A few months back, an imgur post about a girl who turned her LEGO Friends juice bar Christmas present into a giant mecha went viral. And the internet cheered. Stupid gendered-girl LEGOs get turned into awesome robot, was the typical response I saw tossed around.

And while the robot was indeed awesome, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy about all of the ridicule that was being hurled at the original LEGO set. You see, my own daughter also received a similar playset for Christmas. Should she be ashamed that she wanted (and actually liked) to build the “boring” girly thing instead of the “awesome” robot thing?

photo from imgur user fickle

Ever since LEGO Friends was introduced three years ago, there has been a pretty vocal group — primarily made up of equal parts concerned parents, LEGO purists, and progressive critics — who felt that the traditionally “gender-neutral” world of LEGO was being unnecessarily upended when the classic construction toy company decided to purposefully market its wares to little girls. Rather than just including more girls in their existing brands and marketing efforts, LEGO devised a whole new universe of playsets and figures.

In addition to the “Friends” branding, these sets would revolve around a narrative surrounding a group of five girls — named Mia, Emma, Andrea, Stephanie, and Olivia — in the fictional setting of Heartlake City. There’s also a misconception that LEGO Friends are pre-assembled and somehow “easier” than traditional LEGOs. Trust me, as someone who has spent many hours assembling various treehouses and swimming pools, these are just as elaborate as any other LEGO playset. People who think Friends is a dumbed down version of LEGOs are thinking about the last time the company tried to make a girl-specific theme.

In addition to centering the playsets around stories of friendship and other “girly” pursuits, the traditional minifig was also redesigned, and this was another bone of contention. Gone were the blocky, monochromatic figures synonymous with LEGO from the very beginning. In were new figures who were slightly taller, and a little thinner, than their yellow counterparts. And instead of the various fire and rescue vehicles and airports and skyscrapers that people associate with LEGO’s other, non-licensed themes, Friends featured sets of beauty salons, pet shops, cafes, and yes, juice bars. Also, most of the bricks were pink and purple.

 

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So when the line launched in 2012, there was a lot of controversy about the gender implications of these girl-only LEGOs. But despite the outrage it engendered, the brand quickly became — and continues to be — one of LEGO’s biggest hits. Last year, the Friends-style expanded to a line of Disney Princess sets, and just this month, the company launched LEGO Elves, also in the same vein.

At the outset, a Change.org petition was created and solicited nearly 70,000 signatures imploring the Danish toy company to “stop selling out girls” because they insist “girls are not interested in their products unless they’re pink, cute, or romantic.” The overarching message of the petition was to convince LEGO to return to a strategy that offers their building sets to both boys and girls, alike.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know that LEGO has ever considered boys and girls as the same consumer base. The idea that regular old LEGO sets are gender-neutral ignores the fact that branded LEGO is almost certainly a boy-driven toy line. Never mind that the licensed Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Marvel Super Heroes and DC Heroes sets that make up the vast majority of LEGO product on the shelves have a boy-to-girl character ratio of, like, 7,000:1. Never mind that other original LEGO themes like Bionicle, Legend of Chima, or Ninjago are way more boy-centric than Friends is girl-centric — to wit, last year, LEGO introduced an action-adventure oriented “Jungle Rescue” storyline into its Friends theme, complete with male characters and helicopters and motorcycles.

There seems to be an unwritten sentiment in these kinds of arguments that implies that toys that are pink and “girly” are inherently bad. Meanwhile, toys that appeal to boys — namely superheroes or Star Wars action figures — is automatically gender-neutral. Isn’t this kind of logic flawed? Doesn’t it just actually reinforce the idea that male-centered things are the standard? Or worse, that girl-centered toys are inferior?

I was most struck last Christmas when President and Mrs. Obama were attending a Toys for Tots event that, similarly, went viral because the President “destroyed gender stereotypes” with the way he was sorting the toys that were designated for boys and girls.

It really was a great moment, and the fact that the President went out of his way not only to sort the toys the way he did, but to explain why it was important to break down gender stereotypes was a meaningful gesture. I applauded him for that. “Girls play t-ball too,” after all.

But again, as great as that viral moment was, it was another example of equating traditionally male-centered toys with gender neutrality. Why is it always a one-way street? Why couldn’t the President, say, throw a Twilight Sparkle into the boys’ bin for every action figure he put in the girls’? Girls can play t-ball, but what about adolescent bronies? Can’t they enjoy brushing pony manes, too? Speaking of which, why hasn’t Hasbro made a My Little Pony Kre-O set already? Do they not like money?

From Huffington Post

I mean, I’m all for girls loving superheroes and wizards. Hell, in my daughter’s room right now, you can find the Joker and Lex Luthor terrorizing the food court of the Heartlake City Shopping Mall with only Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and Emma decked out in a karate gi poised to stop them. But why is it only gender-neutral when a girl likes a “boy toy,” yet folks tend to throw shade at tween boys who watch My Little Pony? More than that, what message are we sending to young girls who might actually, I dunno, like pink and “frilly” things? Shouldn’t they be allowed to feel empowered too?

The other thing I actually appreciate about Friends is that it is really the only LEGO set that has a truly diverse set of minifigures. In the core group of five, two of the main characters — Andrea and Emma — are women of color. There are also several side characters who are either Black, Latina, or Asian. To be honest, I’m not actually sure whether Emma is Latina or Asian, but in our house, she’s definitely not white. But if you scan LEGO’s other offerings, including their licensed properties, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many brown minifigs apart from Nick Fury or Mace Windu (guess Sam Jackson’s LEGO game is strong) and absolutely zero women figures of color.

This is a really big deal, and Friends isn’t praised enough for its diverse roster of characters. Compared to the traditional all-yellow minifigs — who despite their skin tones, are really stand-ins for white folks; just ask Chris Pratt — there are actually a number of LEGO Friends sets that only feature characters of color.

That’s a rarity in any toy aisle.

Again, I’m not advocating that we put boys and girls in any kinds of pre-determined boxes. Hell, gender isn’t even binary anyway, so why does it matter in the first place? The point is both boys and girls and everyone in between should be free to like what they like.

But the vitriol that gets sent in the direction of a toy line like LEGO Friends does seem a little misplaced. Just because something is marketed towards girls doesn’t mean it sucks. If anything, we should get away from the idea that stuff for boys is inherently awesome.

Wanting gender equity in the toy aisle doesn’t mean we have to throw out all the pink and purple toys. We just need to acknowledge that some of those pink and purple toys are awesome too.

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14 thoughts on “Nothing’s Wrong with Pink and Purple Bricks: A Defense of LEGO Friends

  1. Hey Keith! My feelings on the subject are expressed nicely by this cartoonist: http://geekxgirls.com/images/legocomic/lego-girls-comic-01.jpg

    I think you know as well as I do the flaw doesn’t lie in the color scheme…it’s the sad message that Lego is sending girls: if you are a girl who likes pink and diverse groups of friends, your interests must lie in juice bars, not outer space, or anything adventurous beyond horseback riding. Even my daughter, who was 6 at the time, noticed the difference. She was attracted to the packaging and the color scheme of Friends, but thought the kits were boring and opted for a Chima set instead. She’s a hardcore Lego builder now, and we have now mixed Friends pieces into our “normal” pieces for the color variety.

    But I think Lego has tried to amend their earlier errors by offering more kits, and thanks for the heads up on the Elf line, that looks pretty interesting.

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    1. I don’t disagree with you. In fact, adding more girls to “regular” LEGO sets would have been sufficient for gender parity in the line (though without Friends, there’d still be a lack of girls of color throughout). But I also think that Friends gets a bad rap, mainly because of the “girls-only” perception. Like I said in the piece, I’m all for girls being in to things that don’t fit gendered stereotypes, but I also think we do a disservice to girls (and boys) when we kind of shame them (or their parents) for genuinely liking those things as well. And I say this as a big fan of LEGO Friends (obviously)!

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      1. I think a big problem is the context of the gendered marketing world we live in. It’s not about “girly” or a particular color being “bad.” It’s about gendered and color-coded, segregated aisles in big box stores which reinforce the message that “the stuff in this section is for you, the stuff in the next section is not.” And Lego, once upon a time, was officially more progressive than it’s become: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jobarrow/its-the-imagination-that-counts#.prAZxqy65

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    2. Actually, there are several Lego Friends sets that are specifically geared towards having adventures beyond juice bars, there is a whole Jungle Rescue line that allows girls to play out all sorts of active outdoorsey adventures.
      In regard to your comment: “it’s the sad message that Lego is sending girls: if you are a girl who likes pink and diverse groups of friends, your interests must lie in juice bars, not outer space, or anything adventurous beyond horseback riding.” I would counter, what about the reverse, aren’t the boy-oriented Legos sending boys a sad message that their interests must lie in violent conflict between different factions of ninjas, or between wizards and trolls, etc.? Why are boys expected to be all about violence in unrealistic fantasy realms? And what is so wrong about being interested in juice bars, what’s wrong with toys that present realistic, relatable settings, and allow children to use these toys to role play realistic social interactions that they might actually find themselves in in the near future, which might help them build social skills and confidence? I wonder if the problem is not that there aren’t “adventure” sets gears towards girls, but there aren’t realistic social interaction sets geared towards boys.

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  2. At the library where I work, we have lots of LEGO Friends easy-reader books as well as the other sets (Star Wars, Chima, etc). Some little girls go for just the Friends, some go for a mix — but either way, they’re reading, and then building stuff with the communal blocks we provide. We consider that a win.

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  3. Nope. Legos did used to be gender neutral. Ads in the 70s and 80s featured little girls playing with Lego sets just as much as boys did. However, it is true that there are far more “boy-oriented” IP sets than “girl-oriented” sets.

    Despite my initial misgivings, my 6 year old loves her Lego Friends sets, and watches the cartoons like the incipient consumer she is.

    My primary objection now is that Lego seems to only want to market Lego Friends as sets. I don’t recall whether the buckets of free bricks in my local Lego shop include the pastel colored bricks.

    Though, to be fair, I feel like that’s my observation on Lego in general these days: that it’s almost all kit-based. Not that kids aren’t free to build something different from the kit–obviously this young lady did so–but I don’t see many kids constructing things free form. I know when I had kits as a child, kit pieces stayed together so I could always build that kit, but I had a whole bucket of Legos that were fodder for whatever I wanted to make that day.

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    1. I think a lot of people get the wrong idea from those progressive ads in the 70s and 80s. Don’t get me wrong, they were brilliant, and they promoted positive views of gender and creativity. But you have to ask yourself: why did LEGO run these ads? Furthermore, why did they stop? To me, it seems that those ads existed for the same reason LEGO Friends and other girl-oriented LEGO sets exist: because girls weren’t buying LEGO, and parents needed convincing that LEGO could be a toy for girls as well as boys. And the reason we don’t see them anymore is that the ad campaign in question failed to overcome the stereotype that building is “for boys”.

      What’s more, people look at the bright, primary colors of bricks in those ads and assume that means the sets weren’t gendered, but back then ALL sets were limited to bright, primary colors, even extremely “gendered” sets. If you look at the sets LEGO had out in the 70s, that included the Homemaker theme (http://brickset.com/sets/theme-Homemaker), which was way more “dumbed down” than any of LEGO’s current girl-oriented themes. Single-piece, Duplo-sized cabinets, stickers across multiple pieces that prevented you from using those pieces for anything OTHER than a mirror, crib, or television, and subject matter that was strictly domestic (what would you expect, with a theme name like “Homemaker”?). Some of those “progressive” LEGO ads (like https://www.facebook.com/LEGO/photos/pcb.10152553755318403/10152553754093403/) even came straight from leaflets advertising these “Homemaker” sets. Today, LEGO Friends sets use a much wider color palette than sets back then, as do all themes.

      And while the Friends sets are all designed to build specific things, as is the norm with “play themes”. However, this doesn’t limit their creative potential one bit — I say that as a long-time fan of themes like BIONICLE and Ninjago. Free-form building is just one type of creativity. More structured creativity, where you create your own models and stories based on an established world or story framework, can be just as valuable. You can even take the parts of a kit and turn them into something that doesn’t even belong to the same world or story framework. There’s no reason a Friends set can’t become a space adventure, or a Ninjago set can’t become a luxury car The only limit is your imagination!

      And there ARE basic bricks in pink, lavender, azure, and other “girly” colors available for general purchase. The Pick-A-Brick walls in LEGO stores include lots of bricks in these colors (my brother picked up a whole tub full of them on one of our recent visits), and the new LEGO Classic theme includes two mid-size sets: “10693 Creative Supplement” (http://shop.lego.com/en-US/LEGO-Creative-Supplement-10693) and “10694 Creative Supplement Bright” (http://shop.lego.com/en-US/LEGO-Creative-Supplement-Bright-10694), the latter of which includes many of the bright and harmonious colors used in LEGO Friends and Elves. The larger LEGO Classic sets like
      “10698 Large Creative Brick Box” (http://shop.lego.com/en-US/LEGO-Large-Creative-Brick-Box-10698) also include plenty of pink, purple, and azure bricks.

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      1. “To me, it seems that those ads existed for the same reason LEGO Friends and other girl-oriented LEGO sets exist: because girls weren’t buying LEGO, and parents needed convincing that LEGO could be a toy for girls as well as boys.”

        And yet, as a child in the late 70s-early 80s, I would have been unconvinced if you told me Lego sets were “boy” toys, certainly no more than Lincoln Logs or any other set of blocks/builder toys were. I’m not arguing that gendered toys didn’t exist in that time frame, but that Legos themselves were not gendered, regardless of whether they became so later on before we reached this point.

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  4. I love your take on this. I have a now-9 year old girl, and I got her Lego Friends back when they came out in 2012, and have continued to buy them for her. I’m one of those dads who swore my daughter wouldn’t be one of those perpetually pink girls, wouldn’t watch movies about princesses waiting to be rescued by a man, and my feminist wife wholeheartedly agreed. But our daughter found that stuff anyway, is pretty girly-girl in a lot of ways, she’s her own person. Now I would still not actively go out and encourage her to get into things that push the pink agenda, but I’ve never seen Lego Friends as a problem in that regard. I’m a broad-shouldered dark and hairy heterosexual guy who loves to fish, kayak, hike, and smoke a mean brisket in my backyard, but I also like to cook and bake, tend my garden, and do home canning. I got Lego Friends as much so I could play with them as so she could. Maybe more so. I never had much desire to play with my stepson (her older brother’s) Ninjago and Star Wars Legos, but I just love playing with her Lego Friends with her. I love the New Urbanism vibe to Heartlake City. I love the fact that the figures are actual characters with distinct personalities as opposed to the generic minifigs of traditional Lego sets. They don’t need to be killing each other in a galaxy far, far away, they inhabit a tidier, simpler, safer version of the world we live in now, and my daughter and I have relatable adventures in them.

    Maybe one reason I love Lego friends is they are the kind of toys I would have loved to play with when I was a kid, but wasn’t allowed to because there are as many cultural strictures on boys and men as there are on girls and women. My dad finally relented and let me have the male strawberry shortcake characters (Purple Pieman and Huckleberry Pie), but I was never allowed to have the girl characters, and he never did let my mom buy me that Easy-Bake Oven I always wanted. So my daughter, I’m going to let her play with my…errrr…..HER Lego Friends sets, and not worry that it’s going to reinforce gender stereotypes in her mind. And I’ll watch Liv and Maddie with her (I actually like that show), but she’s also getting a rubber raft and set of oars (total cost under $40, I don’t spoil her) as an end of school present, so she can feel like she’s the captain of her own boat instead of always just sitting passively while I paddle the canoe or kayak, and I just upgraded her from a flimsy pink Barbie fishing pole to a real gender neutral fishing pole that’s actually stout enough to land a redfish.

    The point is, somewhere along the way, in our generation’s “enlightened” resolve not to force gender role stereotypes onto our children, to not fall into our parents’ “boys should play with boy things, girls should play with girl things” dogma, we went off the rails. First, in our rush to make sure that girls were not being gender stereotyped by toy manufacturers, we seemed to ignore that boys were being gender stereotyped, as well, because no one ever raised a ruckus about Ninjago Legos being for boys like they did Lego Friends being for girls. Second, we seemed to forget that it’s actually okay for girls to like girly things. As long as I’m not foisting girly stuff on her, and also making sure she gets the message that it’s okay for her to like “boy” stuff too, if she decides by herself she likes some girly stuff too, that’s okay.

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  5. We’re consciously gender-bending parents with both our daughter and son. We already have two huge toy buckets of various colored Lego from sets collected over the years. When we buy/receive more as gifts, we simply throw away the box, instructions and tip the bricks into the tubs. Our kids don’t need rules limiting their imaginations about how machines or play scenes should look, or about how to conform to gender norms. We regularly see Rocket-Fire engine-Planes taking off from the Hospital-House-Garage-Launch pad, which is just the way we like it.

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  6. We’re consciously gender-bending parents with both our daughter and son. We already have two huge toy buckets of various colored Lego from sets collected over the years. When we buy/receive more as gifts, we simply throw away the box and instructions, and tip the bricks into the tubs. Our kids don’t need rules limiting their imaginations about how machines or play scenes should look, or about how to conform to gender norms. We regularly see Rocket-Fire Engine-Planes taking off from the Hospital-House-Garage-Launch Pad, which is just the way we like it.

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