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LEGO, You Ain’t no Friends of Mine

So, we got the new LEGO catalog the other day.

This is always a big day in our household, especially for me, as it’s when I can start planning my holiday shopping for the kids and usually identify what I want under the x-mas tree as well. (Pro tip – it is usually a large building with preferably more than 2000 pieces. 😉

"How does this thing work anyway?"

“How does this thing work anyway?”

For myself, I was happy to see that they still have the Fairground Mixer listed as available, as I think it would fit nicely with Mo’s obsession with how the rides at

ourcounty fair operated, as evidenced by at least half the pictures I tried to take involving her looking away from the camera at the machinery with a gigantic grin on her face.  And the Mini Cooper would be fun.

And I’m sure that my son will find at least half a dozen sets that he would happily receive, although I kind of think that for the most part, he’d rather have more Axis and Allies miniatures.

But Mo.

Poor beleagured Mo.

She immediately turned to the Friends pages and broke her mother’s heart.

“Are these the girl Legos Mommy?”

“Er, well, those have a lot of girl figures, but they’re for anyone who wants to play with them, sweetie.”

“But are these for girls,” she asks pointing to the 3 or so pages splashed with pink and aqua, “and these for boys?” she finished, indicating the rest of the catalogue.

“No, they are all for kids, for anyone who wants to play with them, girls or boys.”

“But these are all boys,” she says, looking at just about everything. “This is for boys,” she says, pointing at a Mindstorm robot.

“No, sweetheart, those are for older kids who want to build and program robots. It’s a little old for you now, but we can get you one in a few years if you want.”

So, yeah, she's pretty badass.

So, yeah, she’s pretty badass.

She considered that. Then we walked through the catalogue, me pointing out the female characters in Star Wars (sadly few identifiable in the latest round of releases), and Ninjago (ah, Nya, so much rides on you), Chima (“See, this is a girl and this whole huge mammoth belongs to her!”), and she did note Wyldstyle from the Lego Movie sets. And I pointed out all of the women and girls in the Expert level town buildings (all of which were literally shadowing our conversation from the shelves behind the couch) and the aforementioned Mixer.

But in the end, she still returned to the Friends pages. And honestly, I can see why. She’s 4, and the cute animals and bright colors appeal to her in a way I would expect them to appeal to any preschooler. Those jungle rescue sets are pretty sweet and show the girls of Heartlake City having real adventures and actually doing something active and interesting. And as we all know, my daughter never shies away from anything pink.

I had high hopes for those Jungle adventures, to be honest. Because damn it, I want to like Lego products.  And really, in a vacuum, they look pretty cool. The gals are camping (something my daughter loves) and hanging out in their jungle tree house with a zipline and a slide and more of those cute animals. They fly helicopters and pilot boats and drive ATVs (just how old are these girls, anyway). I want to encourage her love of nature and science and while I still hate the girly-figs, these sets get her right where she lives.

But I can’t quite get over the shopping center on the next page. I know I’ve said before that there is nothing inherently wrong with a certain level of stereotypically “girly” activities, this takes the cake, with a bridal salon and a figure in full on spa gear and a facial. From Lego’s own description:

Head to Heartlake Shopping Mall for a girls’ day out! Stephanie and Emma are driving there in their new convertible for a fun day of fashion. Check out the sports shop and try on a dress in the bridal boutique. Then head to the food court for a slice of pizza before a well-earned relax in the spa with Sophie. Take some pictures in the photo booth before strutting down the catwalk in the charity fashion show while the DJ spins the decks, all to raise awareness for jungle animal rescue. Phew – what a day!

More like “Eew – what a day!”

And this is not happening in a vacuum. It is like 1 step forward, 2 steps back with this company. Sure, they make the Research Institute, more commonly known as the “female scientist sets”, under duress, then they sell out in days and state that they won’t restock. (Meanwhile, co-branded products like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future sets have become long term fixtures.) They come out with sorta cool sets like the Jungle Friends, but back that up with total vapidity (a bridal salon? Really?)

Then there’s this, a quote from LEGO’s CEO, in an article just last week, which suggests he’s never actually looked at his US product line:

I don’t buy this premise that the number of minifigures needs to be an equal amount to be gender neutral. Nobody makes artistic products like that, nobody makes a movie and says there has to be equal numbers of men and women.

It’s more about how you portray those figures … are you respectful, are you stereotyping boys into always being policemen and stereotyping girls into being hairdressers or… are you painting a much more balanced real life picture that children can identify with? -LEGO CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp

As noted by Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of Redefining Girly and founder of Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies (and, full disclosure, also a friend), “Stereotyping the sexes is **exactly** what [LEGO does].” Aside from moving the goalposts – asking for some sort of gender balance – the inclusion of more female police officers or a single woman on the arctic explorer team, and more integrated inclusion of girls in LEGO’s marketing and product development, rather than specific and deliberate exclusion. We want Friends to be a gateway to broader opportunities for cross-gender play, not a systematic way of treating girls as different and not as interested in being powerful or driving fast (seriously, look at this ad for the new Fusion sets in this fabulous post, something we thought might be awesome, but which treats boys and girls as if they are different species, one hard driving and one giggly, rather than realizing that inclusion sells and little girls, just like little boys, like variety and have multiple interests.

I love playing with LEGO, I LOVE building their sets, and of course, I can selectively purchase just those sets that better reflect my values, but that doesn’t change the underlying messaging my daughter receives about where she belongs in LEGOLand (and the accessories she should be wearing while in it). Not buying the shopping mall isn’t enough, when every dollar spent on the Friends line reinforces its overall popularity.  And I’m just not sure how much more money I want to give to a company that doesn’t actually seem to want half of my family as a customer, except in the most limited of ways.

Featured image, courtesy of Flickr user mahjqa. Future engineer on a fair ride from the author’s personal collection. Lego image via wikia.

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Emily Sexton

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

14 Comments

  1. September 5, 2014 at 2:56 pm —

    To me, this is about setting boundaries as a culture. Kids of many social species struggle with developing identity, and want to know how best to fit in. Too often the excuse given is something is XYZ because kids just naturally are that way, when in fact kids are asking what it means to be who they are, we tell them, and so they follow along. We see them happily following along and reinforcing that original message, and we use this as proof that they’re happy and restating the message because they have found who they really are. What really made them happy was to get an identity, and the restate it loudly and proudly because they are declaring to the world who they are and where they fit in. So a pink loving girl loves pink because a) it’s a cool color, and b) she was told it is for girls and wants an identity that works. I wouldn’t tell a pink loving girl to stop it, but I think it is legitimate to push our society to expand its definitions rather than giving easy (and harmful when it is not just about colors) definitions to our children.

    • September 5, 2014 at 4:41 pm —

      “Too often the excuse given is something is XYZ because kids just naturally are that way, when in fact kids are asking what it means to be who they are, we tell them, and so they follow along. ”

      Yes! Exactly. The problem is not girls who do like pink (or Friends or princesses), it is that we don’t have the cultural room for girls who don’t like those things or for boys who do. When respected companies or celebrities fall into the trap of catering just to those who are privileged enough to conform, everyone loses. The kids who do conform can slip into a cycle of reinforcement that limits their interests and the kids who don’t are completely excluded.

  2. September 5, 2014 at 4:52 pm —

    I hate the who social construct of certain colors being “for girls,” but it’s so hard to escape. It’s supposedly a relatively new concept in the west. Not exactly sure when this changed, but I know it was in the early 1900s. It’s interesting because in India, for example, this isn’t the case. I only know this from personal experience. But baby boys and girls wear pink, blue, and everything in between. Of course there are other hugely problematic gender issues in India, but pink/blue and toy dichotomies aren’t as prevalent. Still I’m sure this will change over time….

    • September 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm —

      I love looking at turn of the 19th century baby pictures because you really cannot tell the difference. Little boys wore dresses up until they walked! But as Hanoumatoi points out below, that’s not nearly as profit generating.

  3. September 5, 2014 at 7:35 pm —

    http://www.bustle.com/articles/15378-little-girl-from-1981-gender-neutral-lego-ad-tells-the-story-in-her-own-words

    I remembered reading an article about the change for toymakers in general away from gender neutral and towards gendered toys, because of the expectation of buying different toys if you have both a boy and a girl rather than just passing them down, but I can’t find it at the moment.

    I will say that it is ludicrous that Lego is saying they won’t restock the female scientist set. “Well we sold out super fast so we obviously won’t make more.”

    • September 6, 2014 at 1:57 pm —

      The scientist thing boggles my mind in part because I cannot believe that the licensing for similarly fan-designed and selected Ghostbusters and Back to the Future sets doesn’t make them even more cost-prohibited, but those have been up for months. But heaven’s forfend the lady-scientists have a chance to break even.

  4. September 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm —

    Dammit, LEGO. I thought I’d let the initial release craziness fade and get the Research Institute in a month or so, but I guess not. That is disappointing. Glad I made my own scientist mini-fig with a pipettor last month.

    I dunno. Maybe inclusion doesn’t sell, at least in the short term that most companies look at. Longer term they’re shooting themselves in the foot, but what can you do. Shred the catalogue and buy secondhand, I guess.

    I don’t get not restocking a set that sold out in like a day, though. That has extremely unfortunate implications.

    • September 8, 2014 at 12:54 pm —

      I know, right? It didn’t even dawn on me that I needed to leap right on the research set.I figured I’d pick it up when they started rolling out the holiday bonus stuff in October or November. Little did I know…

  5. September 8, 2014 at 12:47 pm —

    After my daughter watched “Brave”, she told me, quite surprised “princesses can have weapons!”
    I thought “duh, did I know? Who do you think that sword mounted on the living room wall belongs to*?” but didn’t say it, of course.
    She promptly asked for a sword and I gave her my LARP sword (safety first!). One measely Disney Princess and suddenly she feels like she has options that were closed to her before. No, she didn’t believe me either when I said “Everything is for boys and girls”. They’re not stupid, they realize that mum and dad are complete outliers. “Mum said so” doesn’t cut it quite like “There’s a Disney Princess with a sword and a bow who fights demon monster bears!”
    That’s why we need, need, need those non-stereotypical portrays in popular culture. That’s why the Lego stuff is so disappointing. FFS, they’re putting pink bows on bears catching fish, because how else could it be a she-bear?

    *A replica of Arwen’s sword from LotR

    • September 8, 2014 at 12:53 pm —

      Yesssssssss. This, exactly. (FWIW, the Brave Lego set is pretty cool, complete with bow and arrow The Cinderella’s castle was a gigantic disappointment.)

      You have really put your finger on why it is so vitally important that we have major media that portrays a variety of options and why the bows and flowers shortcuts are so damaging.

  6. September 8, 2014 at 3:37 pm —

    I am so with you on this. My kids have spent the summer playing with Lego. Every day a new creation would rise up from the dining table. A school for superheroes. A house. A tower for dragons. We have a load of Lego my husband had as a kid (I never had Lego – maybe why I am so into it now!) and also some kits my son has been given over the past year or two. My son is 6 and has only recently got into Lego, I think before now he didn’t have the patience or manual dexterity to ‘get’ it. My daughter is 9 and did play with it occasionally but now my son has got into it too they can play together, which is great.

    However I realised that the gender balance in our Lego box was way out of kilter. My daughter was complaining that she didn’t have any girl figures to play with. She tried her best to assemble some out of the various male figures but they never looked right – too much stubble I guess… So I spent the next couple of weeks scouring Ebay for some secondhand female figures (to get the female figures new I discovered would involve buying hugely expensive massive kits which would only have one female in them anyway). So far, we now have: Eris from Chima, Cleopatra, Wonderwoman and Batgirl (the last two not originals but copies), and a plain female figure which my daughter can customise with bits off the other male figures – I think she is a Ninja right now….plus a cavewoman in the post.. and this is just the start!

    I was quite cross that my daughter had basically been written out of the Lego world. I really don’t like Lego Friends, partly because of the whole shopping mall / catwalk thing (as adults we are pressured enough to constantly buy stuff/look good, why start so young?). The other reason I don’t like Lego Friends is because of the bodies. They aren’t the standard Lego shape. One of the things my kids and their friends really like about Lego is changing the people around. Spiderman wants Chima wings? He’s got them. Ninjagirl wants a new mask? She has it. Four of them spent a whole afternoon creating new characters! You can’t do this with Lego Friends so what’s the point?

    I wrote to Lego and got a long reply which was not satisfactory – far too long to post here – basically saying that Friends came out of lots of market research and is what girls want because it reflects their lives… My argument to this is that it is what girls have been conditioned to think girls should want, because of the diabolical marketing shoved down their throats over the past decade. I would contend that Lego Friends is successful only because there is no alternative.

    My daughter likes Lego Chima. She’s been playing the game online and making mincemeat of those crocs. She and her brother sometimes like to join up and go on missions together. My son got given some Chima books recently. Only one female character in both books, and I quote ‘Eris the Eagle loves solving puzzles. She is good at inventing battle tactics, but she prefers to avoid fighting.’ Oh why did they have to put that ‘but’ in there? Do they think girls will like Eris better if she doesn’t fight? (Wonder what Olympic judo silver medalist Gemma Gibbons would say to that…) Or do they think the boys will like Eris better if she doesn’t fight? It makes no sense.

    I really think the people behind Lego just don’t get girls. They have this weird notion of what girls like. Four years of market research for Lego Friends and they still don’t get it. Every single mum I have mentioned this to says ‘Oh yes I know I find it so annoying!’. Not just mums of girls – boys want female characters in their play too!

    I will still buy Lego, because it is a great toy (which is what is so bloody annoying about all of this) but definitely not Lego Friends.

    Sorry about the long post I have been simmering about this for a while.

  7. September 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm —

    Oops sorry one typo in my post, my daughter is 8 not 9.

    • September 9, 2014 at 9:49 am —

      No need to apologise! I’m thrilled that this post is helping people parse the incredibly conflict that so many of us have about Lego products. Having seen some of the abysmal responses The LEGO Group has sent to other people complaining about the Friends line, I can definitely imagine the dissapointing nature of their response to you. I particularly love this point:

      “My argument to this is that it is what girls have been conditioned to think girls should want, because of the diabolical marketing shoved down their throats over the past decade. I would contend that Lego Friends is successful only because there is no alternative.”

      This is it in a nutshell. Lego is creating the very problem it claims to be addressing.

  8. September 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm —

    I think that Lego is selling to the masses. And I wonder who is largely buying lego products, is it grandparents? When people found out we had a girl, the pink everything came from the generation just before us.

    Personally my daughter loves that there are pink blocks, and that there are food items and animals to play with in the lego girl sets. But you can see in how they are packaged, that these things are intended to be girl things, when boys have pets too and everyone has got to eat. I don’t know that I wholly take issue with convertible lego sets or mall ones. But then again there is a spa and I wonder who these ten year old girls are that are dreaming of a spa day? Just seems wholly out of touch. And why do they have to be in a bridal set.

    As another person commented, I find that she also shoves the female characters aside because specifically they do not switch out like the other characters.

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