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LEGO: The Good, the Bad, and the Frilly

by Melissa Campbell

WOW—more than 48 thousand people have signed on to our petition asking LEGO to rethink the way they market their toys! This is totally amazing and we’re so proud to be launching this incredibly important conversation around gender, development, and play.

If you’re tuning into this action-in-process, check out these pieces detailing what our issues with the LEGO friends line are. What it comes down to is this: our problem isn’t with the line itself (although we probably wouldn’t play with it). Our problem is with the way LEGO is saying that girls need pastel blocks, cupcakes, and lipsticks to enjoy building-focused play.

We understand that some girls do like to play with things like LEGO Friends. That’s great! We hope they have fun and that they learn a thing or two about construction along the way. That’s why (despite what some folks are saying) we are not asking LEGO to discontinue this line.

Let me clarify: We don’t have a problem with pastel colors–pastel blocks are great! There’s nothing wrong with cupcakes, being a singer, hanging out with your friends, working at a café, or any of the other things the LEGO Friends do.

What is wrong is creating a line as limited as LEGO Friends and calling it your “Girl” product—what about girls who want to go on adventures or go into space? What is wrong is sending girls a dumbed-down, building-free version of LEGO Club Jr. Magazine just because they’re girls—what about girls who want to build more than what’s on the box? What is wrong is marketing your product—your fantastic, fun, educational, totally awesome product—almost exclusively to boys for ten years and then pretending like you have no earthly idea why girls don’t play with it. (Also, why are pastel blocks exclusively “for girls”? Couldn’t they be in the general sets too?)

People have told us “if you want your daughter to play with other LEGOs, buy them for her!” Those of us with daughters have and will. But this isn’t just about parents and their kids; it’s about all children. By age 2, children internalize the narrow messages about gender sent to them by culture and media. By age 5, they’re concerned with expressing those roles as best as they can. These internalized expectations follow them through their lives: research shows that exposure to stereotypical notions of gender in media can affect girls’ and women’s performance in math, and discourages girls and women from stepping outside the perceived bounds of  femininity.

In other words, even kids who will never own a LEGO set in their lives are absorbing the messaging of this hyper-gendered marketing campaign. When girls see commercial after commercial of other girls hanging out by the pool, doing their hair, cruising in their convertible, and playing with animals, they begin to think that those are they ways they’re supposed to play; that those are the things they’re supposed to do now and in the future. Meanwhile, toys marketed to boys—including pretty much any LEGO that isn’t part of the Friends line—send a much healthier message that boys can be anything: cops, spacemen, pirates, kings, city workers, engineers, presidents.

We want LEGO, who by their own mission are “not about products, but … human possibility,” to really think about the messages their current marketing is sending. We want pastel colors, cupcakes, robots, and wizards to live side by side in the most fantastical adventures that kids can think of.  We want boys and girls to play together with a variety of toys in a variety of colors, not separately with different versions of the same product.

LEGO is a great company, and we think there’s a lot of potential for them to hear us on this and for us to have an in-depth conversation about how their toys can be stand-out examples of fantastic gender-neutral and mixed-gender play. We love LEGO, and we don’t want to see them go down the same road that so many other toymakers have gone down. I’ll repeat this: We love LEGO. But we are disappointed in them and our hearts are a little broken. We’re about to take this campaign to the next level, so watch this space, and help us ask LEGO to stop selling all of our children short.

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7 Responses to “LEGO: The Good, the Bad, and the Frilly”

  1. Elsie says:

    I just did a whole FAQ on this issue from a feminist perspective over at
    http://momsla.com/2012/01/why-my-daughters-wont-be-playing-with-lego-friends/

    A lot of people just weren’t getting the problem with it, and I think I was able to address some of the concerns. At least I hope so!

    • SPARKsummit says:

      Thank you for sharing, Elsie! That post is definitely awesome and tackles lots of the questions we’ve been getting over and over again.

  2. isabelle brabant says:

    Please, reconsider the way you market your wonderful blocks, and DO include girls in the regular ones. They ALSO want to fly to Mars or wherever their dreams will lead them!

  3. AndyC says:

    Friends is only “limited” if your imagination is lacking. It’s LEGO and the figures are far more compatible than the many LEGO girl lines that have been available in the past such as Scala and Belville.

    You can make the Friends do or be whatever you want, no matter how non-stereotypical or bizarre that may be. As I amply demonstrated here:

    http://www.eurobricks.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=64484

    • Stephanie says:

      It’s not a question of whether one can theoretically build anything with the line. It’s LEGO, and the awesome thing about LEGO is that anyone with some skill and imagination can build whatever they want! One isn’t forced to build a hot tub with the Friends line any more than one is forced to build the Millennium Falcon with the Star Wars line. (A switched up pastel Falcon and metallic grey hot tub actually sounds amazing, but I digress.) LEGO enthusiasts are excited about the new colors available, and that’s great! A huge range of colors would no doubt help an elaborate building project. The problem is the way LEGO is selling the line. The commercials, boxes, and magazine show karaoke bars, cars and houses, not spaceships or airplanes or skyscrapers. And 5 year old’s are much more likely to be inspired by the box than older hobbyists. True, girls can build whatever they want with the new line, but in order to do so, they have to go a bit rogue. Traditional, pretty expressions of femininity are great fun, but personally, I’m tired of girls having to break “out of the box” if they want to digress. Can’t they be more overtly encouraged to be different?

    • SPARKsummit says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Andy! Your creation is pretty amazing, not gonna lie. But I do want to point out that things like LEGO axes, hammers, spiderwebs, etc. are all things that come in other LEGO sets–sets that, thanks to this new marketing scheme, are explicitly coded “for boys.” If girls are only being marketed the Friends line, will they ever see those sets? We worry that they won’t.

      To that end, we don’t mean that the line is limited in what you can build with it, we mean it’s limited in the way LEGO presents play to girls. Instead of encouraging girls to use their imaginations in building, LEGO’s commercials for the Friends line are very clearly telling young girls (who don’t have the developmental capacity to critically analyze media like adults!) that the way girls should play is through role-play of mundane storylines like going to the cafe or the night club rather than by building amazing new worlds. The hyper-gendered marketing segregates “girl” LEGO from “boy” LEGO in a very real way, and The Lego Club Jr. Girls’ Magazine exacerbates this problem by not providing alternative building instructions (though there are rumors that the Girls’ mag won’t last much longer–check out the link in the first comment for more on that).

      Basically, I think you and I are in agreement: this line doesn’t need to be limited! Pastel blocks are great, and it would be awesome for girls AND boys to use these sets in tandem with other LEGOs to build to their hearts’ desires. LEGO’s marketing for this line is counterproductive to that desire.

      -Melissa

  4. AndyC says:

    You might want to have a look through the Girls Club magazine, as it does include a few other lines aside from Friends. Between Friends, Forest Police, Harry Potter, the Minfigures and the Modular Buildings – all of which feature in it – there are actually a substantial number of those gruesome pieces! Even Friends sets like Olivia’s Workshop contain a lot of tool pieces and is actually a surprisingly non-stereotypical role for a “girl” set.

    There are scans of the first one on Flickr if that helps:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/29804947@N08/sets/72157628837141951/with/6684146567/

    I do agree that sending out a seperate marketing brochure (which, to be honest, is all Lego Club Magazine is) to girls is unnecessary and hope that decision is reverted. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as a lot of the internet campaigns are suggesting though.

    I’d also encourage people to look beyond the “minidolls”. The actual quality of the building experience is significantly better than Belville, for example, which really treated girls with rather second class quality designs for the last decade. In fact I actually think some of the best sets available from a build point of view are in the Friends line!

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