Is Lego sexist?

Does the Lego Friends range stereotype, or is it just another brick in the wall? Hazel Gaynor pieces together the cases for and against.

AH, Lego. Loved by children and adults and despised by bare feet for generations and generations. But it is, undeniably, a universally popular and endlessly enduring toy. Who could have thought that what started out in Denmark 60 years ago as a one man business making plastic bricks in a shed would have expanded into a company with 600 employees and with Legoland theme parks in Britain, Germany and the US as well as the original in Billund, Denmark. It’s an incredibly successful toy story.

As a brand, Lego has had a relatively unchequered past with very few, if any, bad PR moments. That is, until the recent announcement of the launch of its new range, Lego Friends, which is aimed specifically at young girls. Unexpectedly, the innocent, four-years-in-the-making, Lego Friends world of Heartlake City has provoked accusations of gender-stereotyping among Lego fans and parents. Bloggers are writing impassioned posts about the inherent sexism in the new range. The Lego Facebook page has been deluged with hundreds of negative comments and protestations about the range and has been accompanied by a viral campaign to forget the pink aisles and new girl figures with breasts, bring back beautiful, ! a snipe at Lego’s own 1981 ad campaign which shows a little girl proudly holding her Lego construction with the slogan What it is, is beautiful.

So, what is all the fuss about? Is it really that bad?

The case for

For many consumers, such as mum-of-three, Claire Rudd, the concept of a girl-friendly Lego range is positively welcomed.

“I’ve always thought a less boyish version of Lego would be a good idea — my girls play with the basic sets and especially the younger ones but there is really nothing for girls over five in the current ranges. Something like the City range could easily be made more accessible to girls.”

To describe the Lego Friends range in Lego’s own words it is a new play theme that tailors the iconic LEGO construction experience especially to girls ages five and up. LEGO Friends delivers on a girl’s desire for realistic role-play, creativity, and a highly-detailed, character-based world with the core values of LEGO building. In layman’s terms, the range is based on five girls, living in a fictional hometown called Heartlake City. Olivia, Mia, Andrea, Stephanie and Emma have their own personality and interests — a musician, inventor, designer, party planner, and a vet/animal lover (a bit like the Spice Girls, but without the zig-a-zig-ahh).

So far, so harmless.

Claire, and her children are already self-confessed Lego fans. “I’m keen on the pink box of bricks for girls and love the construction element of the toy overall.” Reassuringly, the Lego Friends range doesn’t differ in this aspect of its design, with each set in the range coming with the trademark, step-by-step, construction-instruction booklets. ‘The Lego Friends sets are designed to be built, like all Lego sets,” Claire continues. “This is where Lego excels, as a construction toy, with a decent amount of building, proper instructions to follow and a sense of achievement in the finished item. Encouragingly, when I looked at the Lego Friends range I noted that there are some less typically girly pieces, such as the inventor’s studio. I definitely welcome the idea overall.”

Like many other parents hearing about the new range for the first time, Claire had initially assumed it would be in a similar format (ie similar colours and look). “When I looked at the image of the new range what first struck me was that it doesn’t really look like Lego,” she comments. “It looks like any other small pieced girls’ set.”

And perhaps it is this, the packaging and imagery, which is confusing people and which seems to have caused the uprising among those who are vehemently against it.

The case against

Mum-of-three, Alana Kirk Gillham, who has three daughters was keen to find out more about the new range but was extremely disappointed by it. “My girls love Lego and although Lego Friends as a concept is good — creative and potentially great for story making — it seems Lego have got it so wrong when it was well on the road to being so right.”

It is a sentiment shared by many who had high hopes for a girl-friendly range and applauded Lego’s attempt to address the gap in its offering with a considered, carefully-researched (over four years) range of Lego which caters specifically to the needs of girls.

“I hate to say it,” Alana continues, “but my three girls are, well, typical girls. Despite valiant earlier attempts at gender neutral clothes and toys, our house hosts pink platoons of princess paraphernalia — but it isn’t really about princesses and fairies, it’s about the stories they’re able to wrap themselves up in, create, participate in and control. They have another side too — creativity. They love to make, to build, to invent — be it a tent of the washed sheets, a den under their bed, figures out of loo rolls, you name it, we’ve made it. So the pink Lego box (the only girl-focused part of the Lego range pre Lego Friends) was a dream — they loved it (and still do). I’m therefore really disappointed by Lego Friends. I’d hoped Lego would make it complicated, make it intriguing, make it dynamic.”

Sharing many other parents’ frustration and anger about the alleged stereotyping in the new range, which uses pastel pink and purple shades and facial images on the mini-dolls, which are more reminiscent of a Disney Princess than the Lego mini-figures we are familiar with, Alana despairs. “I’d hoped Lego would give our girls decent role models, aspirational goals and stop dumming them down to the basest common denominator — curves and eyelashes.”

Interestingly, Lego launched the new range with the following opening statement in its press release. “The LEGO Company brings classic construction play to the girls’ aisle with first-of- its-kind LEGO® mini-doll figure, three new brick colours and detailed interiors that reflect four years of research in play needs of girls.” Set this against the continued momentum of the Pink Stinks campaign (launched two years’ ago by two sisters who went on a bit of an anti-pink campaign) urging toy manufacturers to give our daughters ‘real’ role models and an end to gender stereotyping in toys, and against Hamley’s pre-Christmas announcement that they are redesigning their stores to remove the colour-coded pink for girls and blue for boys aisles and organising toys by category, rather than by gender or colour, and suddenly Lego’s reference to the girls’ aisle seems out-of-touch and has simply added fuel to the naysayers’ fire.

Nevertheless, amid all the support and backlash, the one thing nobody seems to be disputing is the intrinsic play values of the Lego Friends range — spatial awareness, fine motor skills, creativity and problem solving. But perhaps there is a case to suggest that Lego have misjudged things when it comes to the imagery and the role models 21st century parents want for their daughters. Who knows, when all is said and done and the pink stinks furore has died down, the little girls who play with this new range may prove the doubters wrong and grow up into completely normal, well-rounded individuals. Heck, some may even grow up to be architects, inspired by their Lego Friends.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Lego has tried to crack the girl end of the toy market, with their previous ranges of Lego Paradisa and Belville preceding Lego Friends. Assuming you are as unfamiliar with these names as I am, you’ll quickly realise that neither survived on the toy shop shelves for very long. Perhaps, just perhaps, Lego Friends will be a case of third time lucky.

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