In case you haven’t heard, LEGO is starting a new push into the girls’ aisle, a market which they have tried unsuccessfully to crack many times before. The new theme is called LEGO Friends, and focuses on the adventures of five girls in the fictional Heartlake City. As a toy designed for young girls, the sets predictably revolve around diners, convertibles, beauty salons, and houses to play in. Perhaps the largest change is the redesigned figures, unofficially christened “Ladyfigs,” which look more realistic than the standard LEGO minifigs.
The rollout of the Friends theme has been met with unprecedented controversy, both in and out of the LEGO community. The unrest chiefly centers around the new ladyfigs and the harmful gender stereotypes LEGO may or may not be pushing on unsuspecting young girls. This concern has grown over the last few weeks, even gracing the cover of Businessweek. The latest news has a Brooklyn woman forming an online petition to halt sales. The argument is as follows: LEGO shouldn’t have to create a different lineup for girls, but could simply include more female minifigs in its regular sets and avoid such male-centric themes as Space Police, Ninjago, or Star Wars. By exposing impressionable girls to the curvy characters in sets like Butterfly Beauty Shop, Andrea’s Stage, or Emma’s Splash Pool, LEGO is subliminally hinting at what activities and body images are “acceptable” for women.
But what do I think?
While I am by no means an expert on women’s rights, I like to think I know more than the average guy. I studied feminist literature in my college language classes, and my girlfriend of four years has a degree in Women’s Studies. Both of us have also worked in childcare as teachers, camp counselors, and volunteers for the last five years, giving us plenty of experience with the whims of little girls and boys. Perhaps most relevant, I actually went and bought one of these sets to see what all the fuss was about. Between my first-hand impressions and some basic research into LEGO’s history, there’s very little I didn’t cover about Friends. So after all that self-aggrandizement, here’s my opinion: these people should find a real issue to deal with and stop making mountains out of molehills.
Let’s start with some history – this is hardly the first time LEGO has focused on the female market. In fact, Friends is the fifth theme which the company has tailored specifically to girls. None of the others are still sold today, which says a lot about how successful LEGO’s endeavors have been so far. The first of these, Scala, was introduced all the way back in 1979, and Belville ran through 2010. Not only were these themes commercial failures, but Friends is far and away the least offensive. If you want to see some sets that are actually insulting, check out Scala, Belville, and Clikits. Just look at the pink explosion of Belville sets like Vanilla’s Magic Tea Party or the Barbie clones from Scala. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find some gems like the unfortunately-named “Girl Making Lunch” from ’98.
The worst part about themes like these is the almost complete lack of construction. LEGO seems to have decided back then that girls didn’t want to build anything, but would rather just play with dolls. Hell, Clikits assumed that all girls wanted from LEGO was cheap jewelry. That’s bad. But that’s also exactly what Friends is changing. The new sets are filled with complicated structures, tons of detail, and unique parts. The set I purchased, Heartlake Vet, incorporates more SNOT techniques than some regular sets I’ve recently purchased.(SNOT stands for Studs Not On Top. Despite the unappealing name, it is a very, very good thing to learn.) If I wanted to complain about how LEGO is sexist, I wouldn’t look at today’s lineup. I can find all the material I’d ever need for that thesis from the last 15 years, and I’m happy that LEGO is finally changing its tune. (For a handy infographic, check out The LEGO Girl Graveyard at Businessweek.)
Before we go on, I have to touch on another “girl-focused” theme from the ’90s called Paradisa. This was set in a tropical vacation setting, and pioneered the female minifig as we know it today. Opponents of Friends can point to Paradisa and say “Here is a theme that treats men and women equally.” And they’re right; Paradisa sets look like a blast to me. I wish I had some myself. I like female minifigs and think it’s a shame that so few have been released. But the problem is that Paradisa wasn’t much of a success. I was too young to pay attention at the time, but I can’t find any evidence that the theme sold particularly well to girls. In fact, the much more feminine Belville ran alongside Paradisa for three years, suggesting to me that Paradisa was singularly ineffective at attracting girls to LEGO.
Now that the history is out of the way, we can finally come to the crux of my argument. By all appearances, people complaining about Friends have not put in the time to actually look at the sets. The aforementioned petition takes LEGO to task for portraying girls “at the café, lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends.” They conveniently fail to mention other sets like Heartlake Vet, Olivia’s Inventor’s Workshop, Emma’s Design School and Olivia’s Tree House. Name those sets instead, and Friends suddenly sounds much better, doesn’t it?
Even the stereotypical sets like The Butterfly Beauty Shop are balanced out in the storyline. You see, this theme tells the story of five best friends with distinct personalities similar to the American Girl dolls. Who is Emma? She enjoys going to the salon and relaxing in her hot tub. But she also has her own design studio and studies martial arts. Olivia lives in a large dollhouse with her mom and dad and loves the color pink. But she also wants to be an engineer and splits her time between reading maps in her treehouse and inventing robots in her workshop. She also enjoys long hikes and practices celestial navigation. Mia is a vegetarian who wants to become a veterinarian or an animal psychologist. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The people complaining about these sets make very good points about the dangers of gender stereotypes and dumbing down the construction aspect of LEGO. Problem is, their points don’t really apply to LEGO Friends. Belville was definitely guilty of just about everything they accuse Friends of, but guess what? LEGO stopped selling Belville. They probably didn’t retire it quickly enough, but they didn’t retire the theme because parents were complaining. No, they stopped making Belville because they were ready to offer something better. Whether that decision was due to the intrinsic principles of the LEGO company or simply for financial reasons is irrelevant. The end result is a much better toy for girls that offers as much construction as other sets, features girls doing both “girly” things and enriching hobbies, and is designed to be accessible to girls. All the best sets in the world won’t attract girls if they see them as a “boy’s toy.”
Girls and boys do feel a very strong gender dichotomy, leading them to identify with their own gender and largely reject the other. Some might see this as evidence of society’s brainwashing, but that’s hardly LEGO’s problem. Their main priority is to sell toys that appeal to children, not to strive, alone among toy companies, for a more egalitarian society. LEGO is hardly an unscrupulous organization, and they have always focused on designing toys to educate and develop children’s brains. In this light, Friends is not an attack on female identity, but rather a new initiative to help girls learn the same skills as boys who play with LEGO. All LEGO is doing is selling a roughly equivalent product that they feel will appeal to girls. The sets aren’t dumbed down in comparison to the boys’ versions, and they certainly don’t portray women as party-girl bimbos. There is only one rational explanation for this move; LEGO sees that girls are missing out on its products and wants to sell to them. The fact that LEGO is so helpful to young children should only reinforce this decision. Why wouldn’t we want girls buying more LEGO?
Most of the opposition to Friends uses this fantastic ad from 1981 to illustrate their argument. Instead of focusing on cute girly sets, why doesn’t LEGO return to its roots and provide gender-neutral play for all? The answer, conveniently enough, is right on the ad itself. Look closely, and you’ll see this text: “Younger children build for fun. Older children build for realism.” I’d say that Friends fits right into this philosophy. For ages younger than 6, LEGO offers generic brick buckets in various colors and styles. Above that, the sets differentiate into several more realistic themes. Considering that my Heartlake Vet set is for ages 6-12, it fits right in to the “build for realism” stage. Younger girls who might not be ready for the small parts and complicated structures in Friends should stick to brick buckets, which everyone can enjoy. There is no reason to think LEGO has abandoned its play philosophy, or that they no longer sell generic sets. Their modern offerings have simply expanded to include children who would not otherwise play with LEGO.
Friends is certainly not perfect, but it is a firm step in the right direction for LEGO. It eschews the blatant pink fairy sets of yesteryear and portrays well-rounded characters with their own careers and interests. I agree that LEGO should include more female characters in its standard themes, but Friends is hardly an insult to women. Anything more than a cursory look reveals a nuanced issue that has plagued the LEGO community for decades. Friends is by far the most beneficial girls’ theme to come along in years, and is deserving of praise rather than the scorn heaped on it by people who haven’t bothered to look at the product itself. In any case, there are more pressing issues to tackle. Even within the toy sphere, there are many ripe targets that need addressing, but Friends is not one of them. If you really need a toy to complain about, why not start with LEGO’s new line of Disney Princess DUPLO toys? Just a thought.