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Best of P-Mag: Lego Friends and the Problem of Gendered Toys

I love this post in particular by Hillary because she always makes an effort to look at any situation she examines from multiple perspectives. ~Selena

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?

By [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.

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