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LEGO’s listening, but they’re not quite hearing us

By Bailey Shoemaker Richards

Remember when?

After Stephanie’s post on how Lego has sold girls out by selling them pink, traditionally girly, stereotyped toys, I ended up having a conversation with Lego’s Twitter account (@LEGO_Group) about the new line of toys. They thanked me for sharing SPARK’s thoughts on the new line of toys and respectfully disagreed, stating that 4 years of research had told them the mini-skirt-wearing, hot-tub-bathing, beauty-shop-running Lego ladies are what girls want now.

I am so disappointed in Lego.

These kinds of toys aren’t what girls want, they’re what girls are told they should want: feminine, frilly activities with little need for building and more focus on the Lego “Ladyfigs” looking so super cute in their hot tubs, singing in what appears to be a nightclub and driving around in a convertible.

While there are Lego sets in the new Friends line that include professions like vet and inventor (the “smart” Olivia), these lines don’t manage to break through the gendered portrayal of the sets overall.  While it’s nice to see a Ladyfig working on science and a career, the range of options presented to girls is still limited. The Ladyfigs are compatible with regular Lego sets, but the regular sets won’t be available to kids unless parents are willing to buy both kinds. The division in appearance (Ladyfigs with thin waists and breasts versus the blocky Lego figs of Hermione and Leia) may make it so that girls no longer even want the traditional sets because their pieces don’t fit in with the look.

Lego’s response to me continued to be that research had showed them this was what girls need in order to want to play with Legos, and that role play required them to make more “realistic” female figures (I guess “real” females never wear pants or engage in sports, because almost every Ladyfig I’ve seen is wearing a miniskirt or a dress). I question the sort of research that stops at, “Girls need pink, strictly gendered toys to play with to be able to identify with them.”

What about the message that sends to girls? Now, when a girl looks at Legos, she’ll see the twenty or so pink- and purple-packaged Ladyfig sets stuck next to the Barbies and Bratz dolls, while the “boy Legos,” hundreds and hundreds of sets that would have been gender-neutral, are left in another aisle, suddenly off-limits. What message is Lego sending to young girls with this new line of toys? The idea seems to be that girls should be focused on cooking, sunbathing, snazzy cars and looking pretty.

From a young age, children are socialized into specific gender roles that define behavior, likes and dislikes, and that shape how kids see their place in the world. Most young children “want to show mastery of their gender roles, which are more rigid and stereotyped than they will be later,” which means that Lego’s limiting portrayal of girls, and the separation of “boy legos” from “girl legos,” will have an impact far beyond playtime.

This isn’t the Lego I know, and it’s not one I want to spend my money on.

Why aren't these Lego sets "for girls"?

Instead of spending 4 years on research that ended up leading to Lego selling the same tired, pink stereotypes as every other company, Lego could have made an effort to start including girls in its advertising for all of its other projects. Lego Star Wars, for example, which my little brother and I love, is not exclusively the province of young boys, and showing both girls and boys playing with Legos sends the message that the blocks and construction play are for all children. Simply showing girls in ads playing with Lego sets alongside their brothers and friends would have created the message that the toys are for girls too.

Instead, Lego has shunted girls off into their own tiny section, reminding them yet again that their province is color-coded and limited, and left the sets focusing on architecture, Harry Potter, super heroes and even the basic creator sets to the boys.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

20 Responses to “LEGO’s listening, but they’re not quite hearing us”

  1. Danielle Cole says:

    It’s such a viscious cycle. Companies shove these pink glittery princess messages down our girls’ throats from the moment they are born. And then companies conduct “research” and come to the conclusion that, gasp, girls want pink glittery princesses. It’s too bad they can’t see past the trend and recognize the real need in the girls’ market.

  2. Talia says:

    And the ‘boys’ Lego gets darker and darker, more and more ‘masculine’ and ‘scary’ until it’s so far removed from the primary coloured Lego I played with as a kid that my girls don’t want it anyway! I’m buying generic brands now that make lego more like it used to be.. One type that fits both genders!! Try eBay everyone, legos patent has expired and there are other options allowing us to avoid this painfully narrow gender typecasting junk Lego say our girls want!

  3. Stephanie says:

    But if girls like darker and scarier stuff, which they often do, they should also not be excluded from Lego’s more recent products.

  4. [...] It's probably no surprise that I like the top image better!  And I wish I could say the same for Lego executives. In the next few days Lego will roll out brand new sets designed for girls ages 5 and up, with the theme, "Friends."  The sets were developed with four years (!) of research into what girls want from Legos. Some bloggers I love are trying to raise Lego's consciousness and I'm backing them up: Pigtail Pals Reel Girl  Spark Summit. [...]

  5. Rebecca says:

    This whole thing is so sad and, well, stupid on their part. I loved Legos. I saved them all from when I was a kid (castle sets! woohoo!), and enjoy playing them with my kids now.

    Jeez, half the point of Lego to me was always that it *was* open-ended, that you could make anything you wanted to, whether that’s a fire truck or a castle for a princess or a whole alien world. Building restrictive gender assumptions into the actual blocks themselves is little short of appalling. I won’t be spending a dime on this pink nonsense.

  6. Georgeann says:

    I took the time to actually write to Legos and point out to them that their stereotype is what is keeping girls stuck. I also suggest that perhaps a petition on change.org is in order to show Legos the error of their ways.

    • Bailey says:

      Absolutely, Georgeann, I’m glad you took the time to write to them! We need to keep the pressure on to let Lego know that we really want to see them supporting, not limiting, girls. We’re working on creating a petition with PBG right now and it’ll go up on SPARK soon!

  7. Bailey says:

    Hello everyone! Thank you so much for your comments and input, you are so spot on. I’m so excited to see the growing reaction to our conversation with Lego about this topic, and we are working on getting a petition set up as I type this! :)

  8. Emma Murphy says:

    That’s fine Lego, I will now never buy any of your products again. My not quite 6 year old has asked for Lego for Christmas because herself and her male friend Kai, and her male cousin Conor, all enjoy playing with it together and don’t see any problem with the pieces as they are, but after this I’ll be buying her Meccano instead to satisfy her building needs. She enjoys the gender neutral meccano like box from Ikea so it won’t even be a problem.

    I’ve already signed the petition through Change.org.

    Emma

  9. David Eaton says:

    Thing #1:
    Your point is valid, but is minor.

    LEGO is selling themselves short. They’ve tried marketing to girls for the past 40 years. It’s not just 4 short years of research, it’s more like ten times that amount.

    Back in the 1990′s, my wife was similarly angry at LEGO for trying to sell “pink” LEGO to girls. But she also contracted for LEGO in one of their concept design labs. She’s seen this sort of thing firsthand. Additionally, I’ve known other designers at LEGO personally, and this topic is one that’s come up for the past dozen or so years that I’ve been involved with LEGO as a hobbyist.

    Here’s the thing: it’s not that NO girls want “standard” LEGO that’s not pink and frilly. It’s not that there ISN’T a market for that. The problem is that that market is SMALL. Girls that want “standard”, unadulterated LEGO are a minority among girls. And LEGO, as a business, wants to hit a larger group. And MORE girls want things that fit the stereotype than those that want “pure” LEGO.

    To be clear: from 1970-1990, LEGO did precisely what you’re talking about. They tried non-pink LEGO with standard elements with non-violent, non-adventure themes, and attempted to pick up a girl following. They tried things like dollhouse rooms, suburban houses, jewelry, and colorful animals. None of them lasted. LEGO didn’t abandon these lines because they “felt like it”. They abandoned them because they didn’t sell as well as they wanted.

    Thing #2: Why single out LEGO?

    LEGO’s not the only one doing this. Hopefully, you’ve got a petition already written up to Mattel and Hasbro voicing your outrage at products like Barbie, Polly Pocket, Bratz, and other toys. And also to organizations that sponsor childrens’ programming like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Cartoon Network?

    And to be honest, why now? LEGO’s other recent attempts to cater to girls (Scala, Belville, and Clikits in particular) have all been EGREGIOUSLY worse than the new “Friends” lineup. The new Friends line is actually pretty tame by comparison in terms of its content. Seriously, take 10 minutes and go check them out– they were outrageously worse by comparison.

    Thing #3: Do something about it other than complain.

    Writing a letter to LEGO and getting a bunch of signatures won’t change anything. LEGO’s armed with, as stated, decades of market research that shows you’re wrong and they’re right. So they won’t be changing their minds without proof.

    Perhaps if you’ve actually got market research to back up your claim, LEGO will listen. Maybe if you can show how girls and boys flock equally to K’Nex, Mega Bloks, Tinkertoys, Erector sets, or other construction toys? However, I think their research shows the same thing: contruction toys are typically dominated by boys rather than girls (versus “art” toys, which are more often dominated by girls). Or maybe you’re holding out gobs of market research that you’ve conducted independently and not just looking at your individual families and intuition and assuming that they apply to all girls everywhere.

    But here’s what you CAN do:

    You want a better selection of girl-based LEGO? Try LEGO Cuusoo. Seriously, this is awesome. Submit an idea in the form of a LEGO set you’d like to see, and get people to sponsor it. If there’s enough support, there’s a good chance LEGO will create the corresponding set. You think you can make a girl product that girls will flock to without frilly pinks and pastels? Try it yourself. Prove you’re right.

    DaveE

    • Bailey says:

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks very much for your comments. First, I want to state off the bat that we are not simply complaining about the new Friends line – no way! We started a campaign on Lego’s Facebook wall asking them to support girls, and this has resulted in thousands of comments asking Lego not to create a new gender divide in the toy aisle. We’ve also started a petition on Change.org asking Lego to start showing girls more actively in their regular advertising. Lego has also responded to me personally on Twitter and Facebook, letting SPARK know that they are interested in our feedback and taking it into account. Comments and signatures might not seem like much, but almost 1,500 signatures on the Change petition alone since 1p.m. on Friday (all of which trigger emails to Lego’s CEO and others) do start to add up.

      A huge part of the problem with girls not being interested in today’s Legos is that they are marketed almost 100% to boys: boys are shown in commercials, print ads, on the website, on boxes…without a similar number of girls playing with the same toys. Kids can’t be what they can’t see: girls who only see the Friends line marketed to them are going to associate those Legos with the only Legos that are “for” them, while the boys get the marketing for everything else. As adults, we are capable of processing advertising much more comfortably, and crossing over those boundaries when necessary (I love Lego and Nerf, for example, and can be okay with buying these products for myself even though they’re not advertised to me; a child doesn’t have that framework yet).

      The problem with the end of your first comment section, Thing 1, is that you assume that no girls want adventure or violence in their toys – plenty of young girls like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, battles, castles, monsters and robots. The market is untapped, not nonexistent. By not marketing the products they aim at boys at girls as well, Lego IS selling its own company short, as well as girls. Offering girls “non-frilly” doll toys doesn’t address the gender disparity inherent in their marketing strategy for the last 20 years.

      To answer why we’re singling Lego out now: it’s because this is a new line. If you read back through SPARK’s blog and action pieces, we have written many times on Barbie, Mattel in general and the problems with creating a gender divide in toys that says pink, frilly and domestic activities belong to girls, while everything else is the province of boys. Friends is new – it may not be as bad as previous lines, I agree, but it is brand spanking new. Barbie has been around for decades. It is an incredibly problematic toy, and we address that, but Barbie doesn’t have a past of being a great gender-neutral and age-neutral toy. Lego does!

      The key word in the beginning of your final section is this: MARKET research. Market research shows that pink, strictly gendered toys are what will sell to girls – not that they’re what girls want, and certainly not that they’re what’s best for children, developmentally speaking. Lego’s corporate mission and vision statement is that they “want to pioneer new ways of playing, play materials and the business models of play – leveraging globalisation and digitalisation…it is not just about products, it is about realising the human possibility.” By creating products that cater to this strict gender divide, Lego is failing to fulfill that. By creating toys that engage in the same “pinkification” of other brands, Lego is tapping into an existing market, not pioneering a new one…and in doing so, leaving children in the dust.

      Kids don’t need gendered toys to be able to play with them. The market says they do, but developmental research shows that they don’t. Toys like the Friends line, with its simplified play sits and limited range of activities, reinforces the message that the larger Lego brand is not “for” girls, which is going to narrow their access to and desire for it. Instead of funneling girls into Lego as a whole by including them in all advertising and product marketing (not just the non-violent themes you mentioned earlier), Lego is simply going to scoop profit away from other brands that similarly sell out girls’ imaginative and intellectual capacity.

      Again, Dave, thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment! I hope my response sheds a little more light on what our perspective is and what we’re hoping to achieve.

      • David Eaton says:

        “Comments and signatures might not seem like much, but almost 1,500 signatures on the Change petition alone since 1p.m. on Friday do start to add up.”

        Well, it’s a start– but not a ton. To put your number in perspective, LEGO Cuusoo (the project I mentioned earlier) requires 10,000 votes of support before even being considered by LEGO.

        The biggest reason that you might get a response (assuming that you’re still under 10,000) is that your actions (collectively, perhaps not yours individually, I’m not sure if you’re associated with that directly) on Facebook are high-visibility. You don’t need a large percentage of people to make a highly visible presence when it comes to posting on LEGO’s Wall.

        “A huge part of the problem with girls not being interested in today’s Legos is that they are marketed almost 100% to boys”

        Are you 100% positive that if LEGO showed boys and girls equally in their commercials that suddenly girls would constitute an equal percentage of LEGO consumers? From what I’ve heard from developmental studies, that’s not true. I recall going to a conference where that specific topic (LEGO in particular, that is) was the issue, and yes, at a certain age, the majority of girls became less interested in it, as well as other “construction” style toys.

        Again, I think the market you’re talking about is small. If you have generic LEGO, yes, there ARE girls who want to play with it. If I had to guess, I’d guess that that constitutes about 5%-30% of girls. And in a market of several million girls, yes, that’s a lot of them! But it’s not the majority.

        But LEGO’s after the OTHER market base. The girls that AREN’T interested in LEGO, even if you marketed fairly with both genders represented fairly. The Friends theme is after the bigger chunk of girls that wants frilly, cute, pastel dolls, and not so many square, chunky blocks.

        “you assume that no girls want adventure or violence in their toys”

        No I don’t. Nobody’s saying that no girls want conflict-based toys. That would be an idiotic statement of extremism, akin to the most outrageous forms of racism, sexism, or religious bias. Please don’t attribute that bias to me, thank you.

        Again, what I’m saying is the percentage of girls that WANT conflict-based toys is SMALLER than the percentage of girls that want NON-conflict based toys, and LEGO is attempting to attract that larger market with the new Friends line.

        Now, I agree with you that LEGO doesn’t represent girls in its other themes’ advertising very well. Girls aren’t usually shown playing with Ninjago characters, or playing with the Alien Conquest sets. And that I’m 50/50 on. Should LEGO include girls in those commercials? Meh. Unfortunately, those are the higher percentage of products that LEGO puts out advertising for at the moment– conflict-based themes like the above, which girls typically aren’t as attracted to.

        However, LEGO also still makes things like “Creator” sets– generic sets that are pretty genderless. Basically, big piles of bricks that let your build whatever you want. And the advertising for THOSE themes should be non-biased with respect to gender.

        If you want to attack LEGO’s advertising, I’d start with the “Build Together” commercials. Those aren’t geared towards any particular theme– they’re actually geared towards fathers. It basically says: “Hey fathers! Build LEGO with your sons!” It’s not aimed at any one particular LEGO theme like Star Wars or Dino Attack, or what-have-you, it’s aimed at LEGO in general. And does it feature any girls? Not that I’ve seen.

        If you want to create a petition about THAT campaign, or about generic LEGO advertising, I’ll gladly sign it. I agree wholeheartedly that LEGO should include both boys and girls in advertising to products that aren’t geared towards a particular gender.

        But should both genders be represented in advertising for themes that are targeting a particular gender? Meh. I’m not sure I see that one way or the other. It strikes me as a “being PC for the sake of being PC” type of argument. It might serve to help reduce strong stereotypes, but it might also just be a useless attempt at trying to make kids into something they’re not.

        “Market research shows that pink, strictly gendered toys are what will sell to girls – not that they’re what girls want, and certainly not that they’re what’s best for children, developmentally speaking.”

        Yes, that’s true– and LEGO, as a business, follows what will sell, NOT what’s necessarily best.

        Let’s face it, if we carry that argument to the logical extreme– IE, that LEGO should be doing “what’s best”, and not what makes them money– then LEGO should essentially change every aspect of what it produces. It’s producing plastic toys for kids who don’t really need them to help them developmentally.

        But if they follow it through to the logical extreme, then poof!, they’re out of business. So the line has to get drawn somewhere. And I don’t think there’s sufficient grounds to suggest that LEGO ought not to market to girls using the established stereotypes.

        In the end, what’s the harm? That girls will feel too “boy-ish” when playing with LEGO? That boys will feel too “girl-ish”? And thus be directed in another direction developmentally? Where does parental responsibility enter into the picture? How about educator responsibility?

        These kids are going to be INUNDATED with stereotypes in marketing, as well as other INSTINCTIVE tactics like sexuality, taste, social pressure, etc. Trying to prevent those tactics in advertising is, quite frankly, impossible. I would argue that the goal should be to teach kids to understand those tactics, and understand when and how they’re being influenced by them, so that they can make a more informed decision in the face of such manipulation.

        DaveE

        • Bailey says:

          Thanks again for the response Dave – I’m pretty sure this conversation is longer than anything else yet written on the subject. ;) I’m not going to respond to every point this time, but I just want to say it really bums me out that your attitude toward changing advertising practices is “meh” and thinking it’s pointless to try. If we all took that line, it would be pointless. If we want to see positive change for ourselves and our kids and our friends, we can’t just accept the status quo. Even if this event doesn’t result in massive change at Lego or anywhere, it’s a start. It’s got hundreds of people talking and looking at an issue of advertising in a way that they might not have before.

          A huge part of what we work on at SPARK is educating kids and parents on how to identify these pressures in the market, and not just avoid them, but actively work to talk back to companies and affect change. We have articles on video and song remixing, how to write effective letters to companies, where to look for products that don’t rely on antiquated gender stereotypes and timely, newsworthy pieces on current events, like our articles about Lego. All of this adds up to a lot of education and focus not just on recognizing marketing manipulation, but working to actively change it. None of us expect overnight success, of course, but none of us are going to throw our hands up and say there’s nothing we can do about it, either.

          • David Eaton says:

            “I just want to say it really bums me out that your attitude toward changing advertising practices is “meh””

            That’s not really what I said– I said I was indifferent to including both genders in advertising that’s specifically for products that are targeted at a particular gender. For example, should you include men in advertisements for Maxipads? I’m indifferent. Even though some men might have reasons for buying such products, I don’t think including them in advertising is a big deal, when the product is clearly targeted at a particular gender.

            You’ll notice that I *DID* say that I’m interested in changing LEGO’s advertising practices as far as *GENERIC* products are concerned, like LEGO’s “Build Together” campaign.

            “and thinking it’s pointless to try”

            I didn’t say that, either– I said that getting rid of effectively subliminal tactics that work using established stereotypes completely from advertising would be effectively impossible.

            The assumption on your part appears to be that if we gradually get companies to stop catering to sexual stereotypes, that those stereotypes will be reduced in society. However, as I pointed out, the purpose behind advertising is to get people to buy things, NOT to be concerned with the social implications of the content. Companies will only react to that if there’s sufficient visible negative reaction (which you’re attempting to create), OR if the tactics cease to be effective.

            My suggestion was to combat the effectiveness of the tactics rather than the USE of those tactics, which seems (to me) like a more feasible goal (though still phenomenally difficult).

            DaveE

  10. [...] Powered by Girl – PBG started the ball rolling. Supporters include  Pigtail Pals, Reel Girl, Spark Summit, Shaping Youth, Princess-Free Zone, Peggy Orenstein, Jennifer Shewmaker, Amy Siskind and more every [...]

  11. Danielle says:

    Ive taken a closer look at Lego’s the last few years and am very happy with what they show in their creator set and city set. I don’t have any details on the gender of kids in their ads and frankly I haven’t seen a Lego ad in a really long time, guess we don’t watch whatever TV show they buy time on.

    Girls are smarter than we give them credit for, especially if their parents encourage them to be their true self, and model that behavior.

    Society as a whole is stupid and even the most researched, market driven toys fail miserably sometimes. Lego takes that risk with every line, and I for one give them credit for continuing to try. Rather than boycotting LEGO, vote with your dollars and buy the sets that support what you and your daughters want.

    Is anyone petitioning ToysRUs, Walmart, Target, Kmart etc to change the way they segregate toys? There is divisions by gender, age, type of toy, and a cohesive brand right? If a boy wanted to buy a doll why can’t he go to a doll aisle and see a wide ranges of dolls he might want. If a girl wants to buy a car… same story? In the first 5 years especially dividing by age range makes more sense than by gender.

    Is anyone petitioning for Barbie toys to be made more accessible to boys?

  12. jen Johnson says:

    I’m a little puzzled at the backlash…the new Friends line does have the shoppers and sunbathers (and like it or not, most women do like that…and it doesn’t mean they are stupid or uneducated or stuck in old role models). But the line also has career sets…one girl is an inventor and another is a veterinarian. In addition, the sets I saw did come in pieces and were not pre-built. I would much prefer railing against the trashy female images of the Bratz dolls…although if women weren’t buying them for their girls, they wouldn’t be selling them…now THAT makes me crazy.

  13. [...] and many others including Powered by Girl – PBG and Spark Summit protested, job on Lego to change a selling [...]

  14. Blackmanga. says:

    Lego’s market research may have shown that girls want prettier minifigs, [I just bought a “Mia” mini-doll to see what the fuss is about, and they’re actually quite nice, she is wearing green 3/4 trousers and really isn’t busty (my Shatele Shan minifig from Star wars has a more obvious busom printed on her chest) but where in that research does it say that girls inherently want to play with beauty salons, have their characters sun tan, bake cakes, have only one male in the whole thing? (“Olivia’s” Dad) Where does it say that girls only appreciate mundane, realistic social activities and relationships in these sets? Where are the girl knights who defend castles and slay dragons and girl astronauts and so on and so on? Where are the girl pilots? Yes you can make them from regular sets, but why aren’t they part of this girl specific marketing? I mean what, do little girls really think, “No no no, keep your fantasy crap of having a girl fly a plane! That’s too unrealistic!” No children are going to think like that.

    Yes, I can appreciate that it’s a HUGE step up from Beville, which absolutely sucked, but they still went notably overboard with the stereotyping with Friends. They should have scaled it back.

    There’s no reason not to include even a token girl in their adverts. No boy is going to think Lego’s suddenly a “girl” thing and abandon it if theres one or two other boys in the commercial.

  15. [...] new, Barbie-fied LEGO Friends figures, and we didn’t like what we saw. So we wrote about it, talked to LEGO about it, and started our own Change.org campaign that got over 60,000 signatures. Eventually, we had a [...]

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