LEGO announced that after 4 years of intensive research, they have finally come up with a LEGO product that fulfills the desires of “how girls naturally build and play.” This new theme is called LEGO Friends and it’s a pink and purple, gender segregated, suburban wasteland populated by Barbie/Bratz style dolls. Many parents, educators, feminists, and media critics have spoken out against LEGOs attempts to separate girls into their own stereotypical isolated enclave within the LEGO universe.
In part 1 of my two part LEGO and Gender series, I’ll explore how LEGO went terribly wrong with LEGO Friends and provide a brief history of LEGO’s ridiculous and slightly hilarious attempts to market to girls since the late 70’s. In part 2 I’ll delve into LEGO’s intentional strategy to market almost exclusively to boys since the mid 80’s by developing and marketing sets that are male identified and male centered. In conclusion, I’ll offer LEGO a couple of suggestions that they can consider when creating and marketing new products.
Related Links and Articles:
- Should the World of Toys Be Gender-Free? by Peggy Orenstein, New York Times Op-Ed
- What the MiniFig?! Legos Build The Wrong Message For Girls by Stephanie Cole at Spark Summit also check out the letter they sent to LEGO and their petition.
- #Liberate Lego by Lyn Mikel Brown at the Huffington Post
- I’m Starting to Think Lego is Evil by Daniel Sinker
- Gender Controversy Stacks Up Against ‘Lego Friends’ NPR Interview with Bailey Shoemaker Richards
- Check out my video Toy Ads and Learning Gender
- Be sure to also check out the larger LEGO FRIENDS house on fire image from Rebellious Pixels on Flickr.
** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.
“LEGO is here, hey kids, look a whole new world to build.”
LEGOS are one of the most fantastic and creative toys ever developed. I mean check this out, it’s a LEGO stegosaurus, it even has light up eyes *rawr*
Research has consistently shown that playing with LEGOs accelerates childhood development, and is upheld as a gateway to math, science and engineering fields, promoting spatial memory, spatial design and of course imagination. Sadly, as a consequence of LEGOs decision to design and market their products almost exclusively to boys over the past few decades, girls have been largely left out.
So when the LEGO Group announced that they were committed to expanding the LEGO experience for girls in 2012 in a significant way I was excited, but a little skeptical. Here’s what LEGO had to say:
“We actually see ourselves as duty bound to find a fantastic LEGO experience for Girls. We are passionate about what the LEGO experience does to children around the world, I mean, their development, great experience, ability to concentrate, and it’s just not good enough that we cannot do something which is really appealing to girls and delivering that same great experience.”
LEGO claims to have spent millions of dollars and 4 years doing intensive research on this endeavor and they’ve even budgeted 40 million dollars to market to girls globally.
So with all that what has the company done to integrate girls back into the LEGO experience?
“LEGO Friends. New LEGO Friends. Welcome to Beautiful Heartlake City. I’m Stephanie, I’m going to a party at the new café with my friend Olivia. That’s me, I just finished decorating my house. Time to chill with the girls. At the Beauty Shop, Emma is styled and ready to go. This is gonna be so much fun! Welcome to the world of LEGO Friends. New LEGO Friends.
*Sigh* So where do we even begin?
This new LEGO collection features 23 sets that focus on the lives of 5 “Friends®” Mia, Emma, Andrea, Olivia and Stephanie who all hang out and have fun in someplace called Heartlake City, not to be confused with the regular “City” which is LEGO’s longest running theme. No, Heartlake City is a pastel colored gender segregated stereotypically female suburban paradise.
And to make it absolutely clear that these sets are for girls, they’ve covered everything in pink and purple, from the branding to the boxes to the bricks themselves. Another way LEGO has segregated the Friends theme from the rest of the LEGO universe is by creating a brand new LEGO person. The traditional LEGO characters or “minifigs” as they’re called has become a recognizable icon world wide. The minifigs are the center piece of the entire LEGO universe featured in their videogame and movie franchises, extended merchandise, and even in their theme parks. By contrast the new Bratz/Barbie style “Lady Fig” or “mini doll” featured in Heartlake City is taller, curvier and they wear little skirts. By essentially making the mini-doll an entirely separate species it just works to further segregate the Friends theme from the rest of the LEGO universe.
The Friends theme sets focus on traditionally female identified tasks including baking at the City Park Café, getting your hair done at the Butterfly Beauty Shop, taking care of pets at the Heartlake Vet, or homemaking at Olivia’s House. Out of the initial 14 offerings the only set that breaks out of this mold might be Olivia’s Inventor’s Workshop, which would be really awesome if it weren’t for the inexplicable decision to make all of her tools purple.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with pink and purple, I’m sometimes fond of these colours, obviously, pink and purple are just two options out of the rainbow of brick colors available in the LEGO universe. The problem is pink and purple hardly ever appear in the sets marketed to boys and Heartlake city is dominated entirely by soft pastel colours.
There is also nothing inherently wrong with LEGO sets that include places to live, places to eat, beauty salons, entertainment venues etc. These are all establishments that you’d expect to find in pretty much any city.
But here is where LEGO starts to go horribly wrong.
First, the activities featured in the Friends theme such as baking, cooking, caregiving, homemaking, decorating, hair styling are rooted in deeply stereotypical and limiting roles for women in children’s toys and sadly, in society in general.
Second, these types of establishments only exist in the girls’ world of Heartlake city. The real LEGO city, on the other hand, you know, the ones that come in the blue boxes, that’s marketed almost exclusively to boys has dozens of CITY subthemes including Search and Rescue, Police, Firefighters, Construction, the Space Port which are all traditionally male identified occupations (though they shouldn’t be). Noticeably absent are any places for the LEGO city minifigures to live or eat. Isn’t it curious that there are almost no housing, entertainment or restaurant subthemes in LEGO city?
So what happens when something in Heartlake City catches on fire? I guess you have to call the boys to put it out, similarly what happens when someone in LEGO city gets hungry? I guess you’d have to call the girls to bake them something. This is just absurd.
Now you may be thinking to yourself that kids don’t have to follow the instructions, they could build whatever they want out of the LEGO set, girls could build spaceships out of the beauty salon for example. The problem is that the Friends theme was developed from the ground up based on a story of five friends and everything that girls are meant to do with the sets revolves around that specific story. This severely limits the possibilities of what most girls will do with the sets. And there’s nothing else in the rest of the LEGO universe that will encourage girls to think outside of the gendered walls of Heartlake City.
It seems as though LEGO is convinced that boys and girls just naturally have different interests, the LEGO Group CEO said “We focused on creating a play experience centered on the joy of creation, while heeding the way girls naturally build and play.”
Using the language of “natural” or “nature” in reference to gender infers that girls are biologically predisposed to like dolls and pink things. As noted by Peggy Orenstein in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, if we look to the turn of the century this gendered color dynamic was actually reversed, in the early 1900s blue was associated with baby girls and pink with baby boys, really, it might be hard to believe but you can look it up. This demonstrates that colour association with gender is a social construct, it’s not biological, it’s not genetic, it’s not natural. It’s made up.
Contrary to LEGO’s press release that states that “LEGO Friends is the first 100 percent LEGO building experience fully optimized to girls’ tastes and interests.” LEGO has tried this type of gender stereotyping before. Here’s a quick history of LEGO’s ridiculous attempts to market to girls.
In 1979 LEGO released SCALA, a jewelry making kit that featured little plastic pieces with birds and flowers painted on them.
In 1992 LEGO released the PARADISA collection, which to their credit, was meant to fit together with the larger TOWN LEGO theme (which is now renamed CITY).
“Paradisa, Paradisa, sun is shining all day. Let us ride down to the beach, go surfing, camping and play. We can do anything we like at the house with the sun. Paradisa, Paradisa, this is where we have fun.”
It included female minifigs so that’s good but all the boxes were bright pink, and all the activities were leisure activities like the poolside paradise, the fun fair, and the country club.
In 1994 LEGO reduced the building experience to almost nothing with the Belville theme. And similar to the ladyfigs of the Friends theme, the characters of Belville looked a lot more like Barbie then Lego’s traditional minifigs. The play focused on fairy tales where girls could play house with prince charming or have magical tea parties.
A few years later LEGO brought back the Scala theme, in name only, this time there was virtually nothing to build and the core of the theme was to play with and dress up the Barbie knock off dolls.
And finally, in 2003 this happened.
“You’re a very stylish girl, just click to change your style, you’re a very stylish girl, you’re way, you’re style. Clickits, click it your way. Clickits.”
So they brought back customized jewelry making with Clikits. I have no idea how this product is associated with LEGO since it has none of the iconic LEGO elements.
This brings us back to 2012 and the new Friends theme.
“LEGO Friends. New LEGO Friends. Welcome to beautiful Heartlake City. We’re here! Let’s all help out, make burgers, shakes, bake the cupcakes. It’s perfect. Welcome to the world of LEGO Friends.”
But moving on, LEGO’s press release on the Friends theme states that, “LEGO Friends delivers on a girl’s desire for realistic role-play, creativity, and a highly-detailed, character-based world” and apparently girl’s also desire “more beauty… accessories… and interior building.”
I’m slightly confused because all of those things are also true about the other existing LEGO sets. Let’s take a look at a few of examples.
The Medieval Market Village is extremely detailed as is the Death Star which has 13 separate interiors.
Or what about Hogwart’s Castle? It comes with Dumbledore’s office, the Slytherin and Gryffindor common rooms, the Astronomy Tower, the Great Hall. It has 11 different minifigs and for accessories you get the Sorting Hat, Tom Riddle’s book, a Basilisk fang, various wands. You even get a little Mrs. Norris! If this isn’t a highly detailed, creative, role playing, interior building world then I don’t know what is.
Setting aside the “desire for beauty” which I guess just means pink. It appears LEGO already makes toys that offer creative, role playing, character based, accessorized, interior building, construction experiences so there must be something else keeping girls from embracing the LEGO experience.
The real reason girls aren’t interested in LEGOs as a whole is because for the last quarter of a century the LEGO Group has been telling girls repeatedly that bricks are for boys.
How did LEGO’s products shift from its initial relatively, gender neutral, universal building experience to a more male dominated, male identified one? Well, it didn’t happen by accident. Join me for Part 2 of my LEGO and Gender video series where I’ll dig into exactly how this happened, starting with a brief history of LEGO’s TV commercials including Zack the LEGO Maniac. I’ll also offer LEGO a couple of suggestion to fix their gender segregation problem.
I hope you enjoyed that video, it was probably my most ambitious project to date and took an enormous amount of time to put together, please help keep Feminist Frequency going by donating today. You can visit feministfrequency.com/donate