The first female minifig those 4-centimeter people with the yellow jugheads to appear in the January 2012 LEGO catalog is a doctor ably holding up the back end of a stretcher with her male colleague in a new ambulance set. But she doesnt show up until page 12, after dozens upon dozens of male ninjas, firefighters and all manner of villains. This is the paradox of LEGO for parents, especially parents of girls: the famous Danish toy maker could provide an oasis from the anachronistic gender stereotypes so rampant these days especially in its City line, where women might be employed in all sorts of capacities, as they are in real life and yet the fantasy lines such as Ninjago, Kingdoms, Hero Factory, and of course, Star Wars, are relentlessly male, with the exception of Princess Leia. According to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, focusing on boys was a specific business decision to get the LEGO Group out of a major financial crisis back in 2004 when they were losing $1 million a day. The strategy worked so well that revenues increased by 105% from 2006 to 2010, and sales in the U.S. topped $1 billion for the first time last year.
I have spent thousands of dollars on LEGO for my son, hosted three LEGO birthday parties and have even installed shelves to display his creations. I have indulged his passion (as has his father and generous grandparents and godparents) because it supposedly develops his math and spatial skills, or at least keeps him busy for hours at a stretch. But I have also been more than a little disheartened to see his younger sister initially drawn to our buckets of expensive plastic only to lose interest. I cant say I blame her. I suspect that girls dont like to play with todays LEGOs because they so rarely see themselves represented in the minifigs, and because the events being reenacted battles to the death, alien attacks are unappealingly violent. (That and the fact that LEGO is routinely shelved in the boy section of the toy department in stores.) So when I first heard about the 2012 debut of a new theme that was more girl-friendly, I was hopeful.
And then I had a look at the stuff. LEGO Friends, as the new line is called, creates a place called Heartlake City which thus far consists of a beauty parlor, a café, a bakery, a clothing design school, a vets office, a sound stage, and, thankfully, an inventors workshop. (So much for municipal services.) There are no men in Heartlake City, except for the father of Olivia, one of the five core friends who are not minifigs at all but redesigned mini-dolls that come with the following accessories: a purse, a hair brush, a hair drier, four lipsticks and two barrettes; a spatula, an electric mixer and two cupcakes; and for when theyre not primping or baking, a puppy dog and a pink book with butterflies on it. Is this message with its emphasis on physical appearance and limited career choices really any different from that of Disneys princesses?
Whats worse, LEGO Friends doesnt give girls the same sense of mastery and accomplishment that it gives boys. Usually, when you open a LEGO set you will find several smaller bags numerically labeled in the order in which to build, along with a booklet of diagrams of the steps. But LEGO Friends has dispensed with this system, so that girls can begin playing without completing the whole model first. So much for learning how to follow instructions, or finishing what you started, or just getting those damn pieces off the floor so I wont step on them.
Kids learn through their toys, and as Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times, even while boys and girls show some sex differences in what they chose to play with, theyre also incredibly malleable:
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging let alone exploiting stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.
Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Todays boys and girls will eventually be one anothers professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences?
My daughters fourth birthday is coming up, and Im sure one of the Friends sets will be among her presents. Ill probably even swallow my misgivings and buy her one myself in the hopes that it will get her building alongside her brother. (For those who are offended by LEGO Friends, you can sign a petition here.) In 1963, the son of the founder of LEGO, Godtfred Christiansen, defined 10 characteristics of Lego and one of them was: For girls and for boys. I assume, from the wording, that he did not mean one set for girls, one set for boys, a separate-but-equal doctrine. I just wish that they had tried a bit harder to carry out his gender-neutral vision.
And now for the take from Gizmondo.
The cool space fighter above was created with bricks from Lego Friends' Butterfly Beauty Shop, Olivia's Invention Workshop, Stephanie's Cool Convertible, and Emma's Fashion Design Studio. It proves one thing: feminists criticizing the new Lego Friends sets just don't get it.
When I first saw the new and controversial Lego Friends I hated it too. It wasn't the colorsI like the colorsbut those stupid figurines and the branding. I found them as nauseating as the branding and styling of dolls like the Bratz. How could Lego argue that they spent millions in researching these? They were horrible and stereotyping.
Except they are not. Not really, after you play with them.
The pieces on the sets are fine. They are just Lego pieces. Interchangeable, functional, flexible. Neutral. They are not special for girls. The instructions are ok too. Sure, they are for making a beauty shop or a pastel convertible. But kids don't have to follow them.
In fact, they will break them and create new stuff, as it always has happened. That's the whole point of Lego.
I know because I've been building them since the late 70s, the golden era of Lego, when I was a little kid putting bricks together with my brothers and my sister.
Yes, the branding and the figurines still suck. They are "girly". They are far from the Lego ideal, a toy that spans through genders and generations, treating everyone equally. This genius ad is a good proof of this ideal. Does Lego believe that there should be Lego for boys and Lego for girls?
No. Their most popular setsLego City, Pirates, Castle, etc.are bought for both boys and girls. They are gender neutral. Parents buy them and kids are happy with them.
The way I see it, Lego Friends was created to fight the typical toys for girls, stupid and garish. The dreadful Bratz and Barbies of this world. Those are the toys that many girls are asking for. Parents, older siblings or family may try to steer them away from those brainless toys and fail. Just the same way they try to steer boys from other brainless toys and fail. At the end of the day, many girls want the Bratz or whatever is in fashion that year. And many boys want a beeping reproduction of the Millennium Falcon. At the end of the day, they are useless pieces of plastic.
But Lego Friends, as Lego Star Wars or Lego Harry Potter or Lego Sponge bob, are a way to sell Lego to a wider audience. To fight the stupid toys. To give tools to build anything to all those kids. All of the sudden, kids who would never consider neutral Lego themes, like Lego City or Lego Castle, want these Lego sets. They want the walls of Hogwarts and the cute pastel convertible.
And that's good.
After two days, what was Harry Potter or Friends or Star Wars ends being Little Jane's generic cool car or Little Joe's generic space plane.
The fact is that kids don't give a damn about instructions when it comes to construction toys. They just build and destroy and build and destroy and build. After a month, everything ends in the same pile and it's all pieces to build crazy stuff.
Anyone who has played with Lego knows this.
Lego Friends is a great tool to fight the stupid toys, an alternative for parents to move girls from Bratz to brains. That's what counts.
Those branded themes are great cash cows for Lego, sure, but they are also the way kids get into Lego. They are a backdoor. Once the radioactive Lego brick bites them, they become hooked. The next time they will want one Lego set just because it seems cool or more complicated. The space shuttle. A Lego creator building. A Technic car. Both girls and boys would pick those and build whatever they want with them.
This Brothers Brick review of these new sets reminded me that it just doesn't matter what's on the box cover. What matters is what kids create with them.
So no, Lego Friends is not an attack or a way to impose roles. It's precisely all the contrary. They are the ally, not the enemy. Because, fortunately, building things using your imagination doesn't have anything to do with sex.
The rest is just an artificial debate from people who are clueless about the true nature of this toy, which has been played for decades by boys and girls alike. A toy that almost died, killed by franchises that sold stupid, passive plastic contraptions that require no creativity. Friendslike Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Harry Potteris Lego's way to fight those toys back.
A review by the person who made the spaceship
Have to say I agree fully with those figs being horrid. I don't build much from scratch anymore, but I like the builders take that it's great to have new colors and pieces at a cheap price.