The Soapbox: Of Little Girls And LEGOs

You can’t walk through my home barefoot without stepping on a colorful, sharp piece of plastic at least once. Yes, we are one of the families that helps ensure that Lego’s sales and profits continue to rise in an economy where many toy manufacturers are struggling.

And apparently, we’re not the only ones: Lego is crediting a recent boost in sales to a bunch of new customers — specifically, girls. The 36 percent profit seen in the first half of 2012 is being attributed to Lego’s newest line, Lego Friends, which is targeted towards little girls. Lego Friends  includes “Lady Fig” (lady figurine) characters that accompany a variety of sets from a beauty shop to a café, all heavily saturated in pink. Lego Friends are a departure in how Lego has marketed their building blocks toward girls in the past, despite the paltry representations of girls seen before. I can’t be the only one who remembers this ad from the 1980s?

I wish LEGO had appealed to the universal love that kids have for building things. Instead, the company’s girl-centric line relied more on stereotypes than anything else, and it seems to have succeeded, at least in terms of profit. When the Lady Figs made their debut last December, many folks, including me, had something to say about them, and it wasn’t very positive. In fact, the activist group SPARK Movement created a petition requesting that Lego stop “selling out girls!” Many folks felt that Lego was playing into tired gender stereotypes and using them to box girls further in with a product that has always felt gender neutral — which, for many, was its biggest appeal. With it’s “Beauty in Building” logo and array of cartoonized lithe, giggly (and incredibly touchy-feely, according to the page that welcomes you) Lady Figs, Lego Friends seems to be as far removed from the company’s traditional roots as possible.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with offering pink or purple Legos along with the usual mix of colors in hopes of appealing to a larger consumer base. I may even know of a few boys who would love to include pink Legos in their play!  But why not work harder at marketing traditional LEGO sets to girls instead of creating a whole brand new line that relies on traditional gender stereotypes? And yes, that’s exactly what they were doing: according to BusinessWeek, LEGO’s market research manager Hanne Groth found that “the greatest concern for girls really was beauty,” prompting the company to create and market their pretty and pink LEGO Friends line to girls.

I wonder how we got to a place where girls are so concerned with beauty at such a young age. It’s a shame that toys like this only further promote those concerns in girls. What a shame that instead of bothering to question it, Lego decided to capitalize on it with their pink and frilly line. It should also be noted that while the bricks from the LEGO Friends line are interchangeable with regular LEGOs, the Lady Figs (which are much more svelte than the originals) do not fit with original mini figs (miniature figurines), making it tricky to meld the two worlds.

There may be a bit of hope on the horizon: a quick glimpse at Lego’s latest catalog shows that they’ve removed some of the more gender stereotyped LEGO Friends sets — like the spa set — and have replaced them with more active — and frankly, more interesting —sets like camping, treehouses, and horseback riding. LEGO may still insist on separate marketing toward girls. But at least they’ve acknowledged the frustrations and anger of some of their fans over the LEGO Friends line.

Avital Norman Nathman is a blogger at The Mamafesto.