LEGO for Girls

My first post about the then upcoming LEGO Friends line, originally written in December of 2011.


So LEGO announced this week that it is making a line of toys for girls. The company claims its market research showed that girls value “beauty” and storytelling over the act of building i.e. the challenge that boys enjoy in completing a set is not as important to girls, who would rather create “harmonious” worlds made of “friendly” colours. (The full story is here.)

I assume this is the same type of research that told LEGO that boys like male characters who “crush” opponents, use their “brute strength” against their enemies, and, according to old copy for the Bionicles line, possess “sheer bludgeoning power.” Stereotype much?

The new girls’ LEGO will have a redesigned minifigure that “looks like” a girl, unlike the current figure. In reality, the standard minifigure does not resemble any human I’ve ever seen—male or female—but apparently its unrealistic look is only troublesome for girls, obsessed as they are by appearances and having “pretty” playthings:

Lego Friends Minifigure, 2011

How this new line differs from LEGO’s old Belville line is not entirely clear to me. The figures are both overly feminized and nothing like the traditional minifigure. Compare the figure above to the one from the Belville line, below.

Lego Belville Minifigure, 2011

 

And if Belville isn’t selling, why does LEGO think an updated version based on the same stereotypes will?

Oh, right. They are creating a narrative for each “girl” figure and making her a collectible. According to LEGO’s UK Managing Director Marko Ilincic, girls like “collectibles like dolls.” (I guess he hasn’t noticed that boys like to collect things too—witness the popularity of his own Star Wars and other minifigures, Pokemon cards, Beyblades, HexBugs, GoGos, Bakugan, and Redakai toys. Hmm, maybe boys and girls aren’t as different as LEGO thinks.)

Mr. Ilincic shares his other insights on gender and toys in this article, where he, failing to see the irony, makes statements like: “Between the ages of two and five, girls play with Lego as much as boys. But all this changes when children go to school, after which most girls rapidly lose interest as they become more conscious of their gender.” And where, might I ask, do girls get their ideas about appropriate gender behaviour if not, in part, from the marketing materials produced by toy companies like LEGO? But I digress.

Could it be that LEGO’s research is flawed? Was it constructed to fit a certain narrative, based on the laziness (to quote my friend Michele at Princess Free Zone<) that characterizes most toy makers? Laziness that leads to a reliance on old stereotypes to develop and market toys?

I have to contrast this state of affairs with my own childhood, as Princess Free Zone has also done by posting a LEGO ad from 1981 that shows a girl playing with “regular” LEGO.

LEGO Ad from 1981 with Girl in Overalls

( When I was a kid, I played with regular LEGO blocks in standard colours. Of course, those were the days before LEGO decided to go into elaborate kits with tie-ins to major entertainment franchises, like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Toy Story and, most recently, superheroes.)

I’m not trying to be nostalgic or present a too-rosy view of the past, but if generic LEGO blocks were good enough for boys and girls more than three decades ago, and we are supposedly living in more progressive times, why the intense stereotyping of the LEGO experience?

LEGO’s “problem” with girls is its own doing. Girls of my generation were perfectly content to play with “regular” LEGO.  But since that time LEGO has moved so far in creating highly stereotyped toys aimed at boys, and drawn such a rigid gender line in its products and marketing, that it has alienated half of its potential customer base. Now they are trying to woo that 50% back with an overly feminized line that seems to consist of little more than miniature Barbies or American Girls. Maybe if they focused instead on creating a few toys that are fun and do not hew to stereotypes, or venturing away from the “kit” model and back to the freedom and creativity that a box of bricks allows, they’d get a larger female fan base.

Of course it’s not just LEGO. I was shopping for a birthday present last weekend and stumbled upon a new line of Playmobil figures, designed undoubtedly to compete with the individual LEGO minifigures about which I have written before.

When I first started buying Playmobil for my son, it was fairly gender neutral. Fire trucks, police vehicles, doll houses, and other sets came with male and female characters, inviting children of both sexes to take part in a variety of activities. Now this? (Images from amazon.uk.)

Playmobil Figures--Boys--2011

Playmobil Figures--Girls--2011

The Playmobil figures are so new that they are hard to find online, even on the Playmobil website, so I can’t find a list of what each of the characters is supposed to be, but there does seem to be a sharp contrast between them.

Notwithstanding the dominance of princess-y types on the female side and creepy characters on the male side (is that an executioner in the bottom right of the boys’ toys?), there is the pink and blue packaging, which makes it clear which line is, supposedly, for which sex. Sigh.

LEGO and Playmobil are good quality toys, but their increasingly stereotyped products and compulsion to push kids in one direction or the other are disheartening and disappointing.

Why place so many limits on play? Why not just create fun and creative toys, put them out in the marketplace, and let kids decide what they like, without the restrictive gender messaging?

 

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