The girlification of LEGO
The LEGO (girl) Friends enjoy thier luxury home with all the trimmings.
Welcome to Heartlake City, the colourful hometown of LEGO’s newest line, LEGO Friends. LEGO Friends features six female figurines or “LadyFigs” who are slimmer and curvier, more fashionably dressed and more decorative than the traditional, blocky “MiniFig” LEGO characters. These LadyFigs spend their time in Heartlake City at the cafe, splash pool and beauty parlour and come in different pastel shades. And they are, of course, marketed to girls.
A furore erupted after LEGO launched this line in January this year. Bloggers came out declaring that LEGO Friends pandered to gender stereotypes by being obsessed with aesthetics, and by portraying the female characters performing stereotypically female activities, such as shopping. Feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian described Heartlake City as a "pastel-coloured, gender-segregated, stereotypically female suburban paradise".
LEGO set the feminist world buzzing again last week when they announced their financial results for the first half of 2012: revenue was up 24 per cent since last year thanks, in large part, to LEGO Friends. LEGO says it has sold twice as many sets as it predicted in the first six months of the year.
"It has been amazing to experience the enthusiastic welcome that consumers have given the new range," said LEGO chief executive Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. "Sales have been quite astonishing."
Not everyone has offered the toys an “enthusiastic welcome”. Feminist groups such as the UK’s PinkStinks objected to LEGO joining in on the “pinkification” of girlhood, and the US-based SPARK movement launched a petition on change.org calling on LEGO to rethink the line, which it described as “a pink Barbielicious product line for girls, so five-year-olds can imagine themselves lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends”. To date, their petition has received more than 59,000 virtual signatures.
Those protesting the pastel-hued, leisure-filled, construction-lite LEGO Friends, and the gender-stereotyped toys it represents, found an ally and mascot in four-year-old Miley, who was filmed by her father in a toy store ranting about the silliness of girls having to buy “pink stuff” and “princess stuff”. In the video, which went viral on YouTube, she tells the world: “The companies who make these try to trick the girls into buying the pink stuff instead of the stuff the boys want to buy, right? So why do girls have to buy princess stuff? Some girls like princesses, some girls like superheroes.”
A LEGO friends buys a cupcake at the supermarket. Using a $100 note.
Despite the logic (and cuteness) of these protests, it would be easy to conclude that the protesters are wasting their energy and anger. LEGO Friends sets might be gender stereotyped, but the fact is girls like them. LEGO Friends was developed after four years of research, development and testing. LEGO designers studied how girls play and the different ways girls and boys relate to LEGO. The research, it seems, has paid off. At the end of 2011 only nine per cent of LEGO sets purchased in the US were for girls. Now, 27 per cent of sets are purchased for girls. LEGO Friends might rely on stereotypes, but the stereotypes seem to be working.
Of course, that doesn't mean that girls are hard-wired into liking pastel-pink universes. Neuro-scientist Lise Eliot who wrote Pink Brain, Blue Brain, a book studying gender differences in children, says that “boy-girl differences are not as 'hard-wired' as many parents today, imbued with the Mars/Venus philosophy, believe. Yes, there are innate differences, but we should be aware of how they become magnified through our own parenting and marketing, and especially through our kids’ own culture.”
For example, the fact that girls are buying LEGO Friends when they would not buy a regular LEGO set probably has less to do with hard-wired neurological differences and more to do with the fact that LEGO Friends features girls in the advertisements, whereas advertisements for regular LEGO almost never do. Or the fact that all the LadyFigs populating Heartlake City are female, whereas in regular LEGO fewer than 15 per cent of the figurines are female. It could also have to do with the fact that when LEGO finally decided it was time to market to girls, instead of including them in the regular LEGO universe, they created a new range that scarcely resembled any of the standard LEGO ranges that have proved so popular for boys. Might it be that girls simply got the message that they weren’t welcome in LEGO land?
As SPARK wrote in the blog that accompanied its anti-LEGO Friends petition:
“Marketers... are busy these days insisting that girls are not interested in their products unless they’re pink, cute, or romantic. They’ve come to this conclusion even though they’ve refused to market their products to the girls they are so certain will not like them. Who populates commercials for LEGO? Boys! Where in the toy store can you find original, creative, construction-focused LEGO? The boy aisle! So it’s no wonder LEGO’s market research showed girls want pink, already-assembled toys that don’t do anything. It’s the environment and the message marketers have bombarded girls with for over a decade.”
There is a long history of gender stereotyping in kids’ toys. Pink packaging is for girls, blue for boys. Maternal, nurturing-based games are marketed to girls, and active, construction-based toys to boys. Then there are sexist video games and other traditional games that are overtly sexist – such as 'Old Maid'. (A card-matching game in which the loser is the player left with the "old maid" card, for whom there is no match, reinforcing the message that the unhitched woman always loses.)
LEGO may have made a gender gaffe, but it is famously good for kids’ cognitive development. So much so that Lise Eliot says some gender stereotyping might be worth putting up with if it means girls get into LEGO. “If it takes colour-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego,” she told Bloomberg Businessweek, “I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains.”
Some will find it hard to be so pragmatic and accept the idea that we should be using gender stereotypes in order to break others down. But to their credit, LEGO seems to be taking complaints about the representation of gender in LEGO Friends seriously.
In response to SPARK’s petition, three LEGO executives met with members of the SPARK movement in April to discuss their concerns, many of which, the LEGO executives told SPARK, they had already begun to address.
They had, for example, conducted an internal audit of their minifigure count earlier that year and will be increasing the number of female figurines across all LEGO lines by the end of 2012. Additionally, LEGO is exploring ways to communicate to and about girls across the company. Hopefully, this will involve increasing the number of girls who feature in ads for regular LEGO ranges and the expansion of the Heartlake City world to involve non-stereotyped activities for girls.
Let us hope that LEGO is serious about this and that the gender stereotypes in LEGO Friends are short-term, soon to be rectified ills. Among the “10 Characteristics for LEGO” set forth in 1963 by the founder’s son Godtfred is that LEGO is “for girls and boys”. Wouldn’t it be great if LEGO could make products for girls and boys, without forcing girls to see their blocks through pink-coloured glasses?