Lego Friends: Why?

I’m back. Back from the Vienna and the exhausting yearly ritual of arguing for three days straight with other university students at the European University Debating Championships. So, now that I’m not frantically trying to learn about the Greek economy or the ethics of war, I can re-focus on my first passion, feminism.

Some time back in July I visited Legoland Windsor with my boyfriend. I am a huge fan of Lego. It was all we could do not to buy the whole shop, but there were a few things that sprang to my attention as we wandered around.

1. Heartlake City

Heartlake City is the setting for the Lego Friends series, with pastel pink and purple sets, usually involving cafes, cupcake shops, hairdressers and pool party beach houses. *Sigh* This is conceivably the girls Lego. While it isn’t directly advertised as such, selling more to girls was the motivation behind the line’s creation, and it worked. Lego sales to girls tripled in 2012, according to NPR.

It’s quite obviously distinct from ‘the boys stuff’, not only in design but content. Compare the red boys sets, to the pastel more ‘girly’ ones, things you build in the City sets versus Heartlake City.

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I bemoan this because the toys we give small children are reflective of the views of the parents, who end up reinforcing gender stereotypes in their children. Give different toys to different gendered children, and you are clearly marking but what is appropriate for one. I recently recalled that my primary school offered both karate and ballet, but my sister and I were never given a choice to pursue the contact self defence sport.

The toys kids play with reinforce what are appropriate roles as adults too. If you play house on the playground and girls are always the stay at home, baking wives, then that does create certain perceptions. These are not hard and fast rules, and girls do break away from these childhood perceptions all the time. I spent most of my formative years pretending to be a Dalmatian, and while I love baking today, I can tell you I don’t have a single motherly maternal bone in my body.

So, when the boys get to play with fire engines and build cars and skyscrapers, but the girls are bought cupcake shops, it upsets me.

What upset me even more was the gendered branding of identical toys. Take these swords and shields, for example:

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Do girls really need hearts and bows on everything?

2. How do we make things better?

I do understand where Lego is coming from though. Their researchers did find that girls weren’t generally as interested in the Lego available at the time.

“When boys build a construction set, they’ll build a castle, let’s say, and they’ll play with the finished product on the outside. When girls build construction sets, they tend to play on the inside.”

They found girls would build the castle and then have nothing to play with and get bored, because they didn’t want to play violent games.

But I feel the solution to this is to expand Lego’s range in a gender neutral manner. I agree with those little girls who get bored with trebuchets and siege engines. Looking round the Lego store, I was annoyed there wasn’t more for me. But the answer is to have more sets which focus on other forms of play: exploration games and puzzles, a jungle explorer set or more of the Lego architecture series. Because right now, Lego isn’t offering enough “girl friendly” sets (if we are to take on ‘non-violent’ = girly stereotype for one second).

Looking up and down the aisles, I saw Lego City, which is great if you want to play with trucks and helicopters, but I know I would’ve found boring. There is Chima, a sort of Chinese martial arts, fireballs and monsters set, Bionicle, which is robots fighting each other, there’s pirate ships and castles which focus on siege engines and fighting. A further problem with this is that Lego has a lot of franchise sets, Avengers, Batman, Minecraft etc, which are mostly from boy entered media. Yes of course, everyone loves the Avengers, but not everyone loves the explosion fests.

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There are some good sets. Whilst it’s still pastel pink and purples the Elves set is a bit less glaring. This will be good for girls wanting to play at magic like I always did. And I enjoy the Lego Creator sets, which are more about building animals. In fact, a sad problem of this is that some of the most limited edition items were these more pretty animal sets. A hummingbird cost well over £100 for example.

So, Lego should do more to expand its Architecture, Creator, gender neutral sets and seek out franchises that will appeal more to young girls. There’s a lot of Young Adult female led media right now that would do well, Hunger Games, the Divergent series, many others. While they are fewer than ‘boys’ media, they do exist.

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3. Getting women into STEM

For those who don’t know STEM stands for Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, all subjects which lack a large female presence. Certain studies show that Lego is useful in getting people into these areas. Playing with the blocks improves spacial awareness, creativity, lateral thinking and mathematics.

So, perhaps if these sets are successfully getting girls into Lego, then its a win, right? True. I don’t like it, and I wish there was more gender neutral stuff available, but perhaps we can sneak science in under the radar, with pastel telescopes while nobody’s looking. To be honest, gender stereotypes have probably formed long before Lego can do much to change them. The way parents treat sons and daughters, the clothes they wear, the kind of language and play they are encouraged to use, will all have cemented a lot of these pre-conceptions. So, if parents are going to buy pastel sets for girls and that’s what they are going to respond to, then perhaps it’s a good thing that girls have at least more access into the Lego world.

So, maybe a parent will buy their daughter a sword with a pink bow, and she will then be more interested in playing sword games with her brother? Who knows. I have next to no data on this, purely a hunch and a feeling.

Walking round the Heartlake City, it seems Lego was doing their very best. The scariest ride in the entire park was a pony ride swing, that went pretty high. So, girls weren’t marginalised from having the thrill of dangerous theme park rides and plenty of boys were sitting on their ponies too. Heartlake also had a little journalists section, where you could play at being a reporter or news anchor. So, there are encouraging signs of improvement. There’s also a Lego Friends Inventor set, not as popular as things like the Treehouse, but there is a science lab for girls to play with if they wish, with (no joke) pastel coloured microscopes.

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Conclusion

Is Lego totally sexist and awful? No. Hardly anything ever is. Lego is a business after all, and while I would like them to help change the world, that’s not actually the responsibility of any individual company. Lego Friends and other pink and purple sets do sell well, so at least we have girls getting into Lego that way. But I sincerely hope the company does even better in the future to help girls get into STEM and help me justify buying Lego at the age of 23.

Also, this. I want this.

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