a child's imagination.”
Black minifigures were not introduced until 2002, when licensed properties like Star Wars required characters with different skin tones (like Lando Calrissian). A subsequent article blamed Lego’s lack of diversity on Hollywood racism. “Hollywood has a well-defined predilection for white protagonists in big-budget films, while most minority roles go to bad guys,” they argued. When Gizmodo asked a company representative how many “minority” Legos there actually are, he responded, "Nobody here has ever bothered to count, because nobody cares."
But people do care. Businesses like Minifigs.me are proof positive that Lego fans want to see themselves reflected in the figures — their skin tone and their hair. Caroline Savage, owner of the UK-based Minifigs.me, has made a full-time job of customizing minifigures to look like her buyers. “We especially wish there was a dreadlocks style,” Savage tells Racked. “Though there are now two afros, a long and short one, there's still not many curly hair styles in general.” She adds that the Collectible Minifigure series has led to the development of a lot of new hair parts.
According to Brickipedia (yes, that’s real), Collectible Minifigures, introduced in 2010, consist of generic new characters released every few months — like this Yuppie and this Hiker. These themes aren’t explicitly related to Hollywood franchises, but there might be some overlap — like the Pro Surfer that borrows Luke Skywalker’s sandy blonde hairstyle. “Thanks to our expanded catalogue of minifigure hairstyles, we were recently able to create the entire German soccer team using existing pieces,” says Wike.
As I traced the Internet’s usage of “Lego hair,” I came across a familiar name: former GQ editor and Twitter curation lead John Jannuzzi, who in 2014 tweeted, “Didn't realize that by ‘cleaning up my neck’ you meant ‘give you Lego hair.’ Thanks for that.” Jannuzzi still remembers the traumatic haircut in question: “They rounded the bottom of my hair so bad that it looked cartoonish,” he says.
Lego hair is a known quantity to barbers, though not a technical term. “I have honestly never heard the term Lego hair before, although I am very familiar with the description,” says Mr. Bee of Frank's Chop Shop on the Lower East Side. The good news: “It is not a difficult cut to fix.”
On the Internet, Lego hair is the detestable crown of stiff politicians whose fixed appearance belies a snap-on-snap-off approach to issues. But it’s also an aspiration — a great equalizer. “I wish we all could have lego hair. We could have any hair style we want,” writes one Twitter user. A tip of the tiny hat to that.