LEGO & Gender Part 1: Lego Friends

January 30, 2012

Watch Part 2: The LEGO Boys’ Club

LEGO announced that after 4 years of intensive research, they have finally come up with a LEGO product that fulfills the desires of “how girls naturally build and play.” This new theme is called LEGO Friends and it’s a pink and purple, gender segregated, suburban wasteland populated by Barbie/Bratz style dolls.  Many parents, educators, feminists, and media critics have spoken out against LEGOs attempts to separate girls into their own stereotypical isolated enclave within the LEGO universe.

In part 1 of my two part LEGO and Gender series, I’ll explore how LEGO went terribly wrong with LEGO Friends and provide a brief history of LEGO’s ridiculous and slightly hilarious attempts to market to girls since the late 70’s.  In part 2 I’ll delve into LEGO’s intentional strategy to market almost exclusively to boys since the mid 80’s by developing and marketing sets that are male identified and male centered.  In conclusion, I’ll offer LEGO a couple of suggestions that they can consider when creating and marketing new products.

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** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

Transcript

“LEGO is here, hey kids, look a whole new world to build.”

LEGOS are one of the most fantastic and creative toys ever developed. I mean check this out, it’s a LEGO stegosaurus, it even has light up eyes *rawr*

Research has consistently shown that playing with LEGOs accelerates childhood development, and is upheld as a gateway to math, science and engineering fields, promoting spatial memory, spatial design and of course imagination. Sadly, as a consequence of LEGOs decision to design and market their products almost exclusively to boys over the past few decades, girls have been largely left out.

So when the LEGO Group announced that they were committed to expanding the LEGO experience for girls in 2012 in a significant way I was excited, but a little skeptical.  Here’s what LEGO had to say:

CLIP:
“We actually see ourselves as duty bound to find a fantastic LEGO experience for Girls.  We are passionate about what the LEGO experience does to children around the world, I mean, their development, great experience, ability to concentrate, and it’s just not good enough that we cannot do something which is really appealing to girls and delivering that same great experience.”

LEGO claims to have spent millions of dollars and 4 years doing intensive research on this endeavor and they’ve even budgeted 40 million dollars to market to girls globally.

So with all that what has the company done to integrate girls back into the LEGO experience?

CLIP:
“LEGO Friends.  New LEGO Friends.  Welcome to Beautiful Heartlake City.  I’m Stephanie, I’m going to a party at the new café with my friend Olivia.  That’s me, I just finished decorating my house. Time to chill with the girls.  At the Beauty Shop, Emma is styled and ready to go.  This is gonna be so much fun!  Welcome to the world of LEGO Friends.  New LEGO Friends.

*Sigh* So where do we even begin?

This new LEGO collection features 23 sets that focus on the lives of 5 “Friends®” Mia, Emma, Andrea, Olivia and Stephanie who all hang out and have fun in someplace called Heartlake City, not to be confused with the regular “City” which is LEGO’s longest running theme.  No, Heartlake City is a pastel colored gender segregated stereotypically female suburban paradise.

And to make it absolutely clear that these sets are for girls, they’ve covered everything in pink and purple, from the branding to the boxes to the bricks themselves.  Another way LEGO has segregated the Friends theme from the rest of the LEGO universe is by creating a brand new LEGO person.  The traditional LEGO characters or “minifigs” as they’re called has become a recognizable icon world wide. The minifigs are the center piece of the entire LEGO universe featured in their videogame and movie franchises, extended merchandise, and even in their theme parks. By contrast the new Bratz/Barbie style “Lady Fig” or “mini doll” featured in Heartlake City is taller, curvier and they wear little skirts. By essentially making the mini-doll an entirely separate species it just works to further segregate the Friends theme from the rest of the LEGO universe.

The Friends theme sets focus on traditionally female identified tasks including baking at the City Park Café, getting your hair done at the Butterfly Beauty Shop, taking care of pets at the Heartlake Vet, or homemaking at Olivia’s House.  Out of the initial 14 offerings the only set that breaks out of this mold might be Olivia’s Inventor’s Workshop, which would be really awesome if it weren’t for the inexplicable decision to make all of her tools purple.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with pink and purple, I’m sometimes fond of these colours, obviously, pink and purple are just two options out of the rainbow of brick colors available in the LEGO universe. The problem is pink and purple hardly ever appear in the sets marketed to boys and Heartlake city is dominated entirely by soft pastel colours.

There is also nothing inherently wrong with LEGO sets that include places to live, places to eat, beauty salons, entertainment venues etc.  These are all establishments that you’d expect to find in pretty much any city.

But here is where LEGO starts to go horribly wrong.

First, the activities featured in the Friends theme such as baking, cooking, caregiving, homemaking, decorating, hair styling are rooted in deeply stereotypical and limiting roles for women in children’s toys and sadly, in society in general.

Second, these types of establishments only exist in the girls’ world of Heartlake city.  The real LEGO city, on the other hand, you know, the ones that come in the blue boxes, that’s marketed almost exclusively to boys has dozens of CITY subthemes including Search and Rescue, Police, Firefighters, Construction, the Space Port which are all traditionally male identified occupations (though they shouldn’t be).  Noticeably absent are any places for the LEGO city minifigures to live or eat.  Isn’t it curious that there are almost no housing, entertainment or restaurant subthemes in LEGO city?

So what happens when something in Heartlake City catches on fire?  I guess you have to call the boys to put it out, similarly what happens when someone in LEGO city gets hungry? I guess you’d have to call the girls to bake them something.  This is just absurd.

Now you may be thinking to yourself that kids don’t have to follow the instructions, they could build whatever they want out of the LEGO set, girls could build spaceships out of the beauty salon for example. The problem is that the Friends theme was developed from the ground up based on a story of five friends and everything that girls are meant to do with the sets revolves around that specific story.  This severely limits the possibilities of what most girls will do with the sets. And there’s nothing else in the rest of the LEGO universe that will encourage girls to think outside of the gendered walls of Heartlake City.

It seems as though LEGO is convinced that boys and girls just naturally have different interests, the LEGO Group CEO said “We focused on creating a play experience centered on the joy of creation, while heeding the way girls naturally build and play.”

Using the language of “natural” or “nature” in reference to gender infers that girls are biologically predisposed to like dolls and pink things. As noted by Peggy Orenstein in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, if we look to the turn of the century this gendered color dynamic was actually reversed, in the early 1900s blue was associated with baby girls and pink with baby boys, really, it might be hard to believe but you can look it up. This demonstrates that colour association with gender is a social construct, it’s not biological, it’s not genetic, it’s not natural. It’s made up.

Contrary to LEGO’s press release that states that “LEGO Friends is the first 100 percent LEGO building experience fully optimized to girls’ tastes and interests.” LEGO has tried this type of gender stereotyping before.  Here’s a quick history of LEGO’s ridiculous attempts to market to girls.

In 1979 LEGO released SCALA, a jewelry making kit that featured little plastic pieces with birds and flowers painted on them.

In 1992 LEGO released the PARADISA collection, which to their credit, was meant to fit together with the larger TOWN LEGO theme (which is now renamed CITY).

CLIP:
“Paradisa, Paradisa, sun is shining all day.  Let us ride down to the beach, go surfing, camping and play. We can do anything we like at the house with the sun.  Paradisa, Paradisa, this is where we have fun.”

It included female minifigs so that’s good but all the boxes were bright pink, and all the activities were leisure activities like the poolside paradise, the fun fair, and the country club.

In 1994 LEGO reduced the building experience to almost nothing with the Belville theme.  And similar to the ladyfigs of the Friends theme, the characters of Belville looked a lot more like Barbie then Lego’s traditional minifigs.  The play focused on fairy tales where girls could play house with prince charming or have magical tea parties.

A few years later LEGO brought back the Scala theme, in name only, this time there was virtually nothing to build and the core of the theme was to play with and dress up the Barbie knock off dolls.

And finally, in 2003 this happened.

CLIP:

“You’re a very stylish girl, just click to change your style, you’re a very stylish girl, you’re way, you’re style.  Clickits, click it your way. Clickits.”

So they brought back customized jewelry making with Clikits. I have no idea how this product is associated with LEGO since it has none of the iconic LEGO elements.

This brings us back to 2012 and the new Friends theme.

CLIP:

“LEGO Friends. New LEGO Friends.  Welcome to beautiful Heartlake City.  We’re here!  Let’s all help out, make burgers, shakes, bake the cupcakes.  It’s perfect.  Welcome to the world of LEGO Friends.”

Yeaaaa….

But moving on, LEGO’s press release on the Friends theme states that, “LEGO Friends delivers on a girl’s desire for realistic role-play, creativity, and a highly-detailed, character-based world” and apparently girl’s also desire “more beauty… accessories… and interior building.”

I’m slightly confused because all of those things are also true about the other existing LEGO sets. Let’s take a look at a few of examples.

The Medieval Market Village is extremely detailed as is the Death Star which has 13 separate interiors.

Or what about Hogwart’s Castle? It comes with Dumbledore’s office, the Slytherin and Gryffindor common rooms, the Astronomy Tower, the Great Hall.  It has 11 different minifigs and for accessories you get the Sorting Hat, Tom Riddle’s book, a Basilisk fang, various wands.  You even get a little Mrs. Norris! If this isn’t a highly detailed, creative, role playing, interior building world then I don’t know what is.

Setting aside the “desire for beauty” which I guess just means pink.  It appears LEGO already makes toys that offer creative, role playing, character based, accessorized, interior building, construction experiences so there must be something else keeping girls from embracing the LEGO experience.

The real reason girls aren’t interested in LEGOs as a whole is because for the last quarter of a century the LEGO Group has been telling girls repeatedly that bricks are for boys.

How did LEGO’s products shift from its initial relatively, gender neutral, universal building experience to a more male dominated, male identified one? Well, it didn’t happen by accident. Join me for Part 2 of my LEGO and Gender video series where I’ll dig into exactly how this happened, starting with a brief history of LEGO’s TV commercials including Zack the LEGO Maniac.  I’ll also offer LEGO a couple of suggestion to fix their gender segregation problem.

I hope you enjoyed that video, it was probably my most ambitious project to date and took an enormous amount of time to put together, please help keep Feminist Frequency going by donating today.  You can visit feministfrequency.com/donate

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31 Responses to “LEGO & Gender Part 1: Lego Friends”

  1. Great information! Looking forward to the sequel.

    As a little girl, I remember being bothered that it was so hard to find female mini-figs. We had one “pirate wench,” and I desperately wanted one of the generic female figures with a ponytail and thick black eyelashes.

    It’s telling to compare the Lego pirate wenches of my childhood—

    http://www.helloquizzy.com/quizzy/results?quizzyid=14177135552740615172&resultid=22

    —to something a little more modern:

    http://www.classic-pirates.com/minifigs/upcoming/new-wenches-on-the-block.html

    Anita Reply:

    Wow, I find it incredibly disturbing that LEGO would even title these minifigs “wench”.

  2. Out of my own childhood : i actually like the scala dolls because, unlike Barbie, they could stand, sit, had human shapes and could fit in their house.

    In contrario, i never understood why on the pleasure island, women had to have this huge red lips and the red top… They looked like the mean woman in every disney film… -_-‘

    And finally, just for my profession : scientists don’t have pink and purple everywhere, they don’t draw stupid flowers on black board. And they wear covering clothes. You HAVE to wear covering clothes (pants + closed shoes)… And usually, you a scientist wear a white shirt.
    This pissed me off the most : the pretty doll that can’t possibly be a famous scientist since she looks like a curious but ignorant teenager.

  3. that was brilliant
    both my kids (one boy, one girl) have played with lego (to start with they both got handed down lego blocks from my childhood) but I quickly noticed that my daughter shied away from the lego kits on sale as they were “boys stuff” although even now at the grand old age of 12 she has a sneaky play with her little brother’s City kits, whcih he buys compulsively with every cent of his pocket money. I was shocked by the new freinds theme, it is terrible, if they had made this when my daughter was little I would not have let her have them they are sickening please let me know when part 2 is coming out – excellent presentation! well done

  4. I really like your videos. They are inspiring and nice to watch.
    Thanks for the effort.

  5. I work in retail and wonder if there is other stuff at work here which causes girls not to embrace construction sets. For example, we were told through a video put together by the retail chain to try play down the prices on the lego sets for the parents. Thinking about it, it’s true that the lego sets are more expensive than what is typically sold for the girls. Olivia’s house is 70$. Most Barbie items at or above that price point are collector’s items sold like 95% to adults, or items which we only carry seasonally. Thinking about what sells (at least in my store in my part of the country) it seems that parents are simply more willing to drop over 50 dollars on a toy for boys than a toy for girls. Buying an expensive toy for a girl happens around the holidays or their birthday.

    Another thing is that the entire store is divided along gender lines. I catch people wandering around in Barbie or Disney princess stuff looking for these lego dolls all the time. They’re in the construction section, which is a subset of the boys section. I think all of the sections should be mixed up more. For example, job costumes (police, doctor, etc) and power tools should be taken out of the boys section and “dress up” and toy brooms, vacuums etc should be taken out of the girls section to make one section.

  6. Interesting enough, the “City” theme has also changed into the opposite direction. Todays sets are mostly related to crime and action.

    But see this:
    http://www.peeron.com/scans/6376-1/
    A cafe. That was 1990. Btw. where are the palms on todays “City” sets?

    Or even more this one:
    http://www.peeron.com/scans/6355-1/
    If there’s an “absolut anti-boy-theme” it’s horses…

  7. Great work! I’ve been looking at the whole LEGO Friends fiasco with several of my high school English and Media classes over the last few weeks. Responses from the students have been really interesting – lots of anger (both at the blatant sexism involved *and* at the suggestion that LEGO might be doing something wrong or that girls might be being manipulated in some way) but also lots of connections being made with other products and experiences with gendered toys in their own lives.

    The reaction from girls has been especially interesting. My younger students in Year 8 (12 years old) were happy to be critical of the LEGO Friends line, but my older girls in Year 10 (15 yrs old) were very sensitive to criticisms of stereotyping and social conditioning. I guess there’s too much wrapped up in gender identity post-puberty for some girls to take kindly to examining their own belief systems in a relatively public forum. They offer the “NATURE not NURTURE” argument consistently to explain their preference for pink, “feminised” products. The debate has also led to my lending out copies of accessible feminist texts (such as Natasha Walter’s “Living Dolls”) to girl wanting to know more about feminist cultural analysis, so it has been a very valuable experience overall.

    Your video will help me tie together a lot of things that we have discussed – and hopefully help them to see that there is a growing sense of indignation and protest out there. Thanks again Anita – can’t wait for part 2!!!

  8. Thanks so much for this. I look forward to Part 2.

    When I was a kid, I was the oldest but had two younger brothers. I often asked for Lego sets for birthday and holidays too, including Paradisa (my brother had several too, since we grew up in a Lake town and the resort theme was familiar). When I was 7 or 8, I got the Police Station set for Christmas, and I was thrilled because I loved playing detective. I spent a month arresting my brother’s lego figures and investigating crimes.

    I might have liked more color choices in Lego (a few pink and purple blocks would have been neat) but lack of those never kept me from playing. And as a kid with Legos in bins, what would I do with MiniFigs that just looked like warped giants of my other Lego citizens?

    I wish Lego would learn they can market to girls without completely dividing the sets.

  9. Fantastic.

    I can’t imagine what they were thinking.

    I loved Lego growing up, and the things my sister and I made were invariably rocket cars and robots. Perhaps a missile-launching aircraft here and there. I was more girly, so sometimes I built houses and towers.

    Now, okay, so we also used to take our dolls rock-climbing up the bunkbeds and had a fair collection of action men to balance out the barbies, so perhaps we weren’t “normal” girls. But then, who is? Lego, as far as I was aware up until the launch of this range, was just Lego. I used to look at the videos of the police range and drool, thinking: “Oh, cool, I wish we’d had that growing up.” In all honesty, it never occurred to me as a child that these ranges were being marketed at boys. They were just…cool. Although annoying because they had increasingly fewer regular blocks.

  10. Absolutely brilliant video! Great job, thank you!

  11. hi anita, this video is great! the whole lego friends thing has gotten me pretty het up. can’t wait to see the next one.

    i wanted to comment on the bit about the gender associations for pink and blue having been reversed at one point in time: if anyone wants to learn more about that, they should visit my mom’s website http://www.pinkisforboys.com or check out her new book, Pink and Blue. she’s the historian peggy orenstein interviewed for that part of Cinderella Ate My Daughter (a great book as well!)

  12. I love the preview image for this video!

    http://imgur.com/vvgsU

    Anita Reply:

    I know it’s amazing right! You can see a full size Heartlake City on fire here by the creator – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathanmcintosh/6792531251/in/photostream

  13. Great video, and I can’t wait for the next. Another thing I would love to see is a critique of the ways in which Lego is currently marketed for boys: it’s as if boys all want and love the same thing (guns and violence, naturally, of course). I have boys who love(d) fairies and all kinds of colors, but they are increasingly pressured by their peers to reject such things. I’ve had both boys and girls come to my house and tell my sons that the things they like are “for girls” or “for babies”. Not surprisingly, they are starting to question the toys they like.

  14. Great video! Someone also needs to do some work into how Legos are predominately marketed to a white male audience. In almost every commercial I’ve seen, it’s white boys playing, only occasionally a black boy joins in. Yet (from what I’ve seen) there are no black minifigs (except for a Pelé minifig I once saw on tumblr). But honestly, based on what Lego has done to girls, I can just imagine what they would do to POC minifigs. Hip Hop minifig? Burrito stand minifig? Ninja dojo minifig?

  15. It is good to see another video from you.

    I cannot help but first, wonder about the quality of the Lego research if after four years this is what they came up with, and second, compare these sets to the Bratz dolls from some years back. The legos for girls feels like a varaition of the Bratz stuff.

  16. In all this ‘exhaustive research’ they clearly didn’t actually engage with any feminists like yourself, or the valid issues you bring out would have been instantly picked up. FACE PALM LEGO!
    Personally i want to see a Lady Mini-Figs in all the City sets.
    Go lady firemen, astronauts and helicopter pilots.!
    Great Vid.

  17. hi there, couldnt agree with you more. We have been discussing this very topic on a British parenting website:
    http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/womens_rights/1377197-Lego-how-depressing

    Seems most mothers don’t see the need for this type of product so not sure where they did their 4 years of market research …..

  18. Two ideas for culture busting here:

    1) Develop and publish instructions on how to build awesome space stations, dinosaurs, giant robots, space shuttles and science labs using the pieces supplied in the “Girls'” Heartlake City kits. My motivation here is that I know young girls who really like pink and purple bricks, but equally like pirates and space ships and dinosaurs, and the always-heartmelting quote from one young girl: “My purpose as a princess is to command a robot army.”

    2) Develop and publish instructions on how to 3D-print female Lego figures that fit into the wider Legoverse, such as female doctors, pirates, punks, firefighters, Jedi, scientists, builders and what not.

  19. Thank you for this very comprehensive video, I am looking forward to part two.

    I actually had some of the sets from the first ‘Paradisa’ line and a lot of the generic blocks and a hospital set. I mixed all the blocks up and was sometimes annoyed by ‘Paradisa’ parts because they were very set in their functions. I disliked the pink but loved the white parts, especially the slim oneliner blocks.
    I also had some of these mini-sets of space-ships and what not. Generally I just like to have as many blocks of a different style as possible.

    The main part for me was actually building houses and make believe interior design as my father is a building engineer and my mother is a designer and I grew up surrounded with blue prints of houses. My mother even used my blocks to build models of houses which where later build for real.

    The only gender difference I experienced was that my female friends hardly ever had LEGO but almost all of my male friends had tons of it, so I kind of sorted LEGO more into the boys’ territory.

  20. Great video!

    Even I – a 30+ year old man and huge LEGO fan – feel offended by the Friends series.

  21. Great video, can’t wait for the other parts. I’m especially interested in hearing about how the Lego marketing and toys evolved over time from relatively gender neutral to almost completely gender segregated. I’m 32 and the Lego sets I remember as a kid (early to mid 1980s) were either gigantic buckets or boxes of Legos to build basically whatever you wanted with little or no direction from the toy itself. At that time, the marketing seemed directed at both boys and girls. It seems as if it wasn’t until the focus moved to specific building sets, with themes and specific plans provided by the creators, that the marketing began to change from gender neutral to sets mostly marketed to boys. The commercials and marketing went from a group of boys and girls building something generic, like a house, tower, barn, etc. to commercials and marketing featuring only boys building things from popular cartoons/comics also aimed at boys or male identified occupations such as construction, military, law enforcement, etc. So while I recognize how or at least when this happened, I find myself scratching my head as to why. Why would a toy company willingly cut themselves off from marketing to half of all children? I know the answer is bound to be a complex mix of active sexism, short-sightedness, a lack of creativity, and the ham-fisted preoccupation of all corporations with profit and loss. I find myself missing the days when Legos meant a bucket of bricks and your own imagination, when girls and boys could build whatever they desired, whether it was a bakery or a fire station.

  22. I’ve got a four year old daughter and we have lots of LEGO at our house (most from being bought even before we had thought about having a child!). She had the LEGO friends inventors lab for her birthday and the music set. We have set them up next to her Harry Potter LEGO sets and she plays with both together. Even before she knew about LEGO Friends, she was asking why there where not many girl minifigs in her LEGO. After watching this video, I looked closely at both sets and the Harry Potter sets give the same gameplay and building experience but without the gender stereotyping. She isn’t going to get any more LEGO Friends – there are better sets in Harry Potter and we now have LEGO Pirates to get too! Just please, LEGO, let there be lady pirates who don’t have make-up or low cut tops!

  23. Lego gets it all wrong and the little girls that I know who have looked at this stuff think it’s “lame” (technical kid-term) and (the real kiss of death): “boring.” Your video is most excellent–but I wish I had faith that the lords of lego (a term I use intentionally) were watching. For more about the Ladies Lego: http://mannahattamamma.com/2012/01/beyond-the-bricks-to-the-beauty-shop-lego-goes-girlie/

  24. I got tipped toward this blog from a link on pigtailpals: http://blog.pigtailpals.com/2012/02/more-correspondence-between-kids-and-lego/comment-page-1/#comment-167906

    Thank you so so so so so much! I am instantly following this blog and await exuberantly expectedly the follow-up on the Lego Friends video.

  25. I just discovered your blog and I’m really enjoying your discussions.

    My sister and I grew up with a more classic lego (when it used to come in only a few colours and none of these crazy new shaped blocks or themes) My Dad bought it for us and his mates using to laugh at him for giving his daughters a “boys” toy. It never bothered Dad and we loved it (and secretly he did too, building a working hover craft with us is my favourite memory!). My sister and I are now two grown women each with very creative careers. I thank my Dad and I wonder if parents are part of the problem too, by getting suckered into only buying toys based on the gender they are marketed for, instead of asking the question themselves.

  26. [...] Check out Feminist Frequency’s two well-informed and thoughtful posts/videos on Lego and Gender (Part One: Lego Friends and Part Two: The Boys’ Club), which also have many links to additional [...]

  27. The new LEGO® Hunger Games Arena. Realistic role play, creativity and, a highly detailed, character based world. Fun for girls and boys alike.

  28. i will admit, as a boy, i do let out a groan when i hear things like lego friends. mainly because its super sappy and kind of stupid. ive got a younger sister and while she did enjoy the girly things (MLP, Sailor Moon) she also liked boys stuff toys. it does irritate me because with the people i know, friends and family, girls arent into girly things. i just find it funny, i dont get why people try to tear into you.

  29. Ha! I absolutely loved this. As a boy loving LEGO my whole life it was always annoying how hard it was to get real lego city since there were almost no houses and alike but only Functional buildings filled with guy legos. It just didn’t satisfy me with the real city look. I laughed when I saw the stereotyped products that lego has tried marketing. Anyways, I really liked it and looking forward to your series about videogames, that oughta be interesting. Thanks a lot.