Wednesday, December 21, 2011

WE WANT TO REACH THE OTHER 50% OF THE WORLD'S CHILDREN: After years of anthropological and psychological research, Lego is unveiling a "Lego Friends" line in the new year, as a Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story explains:
Whereas boys tend to be “linear”—building rapidly, even against the clock, to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box—girls prefer “stops along the way,” and to begin storytelling and rearranging. Lego has bagged the pieces in Lego Friends boxes so that girls can begin playing various scenarios without finishing the whole model. Lego Friends also introduces six new Lego colors—including Easter-egg-like shades of azure and lavender. (Bright pink was already in the Lego palette.)

Then there are the lady figures. Twenty-nine mini-doll figures will be introduced in 2012, all 5 millimeters taller and curvier than the standard dwarf minifig. There are five main characters. Like American Girl Dolls, which are sold with their own book-length biographies, these five come with names and backstories. Their adventures have a backdrop: Heartlake City, which has a salon, a horse academy, a veterinary clinic, and a cafĂ©. “We had nine nationalities on the team to make certain the underlying experience would work in many cultures,” says Nanna Ulrich Gudum, senior creative director.

The key difference between girls and the ladyfig and boys and the minifig was that many more girls projected themselves onto the ladyfig—she became an avatar. Boys tend to play with minifigs in the third person. “The girls needed a figure they could identify with, that looks like them,” says Rosario Costa, a Lego design director. The Lego team knew they were on to something when girls told them, “I want to shrink down and be there.”
As the article acknowledges, "The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others." And, indeed, Lucy doesn't need a "Lego for girls" -- her Lego is everyone's Lego, the one in which she builds the Star Wars and Harry Potter vehicles and buildings she loves, and in which pinks and pastels and curves are unnecessary.

I'm not the only one with qualms; check out Lego's Facebook wall. As Powered by Girl's Stephanie Cole writes:
I can speak from personal experience and assure you, Lego, that girls do like minifigs. They also like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and they like being creative and making up stories that involve adventures and good and evil and things blowing up. But if you keep on excluding them from your marketing vision, soon they will start to believe that they would rather have hot tubs and little plastic boobs. If your research is correct, many of them already have. And if that happens, some girls might miss out on all the fantastic, adventurous imaginative play that only comes around once a childhood. The part of me that still fondly remembers epic Lego vs. Playmobile battles with my sister and cousin, is pretty royally pissed off.


  1. At the risk of sounding, well, sexist, I have to say that I greeted this news with happiness.  My 9 & 8 yo boys, espeically the 8 yo, love Legos, and they have been playing with them obsessively for about 4 years.  My middle son is exactly as described above; he loves following directions, making it look just like on the box, and he definately does not identify with the minifigs, he loves tormenting them.

    My 6 yo daughter is different. She loves action figures and puzzles. But it is notable that she has never been as interested in Legos, and I do think in part that it is becuase they haven't met her interests.  She likes the Xmas ones, but those are aimed older.  She doesn't care about Star Wars, cars, or goblins.  Instead she loves...wait for it...princesses, horses, and pretty pink houses where she can marry the people who live inside over and over again. 

    I'm a feminist engineer who always said that if I could only have one of my kids go into STEM I'd want it to be my daughter. But she is who she is, and this 'girls' brand of Legos looks like something that is much more likely to catch her interest than any of the other Legos currently out.  Trust me, we've looking in the Lego store together dozens of times.  Since I feel that Legos are an excellent building block (yes, intended) to learning the value of following directions, but also being creative, making cool things, but also dealing with breaking them, and shared play, as my boys can make up new lego adventures to play for hours, and I'd like her to join in more. 

    So I will not snark, but instead be grateful to Lego, and wish that the sets were already out, as there is still room under the tree. 

  2. The Pathetic Earthling11:56 PM

    I agree as a general matter that Lego can and should and really is gender neutral.  But I don't see this as the replacement for Lego.  I see it as the replacement for Polly Pockets.

    There is a lot of Barbie-Disney Princess crap that ends up here through well meaning friends and family.  Despite our polite efforts to take it from those donors and put it in our car trunk to be cherished until we put it in the recycling bin at our house, it occasionally gets discovered or revealed before we get it there.  So we end up with plastic, useless, offensively-gendered crap.

    This is not that.  It's gendered, but it's Lego.  Now, the Wee Earthling likes to play with regular minifigs and regular lego and that's great.  She very much loves her Spongebob Glove City Ferris Wheel Lego.  But if I can replace Barbie/Disney crap with Lego Friends, I'm going to do it, since it moves that outlying awful crap a little closer to my own goal posts.  Inherent in any play with even a Lego Friends set, the Wee Earthling  will have to put the fiddly bits back together.  That's a damned sight better than pulling snags out of a My Little Pony.  Wee Earthling likes girlie stuff and I'm not going to make her unhappy by telling her she can never play with it, but if I can spike it with some Lego engineering, I'm going to do it.  

    And not apologize for it. 

  3. I totally would have played with Lego Friends when I was a kid! Well, those and regular Legos.  

    I was just in FAO Schwarz with some friends the other day, and as we collectively admired some of the super-fancy sets (London's Tower Bridge!!!), I found myself wondering what the cutoff age is for Legos.

    My 9 yr old niece has never been into Legos, but maybe I can win her over the the world of Legos with Lego Friends. Then I'd have an excuse to play with them!

  4. lisased12:42 AM

    There is no cutoff age for Legos. My husband and I registered for some when we got married. They were one of the first gifts we received.

  5. Math is hard.  Let's go to the mall!

  6. lisased7:13 AM

    Oh, Barbie. We had such hopes for you. You could have been an astronaut, but you moved in with Ken and now look at you! A mermaid in Malibu!

  7. christy in nyc7:59 AM

    I also have to admit my feelings about this are merely mixed. I like gender-neutral toys. I don't like the idea that if "girl" lego exists, that means all other lego is now "boy" lego, because default is boy and girl is divergent.

    But then, why shouldn't lego sets like these exist? Shouldn't there exist as many lego sets as possible? Covering as wide a range of things as possible? i guess it would be better if there were also a lavender and azure rocketship set and a black and yellow puppy house set. Maybe someday. But I also think pointing out that girls like lego just fine how it is doesn't really preclude their wanting to sell those girls even more lego or getting even more girls to want lego. I wish it didn't have to fall along gender lines, but some kids are going to like these sets, and I'm glad there are lego for those kids, no matter their gender.

    I also remember Toy Story 3 and its reinforcement that being a "girl toy" is something to be mocked, and denied if you are one. If gendered toy marketing is so horribly awful, why don't "boy toys" get the same amount of ire?

    I would have liked these sets as a kid, I think. The cafe and bakery sets remind me a bit of this TOTALLY AWESOME Barbie ice cream shop playset I had. It was pink as all get out but it was really fun to play with and it really made real ice cream! And that thing about how the girls they talked to wanted to shrink down and play in the playsets themselves? Ask me what I would have asked a genie for from about age 3 to age 9.

  8. This is an interesting debate that I look forward to following.  I think the Bloomberg Businessweek article sums it up nicely on the second page: "They all love to build, but certainly they play in very different ways.”  Girls use minifigs as avatars, whereas boys use them in third person.  And I agree with Pathetic Earthling below in that it's gendered but it's not sexist.

    Although, when did "minifig" become part of toy vernacular?

  9. Just get 'em this:

  10. Heather K10:14 AM

    When I was a tween ish kid and my sister was two years younger we got a girly lego set.  This is not their first one.  Our set had horses and was pink and lavender and aqua and white and WE LOVED IT SO MUCH!!!  We had legos before because legos are awesome, but it was revelatory for us to get legos in colors that were our favorite colors.  And legos that had girl minifigs.  Lots of girl minifigs not like one girl minifig but ALL GIRL minifigs.  Because we wanted minifigs that looked like us.  We did.  These girl minifigs were exactly like boy ones but with lipstick and girl hair helmets.  We fought over the red hair helmet because we were/are redheads.  We kind of thought the princess horse farm wasn't our ideal (well maybe my sister liked it because she loved horses) but whatever.  It took about two days before girl colored lego got mixed right in with original recipie legos and we made our lego stuff with girl colors too and girl minifigs hung out with the boy ones we already had.  And the girl legos stayed mixed in as my two even younger brothers went through their lego times after us.  Heck, I bet they are still there in the schwann's ice cream buckets that house our legos in my parents basement.

    But as I a girl I always felt that the legos were designed for boys even if not to an exclusionary point, but thanks to my dad my first toys were John Deere tractors and a giant dump truck so at our house there were no rules against certain toys or chores or clothes being for boys or girls.  One of my brothers had a cherished doll and another loved to play dress up in the shiny sparkly dance clothes in the dress up box.  But even coming from that house, I had a strong sense that legos were for boys first.  Mostly it was the color palette that was all colors that wouldn't scare boys.  They were easily scared off by colors.  At least that was how child me felt.

  11. VanessaH10:15 AM

    I'm 47 and my partner and I love legos. We just bought the Tower Bridge and I had enough VIP points to get $50 off. That being said, I find myself attracted to sets that are a subject matter that I can connect with. I like the architecture sets and the heavy equipment. So when I decided to give Legos to my 6 & 7 year old nieces this year for Christmas, that was my attitude going in.

    What frustrates me is that anyone thinks of building sets as "boy toys" and that Lego markets their themed sets that way. Also, the idea of minifigs that are sized differently for girls to play with reinforces the seperation. They are no longer interchangeable with the other Lego sets.

    I think the general idea of making sets that are played with differently is fine, but the path that Lego is going down smacks of "seperate but equal" which makes all of us uncomfortable.

  12. Genevieve11:40 AM

    I like that one of the sets is an inventor's workshop:
    There's also a design studio (take the fashion interest but make it more professional, not just about shopping).
    And I quite like the tree house.  I didn't have legos as a kid, I did have Barbies, and I think I would've liked this tree house set a lot.

  13. Genevieve11:43 AM

    The different size does bug me, because I like the idea of them all getting mixed in together.

  14. The Pathetic Earthling11:49 AM

    Note that the Lego Friends are still partially compatable with standard Lego minifigs: hair can be swapped (although I doubt full size helmets will make it over) and the hands still fit the internal dimension of a stud, so there's nothing a regular minifig can hold that she can't.

    Which means, of course, Lego Friends can have a very bad at the office, too:

  15. christy in nyc11:56 AM

    Yeah I was surprised to find that it's only a 5mm difference in height. It's almost like it's proportional to how much taller most girls are than boys at that age. :)

  16. isaac_spaceman12:27 PM

    I couldn't agree with TPE more if I tried (I haven't tried).  To me, criticizing Lego for rolling this out seems unnecessarily harsh.  Lego is a company that sells toys.  The people at Lego obviously want girls to play with Legos and even seem to want girls to play with Legos on the same terms that boys do.  They are not saying that no girls do that.  But they obviously have figured out that many girls don't, and their job as a company is to sell as many toys as possible.  This is not a company that is trying to force girls into gender roles.  To the contrary, it seems like Lego honestly believes -- and this is to their credit -- that they can try to build a bridge (pun intended) from Pink Princess to standard Lego toys; i.e., that they can teach (or smuggle) a love of Lego engineering to girls who otherwise wouldn't get it from their gendered toys. 

    As for Stephanie Cole's argument that she speaks from experience when she says girls like Legos:  (1) many girls do, no doubt; and (2) obviously Lego has better information about how many do and how many don't, and if it thought it were selling enough Legos to girls, it wouldn't have done this.  Generally, when someone's evidence consists of "trust me, I know," I proceed with skepticism. 

    Lego has to do what's best for Lego, and you can't criticize Lego for rolling this out any more than you can criticize Pantone for making pink paint. 

  17. What concerns me is the idea that once you market these as "girl Legos," then you're steering all girls away from the harder-to-build, more complex, classic Lego sets.  You may not just be accommodating those girls who need the bridge but also reifying different treatment (and talents) for the rest.  

    The question for Lego is "what toys would girls like to build?"  The question for the rest of us is "what kind of girls is Lego building through marketing these toys?"

  18. The Pathetic Earthling1:46 PM

    Hopefully, this is a gateway drug.  To me, I always figured the right approach to encouraging girls to pursue science and engineering was to give them a fair chance to be exposed to it and if it takes, great.  And if it doesn't, fine.  I think this does that.  Some girls are going to go straight for the normal Legos, some girls will not be interested in Legos at all, and some girls will be interested in these Lego Friends legos, but some girls will be exposed to Lego through Lego Friends and find their way to regular Lego.  It's for that last group that this needs no excuse.

    My Dad is a reasonably successful medical device engineer and found that every successful engineer he ever met of his generation was the kid who ran the projector in class.  I'm guessing that there's not a successful technical entrepreneur in the US or Europe under the age of 50 who did not spend a decent amount of time playing with Lego.  Corrolation is not causation, of course, but I'm not taking chances.  This can skim off some of those girls who might not otherwise want to start playing with Lego and get them interested in the really cool engineering parts of regular Lego.

  19. That. Is. Awesome.

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  21. isaac_spaceman8:23 PM

    "Separate but equal" is about not having a choice.  Jim Crow was not about "this water fountain has a picture of Tim Tebow on it and that water fountain has a picture of Cam Newton on it, but they're both excellent water fountains that dispense cool refreshing water and you can feel free to use whichever you prefer."  I'm sure you didn't mean it that way, but "separate but equal" is one of those phrases that has acquired a very specific meaning that renders it impossible to use it in any other way (especially with the quotation marks around it).  Don't make me call Isaac Jaffe out to tell you what he thinks about this. 

  22. isaac_spaceman8:27 PM

    Just to put some color into this illustration, imagine if somebody, in casual conversation, used the word "apartheid" to mean "separateness," as in "I really like putting the sofa in the middle here, because it emphasizes the apartheid between the dining room and the living room."  I have a worse example, but I think it would be in poor taste even to use it. 

  23. isaac_spaceman8:31 PM

    Also, we are the world's foremost experts on changing the subject abruptly, and nobody beats us at installing malware on your computer or having nonsensical telephone numbers. 

  24. Joanna8:44 PM

    I have an opposite complaint about the Easy-Bake Oven: In the age of the foodie and the male celebrity chef, why does the new Easy-Bake have to be pink and purple? Couldn't they make it orange - or at least make one in camouflage? (I asked Hasbro about it, and they offered a typical answer.)

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  26. lisased10:37 PM

    The parents never bought me Legos (I had Barbies and books), so I didn't get into Legos until high school, when I worked in a toy store. I would have loved the tree house set. 

  27. isaac_spaceman11:32 PM

    The answer is true and the rationale is certainly correct.  Do we expect them to lie or to make an unprofitable product?  Though perhaps the better (not true) answer would be:  "We agree with you that cooking is not just for girls.  Neither are pink and purple.  We hope your son enjoys his oven." 

  28. Joanna11:25 AM

    <span>But isn't there a chicken-and-egg situation here? How much does the product lineup drive behavior?  I suspect that there are quite a few boys out there who would be interested in mimicking dad the foodie and making guitar-shaped calzones in a hot oven. (Yes, guitar-shaped calzones are among the Easy-Bake offerings.) But no well-meaning parent or grandparent is going to buy that boy an oven covered with pink and purple swirls. If there were a gender-neutral offering in the boys' aisle, complete with more boy-friendly recipes (spicy dinosaur cheese doodles!), maybe this could become a boys' toy, too.</span>

  29. Heather K11:50 PM

    What if it were just shiny.  Like shiny shiny chrome.  I think all would find that appealing.

  30. Jenn C10:43 AM

    Im ok with the idea of introducing new sets and colors, why did they have to tweak the mini fig? My 4 year old girl took a look at the Friends and said they didn't look like Lego people.