A week ago, I had the pleasure of debating the pros and cons of Legos for Girls on NPR with two intelligent, opinionated women. Is the new line of Lego Friends, marketed specifically to girls, pandering to girly stereotypes, or is Lego simply responding to market demand, because there is nothing wrong with girly girls wanting pink Legos and beauty shop kits?
Yes. And yes.
Yes, Lego is totally going the stereotype route. And yes, there is nothing wrong with girly girls wanting pink Legos and beauty shop kits.
It isn’t that simple. There are other factors that complicate what may appear to be simple on the surface.
The discussion about Legos has drifted away from the point. Increasingly, I see blog posts where moms of “girly girls” are defending the rights of their daughters to like princesses and pink, because they feel that the moms of “tomboys” (who are criticizing the new Lego Friends) are trying to strip the “girl” from some girls.
And then I see blog posts from the moms of girls who seek to play with “boy toys” trying to defend their daughters from a world that pushes them towards dolls and dresses.
I have a daughter who likes the “boy toys.” And I have a daughter who swoons at the sight of princesses. Each has a right to like what she likes.
The problem with the new Legos is not the “girly” material. The problem is the label that these toys are For Girls and, by deduction, the “regular” Legos are For Boys. None of the Legos are psychologically accessible to everyone. Too many labels, too little choice.
And, for those of you who are wondering why some feminists are bent out of shape about the Legos, here is a quick background:
The ladyfigs are slimmer than the traditional block-shaped Lego minifigs, and they have breasts. The Lego Friends live in Heartlake City, which thus far consists of a beauty parlor, a bakery, a café, a vet’s office, a clothing design school, a sound stage, and an inventor’s workshop. The toys come with accessories such as lipsticks, hairbrushes and cupcakes.
Unlike the “boy” sets, the Lego Friends do not require complete assembly of the whole model before girls can begin to play with them, removing the chance for girls to feel a sense of accomplishment at following the building instructions.[i] Parents are left to wonder, why are the Legos for Girls dumbed down?
And while it is a nice addition to offer fun, pampering kits such as a beauty parlor and a café -- because there are tons of kids who will really enjoy them -- there is a noticeable underrepresentation of female leadership roles. Where are the female firefighters and teachers, the female police officers and the female mayor of Heartlake City?
In response to criticism from consumers, Lego explained that it conducted four years of market research with girls and their parents, and this is what girls want.[ii] Girls do often like those things, but they have other interests, too!
Lego could have increased its product offerings to appeal to more girls in an integrative way. For example, the Lego Friends are not compatible in appearance with all the “regular” Lego sets, as Lego refers to them, which forces the girls to be the “Others.”
Why not create additional female minifigs that fit in with the existing blocky look of the other lines of Legos? Why not make pink and purple bricks, and mix them in with the red and blue and black bricks? What if a boy wants to use some pink or purple? Does he have to go to the “girl” aisle? What if he wants to build a bakery?
A healthier strategy would be for Lego to put all their Lego kits side by side with gender-neutral packaging, thus allowing both girls and boys to choose the toys they want without feeling labeled. Add in the cafes and the beauty shops, but make them psychologically accessible to any interested child.
Now, here is the most important point –- gender neutral marketing does NOT mean stripping gender from girly girls. It simply means putting “girly” Lego products in a universal Lego aisle, with a universal label, so that any kind of boy or girl can choose any kind of kit.
My four-year-old, AR, is exactly who Lego is marketing to with the Lego Friends. AR likes to wear fancy dresses, adorn every inch of her hair with bows and barrettes, and she would rather play with fairies and princesses than anything else in the world.
But last week, instead of handing her a kit from Lego Friends, I gave AR a bunch of Wedgits blocks. Predictably, she built a castle for a princess. But then she changed her mind. The castle suddenly became a tower to store mud and water, and firefighters could hook their hoses up to the tower and spray mud and water on fires.
If AR had been playing with a pre-scripted princess kit, she would have been less likely to follow her creative thoughts. Even the daintiest of girls and the toughest of boys can surprise us, if we give them a chance.
* * * *
Back to the NPR round table for a minute . . . the discussion became heated at points, as the other women and I argued about gender stereotypes. But -- throughout the day, after the roundtable was over, the other panelists and I emailed each other supportive comments, traded contact info, and we added each other to our distribution lists.
When my husband learned that we three panelists had struck up a relationship, he commented, “That is so female.” We both laughed.
[i] Konigsberg, R.D. (2012). Time Magazine. Lego Friends for Girls: Have They Stooped to Stereotype? Retrieved from: http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/02/lego-friends-for-girls-have-they-stooped-to-stereotype/