Let’s start by making something very clear: I absolutely adore LEGO. Its concept, design, products and company philosophy are fantastic. My husband is a LEGO collector who owns every variation of Star Wars minifigure the company ever released and is known on Twitter as Lego Master. Last Saturday was spent in a rapturous build and endless admiration of the recently released Jabba’s Palace set, and this year we have decided that all our Christmas decorations will be made out of LEGO, including their wonderful Winter Village sets, which are still boxed and waiting for December the 1st when we buy the tree.
Nor, I hasten to add, do I have anything against the colour pink per se. Apart from the fact that it would be weird for me to write for the Little Pink Blog and be a voracious anti-pink feminist, I believe that colours in themselves are not inherently evil, and that women should wear pink and buy pink products if they feel like it.
That said, this week I joined 61,000 people in signing a petition against the monstrosity known as LEGO Friends. For a company that has got it so right for so long, LEGO has got things monumentally wrong when it came to making a product “Just For Girls”. For those not familiar with it, LEGO Friends offers a line in pastel palettes with pre-pubescent, miniskirt-wearing characters that heavily resemble Bratz dolls. Clearly, they’ve got girls all figured out.
It is true that more boys play with LEGO than girls – according to their research, of the current active LEGO households in the U.S., only 9% of them report that the primary user of the product in that household is a girl – and this is one of the main reasons given by LEGO for developing the Friends line. But a huge part of the problem that stops more girls trying LEGO is that often in toy shops LEGO is put in or near the boy’s aisle, and this is enough to stop most parents and children in this ruthlessly gender-segregated world. Instead of choosing the easy way out and just joining with the rest of the pink vs. blue brigade, however, LEGO could have tried negotiating better distribution and display arrangements with those shops, and employed clever marketing to bring their vast range of products to the attention of more girls and their parents. I guess I expected better of them than to just churn out a simplistic pink world and proudly shout from the rooftops that NOW girls can also play with LEGO.
As LEGO’S Marketing VP Mads Nipper points out, these products “fosters positive, lifelong skills that are valuable to any child,” and I believe that these skills are important in preparing them for life and work in society. A big part of that is working with people of both genders, and LEGO is brilliant at getting boys and girls playing together, even if girls are not the “primary user”. I remember how envious I was of my cousin’s Lego City Gas Station and Police Station sets, and how we spent hours playing with them every time I visited. I cannot imagine he would be as keen to engage with the Bratz-like monstrosities that Lego has churned out last year, but I can honestly say that I never wished they came in pink. Does that make me an atypical girl? LEGO seems to think so, citing research that says women and little girls wanted “a more realistic figure” which I take it is why they stuck breasts on all the LEGO Friends characters. Perhaps I’m the only one to find their look deeply disturbing, but quite apart from that, in what world exactly are those figures representative of what women actually look like?
But while the above might be a matter of opinion, their assertion that LEGO Friends provides a higher level of detail than their other products is nothing short of ridiculous. As evidence I give you the picture of the models below, which sit proudly in my bedroom (I was not kidding when I said I love LEGO), from their Modular collection. I spent a week building this and marveling at the intricate external and internal detail, and cannot imagine a more fertile ground for role-playing and storytelling, as well as more beautiful objects. Granted, the Modular houses are more expensive and recommended for an older age group, but other products like Lego City have long exhibited intricate and delightful detail. Frankly you’d need to be blind to say – like Mr Nipper has – that LEGO Friends “delivers the same level, scale, and detail of iconic LEGO building as any other LEGO product”.
Mr Nipper said in a recent post answering the criticism against LEGO Friends that they wanted to “correct any misinterpretation that LEGO Friends is our only offering for girls. This is by no means the case. We know that many girls love to build and play with the wide variety of LEGO products already available.” That is certainly true, and I am one of those “girls”. However, I am not a young child, and it is a well-known fact that children are extremely sensitive to gender coding, choosing toys clearly targeted at their own gender. I looked at this issue for a paper I wrote on technological toys, and many experts agree that by providing one clear gendered choice such as LEGO Friends labelled “for girls” you are – by default – making sure that everything else is labelled “for boys”. It makes it very difficult for girls and their parents to go against that.
LEGO’s argument that the Friends product line has been a huge success does not really prove anything. Sure it sells; Bad gendered toys always do. That does not make it right. Comedian Sarah Kendall made the point on a recent radio show that her daughter does like Lego Friends, but that she also liked eating cigarette butts off the playground floor and shoving play dough deep into her ear canal. None of those likings meant they were necessarily good ideas or represented gaps in the market. I could hardly put it better myself.
Alice Bonasio is a Brazilian/American/Italian writer specializing in Digital Cultures. She has been published in Gamestm, Edge, The Escapist and 360. Alice has a MA (distinction) in Creative and Media Enterprises from the University of Warwick and a BA Hons in Media Communication and Cultural Studies from Bath Spa University. She lives in England where she works as a PR Manager. Contact her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.
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