Lego Friends and the Problem of Gendered Toys

Lego has been making waves with its new “Friends” collection for girls. While some have praised the move for trying to encourage girls to play with building toys they might otherwise shun, others see it as unnecessary and pandering. The more I look at the issue, the more I realize I can see both sides of the argument. I have no problem with making more feminine toys available; a lot of girls, and a fair number of boys, like girly stuff and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m absolutely in favor of toys that encourage kids to look outside the pursuits typically approved for their gender. However, Lego really dropped the ball on execution.

The Friends collection revolves around a group of five characters and currently consists of 14 playsets, including a cafe, beauty shop, dog show, and of course, lots of pink and purple. The Lego website even includes a personality quiz so you can see which Friend you’re most like. Olivia loves inventing and building things, Stephanie plans parties and has a pet bunny and dog, Mia’s the sporty eco-conscious one, Emma loves fashion and makeovers, and Andrea loves to sing and dance. It’s like the Spice Girls all over again. The figurines that come with the sets are the most troubling and controversial part of the whole enterprise. Other Lego figurines are short and squat, and male and female characters can pretty much only be distinguished by hairstyle and whether they have lipstick or sideburns.

Screencap of Lego Harry Potter and Hermione figures from Lego website
Harry and Hermione are both quite square

In contrast, the Friends are tall, thin, long-haired, have small but noticeable breasts, and are clad mostly in miniskirts or short-shorts, with the occasional capri pant (but never full-length pants).

Stephanie from the Lego Friends collection
Stephanie is a Lego hottie

Just what the world needed, another set of dolls that reinforce a body type that is unattainable for many young girls. If Lego was changing all of their figurines to be shaped more like people it might be different, but to target only girls with the new slim figures is problematic. The kits are aimed at kids between 5 and 12 years old; I doubt any of them would have avoided playing with the Friends if they’d had the old square characters. It annoys me that their designers thought that to attract girls they had to make the dolls skinny and, let’s face it, a little bit sexy. Also, out of the five Friends currently available, four are light-skinned and the fifth appears to be African-American. I guess it’s a step up from the the other collections whose characters show no hint of ethnicity, but it still seems like tokenism.

Another controversy around the Lego Friends line is the way it’s been marketed to girls. Do girls really need to have separate kits from the boys? Of course not. Are girls largely overlooked in Lego’s current collections? Well, yeah. Obviously girls can and do play with any of the sets, but they aren’t represented very well. Lego’s full line of products consists of more than 30 different collections, and only the Friends are geared more towards girls than boys. The collection most commonly mentioned as one that girls will like is the Harry Potter line, but out of the ten kits currently available, only 12 of 58 figurines included are female (and this only represents nine characters in total since Hermione and Ginny come in multiple sets). The Lego City line would be the easiest one to adapt for both girls and boys, but its playsets are aimed at traditionally masculine interests: police, fire and rescue, planes, trains, and automobiles. And once again, female figurines are sorely lacking and largely assigned to traditional roles. One of the airplane kits includes a stewardess; the train sets include female passengers; the caravan (camping trailer) set includes a heterosexual couple.

Male and female figurines from Lego Caravan set
Check out the boobs and sideburns!

Out of 40 kits and nearly 100 figurines, only nine definitely appear female (a few figurines aren’t pictured clearly on the website, but not enough to increase that number by much). There is one male character in the Friends collection; the Olivia’s House kit includes figurines for Olivia’s parents, Peter and Anna. In store displays and the pictures on the box, Peter is shown mowing the lawn, grilling in the backyard, and sitting on a chair watching TV while Anna stands in the kitchen. Heaven forbid those roles were reversed. It’s lazy and offensive that there’s so little thought put into how male and female characters are portrayed.

Gender neutrality in toys seems to mean taking out anything remotely girly. Even the Duplo line for toddlers shies away from pink and purple blocks. I shit you not, there’s a “Girls and Princesses” category that includes precisely two sets, a cake/cupcake making kit and a box of pink and pastel blocks for freestyle building (neither of which has anything to do with princesses or couldn’t be enjoyed by boys). The other kits actually do represent male and female figures much more evenly than the kits for older kids, but they’re not entirely free from stereotyping the roles (male doctor, female nurse, sigh). However, aside from a couple of flowers and pigs, there’s no pink or purple, not even in the learning kits that teach the alphabet and numbers. Obviously you don’t have to make things pink to interest girls, but it saddens me that so many companies are afraid to add a single pink item for fear that parents won’t buy it for boys.

The problem for me isn’t that there are special kits for girls; it’s that there are so many more kits for boys and that girls are the only ones expected to play with toys that aren’t necessarily aimed at their interests. Lego competitor Mega Bloks has done a much better job balancing their product lines. Sure, the “Girls” line is pink, but the figurines that come with the sets are the same square shape as the figurines in the primary-colored sets (and that hasn’t stopped my 2-year-old daughter from naming hers “Pretty Doll”).

Image of figurine from Megabloks playset
"Pretty Doll" is square and happy

They have Iron Man 2, Marvel comics, and Halo sets, but they also have Hello Kitty, Moshi Monsters, and Dora the Explorer. Notably, these kits are fairly equally represented in stores and are shelved in the same aisle everywhere I’ve seen them for sale. The Friends line is too new to know how they’ll be displayed in the future, but my local Toys ‘R’ Us has them in a display at the front of the store and in a separate kiosk near but not actually in the designated Lego aisle, and Target has them in the girls’ section with other dolls, several aisles away from the rest of the Legos. By segregating them from the other collections, it reinforces that boys and girls should play with different toys.

So how could this have been handled better? By actually respecting girls and boys enough to make kits that are interesting but not condescending. Expanding the Lego City line or creating a similar Lego Village would have given them the opportunity to make the same sort of kits but without drawing a gender divide. Just as I’m sure there are girls who want to play with the Ninjago or Star Wars sets (hell, I’d have killed for Star Wars Legos when I was a kid), I’m sure there are tons of boys who would play with a tree house or bakery set if society wasn’t telling them not to shop in the girls’ aisle. Lego should also do a better job of looking for partnerships with existing movies or cartoons that represent female characters more equally (it would help, of course, if more entertainment for kids actually did have equal numbers of female characters). All toy companies need to stop being afraid to include pink or even purple. Purple! I can’t tell you how many of my daughter’s gender-neutral toys are red, orange, yellow, green, and blue; it’s like they forgot the rest of the damn rainbow exists. And please, please stop marketing sexy dolls to kids in elementary school. I have no problem with miniskirts or with girls wanting to dress up to look cute; my problem is when that’s the only way they’re portrayed. Lego claims they spent four years researching what girls like before releasing the Friends, but when more than 50,000 people have signed a Change.org petition condemning the way the line has been marketed, they clearly missed something. Hopefully Lego and other toy companies will learn from this experience and start treating girls with the same respect they give to boys. It’s about time, don’t you think?

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

17 thoughts on “Lego Friends and the Problem of Gendered Toys”

  1. I have had the “girl lego” discussion so many times this winter! The consensus is that they suck.  The girls I know who like Legos, have told their parents that the boys Legos are more interesting, and those are the sets they want. (I know some kick-ass little girls, btw)

    At 3 & 6, my kids divide toys into girls toys and boys toys….but they both play with both. They’ll have the Littlest Pet Shop dogs lined up on the train tracks and have Barbie in the Bat Cave and I kind of love it.

    Wouldn’t toy companies sell more toys if they marketed to all children, instead of only half the population? Pixar missed the boat on this as well- I know many a young girl who LOVED Lightning McQueen from Cars…but they made zero items for said girls.

    Annoying.

  2. I used to work in a Lego store, and my impression of the brand is that the whole thing is largely geared toward boys, much in the way Hot Wheels are.  I think that having adults abstractly argue for gender equality in cases like this goes against what the company knows about the brand associations in place, what parents are really buying their kids, and the fact that girls aren’t socialized to want to build things.  I’m never sure how I feel about companies being pressured to take a loss in order to align with a principle.  Women work for these companies, and their livelihoods depend on the marketing department’s ability to determine who’s actually buying this stuff.  I don’t want real women to suffer financially or lose their jobs because they were trying to appease our politics when we’re not buying Lego products anyway.

    1. I just don’t see that Lego would suffer financially by painting lipstick on a couple firefighter or pilot figurines to even out the numbers a bit. My point with Mega Bloks is that they have plenty of girl sets or gender neutral sets like Smurfs and Dinosaur Train and it hasn’t put them out of business. An actual Lego town with sets to build a bookstore, coffee shop, playground, movie theater, fire station, grocery, swimming pool, and other stuff like that would be amazing and would appeal to boys and girls. My kid’s two; I don’t know what TV shows elementary school age or tween girls these days are into, but if they made say, a Twilight tie-in collection, they’d be rolling in dough. If you build it, they will come.

  3. Love this post!  I fear that the main problem is not LEGO missing the mark on gender equality, but LEGO not even taking a shot.  I think their efforts, and that of most toy companies, is not to even out the market, but to make sure their stuff is on all aisles.  So perhaps the best way to work on this problem is to convince stores not to create separate pink and blue aisles, putting the Marvel toys next to the Barbie ones.  Also we talk to the parent community, helping other parents be OK with their boy grabbing a “girlie” doll and their daughter wanting a monster truck. 

    We can assume one thing about the market: it will always try to meet demand.  So I have a hard time criticising the manufacturers too much without addressing the underlying social aspects with the consumers, helping them to think twice before picking up a sexy LEGO… :)

     

  4. 17 years ago, my dad complained to Lego customer service about their seeming inability to include girls. It’s sad that this conversation isn’t over.

    I was going to say something about how many toy companies could learn a thing or two about Imaginarium toys, but after a Google search to me to an Irish website, I’m just confused. I grew up playing with these in the States, but there isn’t an American site? My childhood was a lie.

  5. As a little girl I didn’t even give my LEGO puppets any gender. It was about the stories you created with the pirate ships and the castles, not the people inhabiting it, geesh.

    I’m a bit torn on this. On the one hand I’ll say: keep pink out and keep it gender-neutral like that. On the other hand that will give pink (and other ‘girly’ colours) too much weight and poor boys, what if they want to use hot pink for their LEGO apartments?

  6. It’s not even the colors that bother me (although it is stupid to have zero “girl” colors in the boy sets), but the stupid standards of beauty.  I figured we’d have a totally gender neutral household, but Sofia simply loves the gendered stuff (sparkly, high-heels-y, flowery).  It’s tough to find that stuff that doesn’t send terrible messages about how one is supposed to look.  The legos we have didn’t come with people, though, so we’re safe there.  For now.

  7. I’ve basically annoyed my kids into being aware of separating toys by gender. My almost-8 yr old daughter will start to say things like, “I like a lot of boy’s toys— I MEAN, Toys that boys more commonly play with.” And then there’s an eye-roll. Because even if your kid is willing to stand up for the boy who likes dolls, that doesn’t mean she isn’t above rolling her eyes at her mother for hammering in the point, of course. She’s prone to saying things like, “I just want to live ALONE when I grow up because everything is else sounds like WORK” while she’s also making something out of a book called “Princess Crafts.”

    Meanwhile, the 4 year old boy thinks Lady Gaga is a superhero, is totally fine with wearing his sister’s outgrown lavender mittens if we can’t find his own, loves dance music …. and also of course, jumping off the furniture, anything to do with dinosaurs and the word “fart.”

    Anyway… I just think it’s interesting to see how we’re juuuuuuust starting to make an effort, some of us, to change this system in place when it comes to our kids. I just try to make my best effort with mine, and hope that it sticks.

  8. The box of Lego I had as a kid was just the basic shapes in primary colours. I only ever built houses with it, as my mother is an architectural draftswoman so I thought that was all you could build with them! I’m incredibly disheartened to see Lego bring out this set. My favourite thing to buy my 2.5 year old cousin is the Duplo kits, and so far we have got him the Cars 2 set (Luigi and Guido are awesome), and a dumptruck. I really think if he was a girl, I still would have got them because I really bought them for myself to play with!

  9. My four-year old son is already separating toys he sees in commercials or at the store as “girl” or “boy” toys and it drives me crazy!  I’ve been trying to get him to tell me why something is a “girl” toy and he can’t even tell me – proof to me that gender socialization is so pervasive that it’s impossible for a kid to grow up without preconceived gender role ideas that need to be unlearned as they grow. Good thing I’m happy to reeducate!

     

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