LEGO for Girls: Have They Stooped to Stereotype?

After years of catering to boys, the famous Danish toymaker is now trying to court the other 50% of the world's children

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Lego Friends debuted on January 1, 2012 and is backed by a $40 million global marketing campaign.

The first female minifig — those 4-centimeter people with the yellow jugheads — to appear in the January 2012 LEGO catalog is a doctor ably holding up the back end of a stretcher with her male colleague in a new ambulance set. But she doesn’t show up until page 12, after dozens upon dozens of male ninjas, firefighters and all manner of villains. This is the paradox of LEGO for parents, especially parents of girls: the famous Danish toy maker could provide an oasis from the anachronistic gender stereotypes so rampant these days — especially in its City line, where women might be employed in all sorts of capacities, as they are in real life — and yet the fantasy lines such as Ninjago, Kingdoms, Hero Factory, and of course, Star Wars, are relentlessly male, with the exception of Princess Leia. According to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, focusing on boys was a specific business decision to get the LEGO Group out of a major financial crisis back in 2004 when they were losing $1 million a day. The strategy worked so well that revenues increased by 105% from 2006 to 2010, and sales in the U.S. topped $1 billion for the first time last year.

I have spent thousands of dollars on LEGO for my son, hosted three LEGO birthday parties and have even installed shelves to display his creations. I have indulged his passion (as has his father and generous grandparents and godparents) because it supposedly develops his math and spatial skills, or at least keeps him busy for hours at a stretch. But I have also been more than a little disheartened to see his younger sister initially drawn to our buckets of expensive plastic only to lose interest. I can’t say I blame her. I suspect that girls don’t like to play with today’s LEGOs because they so rarely see themselves represented in the minifigs, and because the events being reenacted — battles to the death, alien attacks — are unappealingly violent. (That and the fact that LEGO is routinely shelved in the “boy” section of the toy department in stores.) So when I first heard about the 2012 debut of a new theme that was more girl-friendly, I was hopeful.

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And then I had a look at the stuff. LEGO Friends, as the new line is called, creates a place called Heartlake City which thus far consists of a beauty parlor, a café, a bakery, a clothing design school, a vet’s office, a sound stage, and, thankfully, an inventor’s workshop. (So much for municipal services.) There are no men in Heartlake City, except for the father of Olivia, one of the five core “friends” who are not minifigs at all but redesigned mini-dolls that come with the following accessories: a purse, a hair brush, a hair drier, four lipsticks and two barrettes; a spatula, an electric mixer and two cupcakes; and for when they’re not primping or baking, a puppy dog and a pink book with butterflies on it. Is this message — with its emphasis on physical appearance and limited career choices — really any different from that of Disney’s princesses?

What’s worse, LEGO Friends doesn’t give girls the same sense of mastery and accomplishment that it gives boys. Usually, when you open a LEGO set you will find several smaller bags numerically labeled in the order in which to build, along with a booklet of diagrams of the steps. But LEGO Friends has dispensed with this system, so that girls can begin playing without completing the whole model first. So much for learning how to follow instructions, or finishing what you started, or just getting those damn pieces off the floor so I won’t step on them.

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Kids learn through their toys, and as Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From The Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times, even while boys and girls show some sex differences in what they chose to play with, they’re also incredibly malleable:

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.

Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences?

My daughter’s fourth birthday is coming up, and I’m sure one of the Friends sets will be among her presents. I’ll probably even swallow my misgivings and buy her one myself in the hopes that it will get her building alongside her brother. (For those who are offended by LEGO Friends, you can sign a petition here.) In 1963, the son of the founder of LEGO, Godtfred Christiansen, defined “10 characteristics of Lego” and one of them was: “For girls and for boys.” I assume, from the wording, that he did not mean one set for girls, one set for boys, a separate-but-equal doctrine. I just wish that they had tried a bit harder to carry out his gender-neutral vision.