The internet has been abuzz regarding the new Lego Friends line. I am in the anti-Friends camp, and after engaging in a lot of discussion with real-life human friends, I’ve figured out why I feel so strongly. I’ve rounded up the 5 most common questions about the issue and done my best to address each one:
1. Are these toys really that different from other Legos? Aren’t these kits equally challenging?
The figures are very different: Considering that 4 of the 5 new minifigs are wearing skirts, and are all thinner with breasts, well, you can do your own analysis of the message being sent about female-ness.
As for complexity, this depends on how you compare. Let’s take two examples:
Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery Ages 5-12
This set is very similar in complexity to other sets for kids ages 5-6. However, the age range for this set goes all the way to 12. If we look at the most complex Friends set: –it looks pretty cool, right? This set is also age ranged from 6-12. But both of these sets seem rather simple for a 12 year-old. To me, these should only be rated up to age 8, or 10, at most.
This is where the difference in complexity comes in. If you compare Lego Friends set to kits in the lower age range, under 8, they are pretty equal. However, Lego Friends is ranged and marketed up to age 12. If you look at the other kits Lego markets in this age range, it’s clear to see how these Friends are dumbed down. Take this example: The Hogwarts Castle is ranged 8-14, so it does go a bit above the Friends range and is more expensive, but Lego clearly thinks that an 8-12 year old would be able to handle this kit, presumably the same 8-12 year playing with the Friends kits. There are no Friends kits age ranged over 12. This is probably because 12 year old girls would be turned off by their Polly Pocket-ness, but also reveals a huge misstep on the part of Lego. If they had made these toys more complex so that older girls and boys would play with them, they would be able to attract a larger share of the market, and some of this backlash would be diminished.
It’s not just that the color palette is pink and purple, but that once you start looking at comparable kits above age 7, the kits are dumbed down.
2. Aren’t Lego Friends a lot like Polly Pocket? They at least look better than Barbie!
Yes. They are better than Barbie. They are absolutely a lot like Polly Pocket. Polly Pocket and Barbie already exist alongside a thousand knockoffs. Lego is supposed to be different. I want our kids to have alternatives to gender-biased toys–toys that encourage boys and girls to play together with each other. The commercial shows pretty clearly the stereotypical “girlie” vibe they are going for:
3. But the line is based on research! Why isn’t it okay for girls to play with pretty little dolls and give them makeovers?
It IS in fact, okay for girls to play with pink dolls that ride My Little Ponies with sparkly manes that exude the scent of rosebuds in spring. However, it is not okay that most of what is marketed toward girls reinforces and perpetuates the stereotype that those are only things girls want to or are capable of playing with.
The research that Lego did was interpreted as “hey, girls like pink stuff and dolls!? Let’s make that and sell it to them!” I would have interpreted the data as, “Wow, girls really ARE affected by the media which tells them that they should only play with pink stuff and dolls. Let’s make some other cool toys to market to them and encourage more girls to build!” Their research showed that marketing and social messages about gendered play are effective. Therefore, if Lego marketed cool toys at girls, that would work TOO.
Just look at the next Toysrus catalog that comes your way—who is pictured building things? BOYS. If Lego showed more GIRLS playing with their toys, more girls would play with their toys. Girls are just as capable and interested in building as boys are. However, when we tell them with words and images that “building is not for girls,” they get that message.
According to Lego’s own website, one of the ten product characteristics stated by the company’s founder is “healthy, quiet play.” The message these toys are sending is not healthy.
4. The company has the legal right to sell what they want. If you don’t like, don’t buy it. What’s the point of making a fuss?
Parents are making a public demonstration of our disappointment because this is a pervasive issue in our culture and change doesn’t happen in response to silence. The company is selling this toy. But it is worthwhile for parents to talk about what Lego is selling along with this toy. They are selling the idea that girls and boys cannot play with the same toys, that girls have to have special “girl toys,” which are inferior to boy toys. It’s important to talk our kids who are old enough to understand what marketing is, and why it matters.
If the beauty salon and dog show kit from the Friends line had been introduced as a part of the regular City line, along with the fire station and police station, I would have no objection. But they weren’t. They are part of Heartlake City where there are NO MALES, except for one Dad. It’s a city of only girls, meant to be built by girls, while the rest of the Lego world is meant for mostly boys and meant to be built by boys. At least that’s what the marketing tells us.
This violates another of the defining characteristics of Lego. Legos are supposed to be “for girls and for boys.”
Lego needs to hear that its marketing is sexist. Lego now has a Lego Club Girls Magazine, which according to a mom whose kids are members, is the only place where Lego will feature pictures that girls send in of themselves with their “builds.” They no longer plan to put pictures of girls in their other magazine, which is both the defacto “boy magazine,” but will continue to be called the Lego Club Jr. Magazine. This segregates girls’ play. Boys should see girls building, and girls should see boys building. For boys, the one place where they might have previously seen girls in official Lego marketing, is now a boys-only space.
Instead of making the world of Legos more inviting for girls, they have created a pink ghetto for them. Take a walk through Target and notice where the Lego Friends and other Legos are stocked to see this in 3-D.
5. Most other Lego kits are clearly for boys. Isn’t it only fair for them to have kits that are clearly for girls?
I totally get this. The Lego products have leaned heavily on movies and other kids media that is aimed at boys. They’ve got a Star Wars, Dino, Pirates of the Carribean, Harry Potter, Racers, and Bionicle lines, along with many other similar lines.
I have three reactions to this: First, who says girls don’t like these things? A lot of girls DO. Second, this just serves to highlight that the problem is larger than Lego. We don’t have enough kid’s media that feature girls going on non-princessy adventures. We need more stories about strong girls. Third, even if they wanted to go for a more pink and ruffly theme, they could have done so while including boys into Heartlake, making the characters a little less consumed with beauty and appearance, and keeping the kits more complex.
My Final Thoughts
As I wandered around the Lego website, I discovered the bios for the Friends, which actually provide each one some dimension. The characters who are into makeovers and shopping also like video games and journalism. That’s pretty cool. What is uncool is that those non-stereotypical characteristics are obscured by all the fluff. Had one of the girls been a budding journalist, who skateboards, and plays videogames (minus the makeover and puppy obsession), wearing pants and some cool kicks, there would be a lot less complaints. If Lego had even kept their products pretty much the same, but ramped up their marketing for their Wonder Woman, Hermione, and female Hero toys, that would have also been welcome!
Lego was right to try and make its products more inviting to girls. There are several things they can rethink about their toys to make them better. I’ve heard that too many kits are violent and too expensive, that the instructions really restrict free play, and a lot of other valid concerns. But I love the concept of Legos as a box of blocks that you can build anything with. I love that and because I can control what my girls play with, that will be what Legos are to them.
I hope that Lego and other companies notice us parents who are asking them to do better and that if we spend our money according to our values, next time maybe they’ll appeal to girls in a way that is empowering, not patronizing.
If you haven’t hit LFF (Lego Friends Fatigue) yet, here’s a collection of great coverage:
UPDATE: Reelgirl and I contacted Lego today and the company is now saying that they will be putting girls photos in the regular magazine. The rep I spoke to did not know if there would be a separate girls magazine anymore because “we’re still in the decision making process about what to do about that.” He said they might just do the Girls’ “Friends” material as an insert in the regular magazine that all kids get, instead of sending one just to girls and another just to boys. But he could not tell me for sure. The rep ReelGirl contacted seemed to think there would still be two magazines. In short, Lego appears to be listening. The image of the Lego Girls Club Magazine in this post is no longer even on their website.