Dear Lego: Stick With Gender-Neutral Toys, Please

The downside to gender-specific Legos

Lego unveiled a new line of toys made specifically for girls. “Lego Friends” feature female figurines and girly sets like “Stephanie’s Cool Convertible,” “Butterfly Beauty Shop” and “Mia’s Puppy House.”

I can’t help but wrestle with one primary question as I look through these new products: since when did Legos need to be gender-specific?

Think about the iconic toys of your childhood—Legos likely rank high on the list. And the beauty of Legos is that, no matter your gender, the plastic bricks are all about imagination. What can you make with the rigid pieces?

A Washington Post blog about the “Lego Friends” line reports that the new products are Lego’s attempt to tap into the girls’ toy market, which is apparently rather lucrative. I have a hard time grasping the fact that Lego needs to make more money than it likely already does, but who knows—perhaps demand for the tactile toys is falling off in favor of computers, tablets and video games?

Regardless of the economic factors that are driving the decision, I want to join those who are against the gender-specific Legos. Not only do the toys draw a dividing line between boys and girls, but they also reinforce negative stereotypes that women and girls are forced to deal with today as a result of a socialized and learned state of being by the public. This is exactly the sort of behavior that’s showcased (and decried) in Miss Representation, a must-see documentary that “exposes how the mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America,” according to the Miss Representation website.

You might think it’s a stretch to equate a few Lego building sets with the under-representation of women as leaders. Yet it’s these sorts of collective actions that, over time, continue to enforce certain stereotypes of women that, in the long run, can do more harm than good.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with traditional Legos and anything else that encourages a child’s imagination and sense of wonder, rather than limiting his or her explorations. I’m a huge believer in helping kids do what they love, whether it’s building an impossible Lego creation, honing their drawing skills and anything and everything in-between.

What are your thoughts on gender-specific Legos? Do you think it does more harm than good to create toys made specifically for boys or girls? Or do you see the new Lego toys as a natural extension of the product line?

Image by JuditK via Creative Commons

 

  • I totally agree! I think the original Lego was perfect for that reason. Me and my brother growing up felt equal ownership for it. We could make whatever we wanted. I had some really really girly toys which I loved but I also had a bad ass Stars Wars collection. Let’s stop putting girls and boys in boxes.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Absolutely!

  • Spot on as usual, Brenda. James Parris (a Disney colleague) is creating a PSA about this very topic, called PINK and BLUE. His kickstarter campaign just ended but it’s still a project worth following:
    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1031476088/pink-and-blue

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thanks! I’ll take a look.

  • Flutterby42900

    Excuse me, but I am 37 and LEGO’s have had girl specific sets since I was little! I loved building a se with purple window shades, or to have a window box with flowerd. Little girls can have the other sets, too. I did. My daughter, You are showing your PC side.

    • Brenda Chapman

      All the sets that I ever saw as a child were primary colors – and yes, some of them had windows and flower boxes. It’s not PC, my dear, but panic for my own daughter and what she is going to be faced with as a woman as she gets older.

      It’s the whole point that as long as marketing puts girls in the housekeeping, beauty conscious role playing and segregating them from the boys in creative thinking, i.e. building. adventure role playing, that young women will be stuck in that world, always struggling to get out of that image that the media and marketers force upon them for the $$$.

      I was lucky enough to grow up in the 70s and can appreciate what those wonderfully crazy strong women fought for for the likes of me. We’ve gone backwards since then, and I’m all for fighting forwards. I’m not a natural “feminist” – it’s what the media has forced me to be.

      Lego just hit a nerve with a lot of us. It’s Barbie. It’s board games. It’s actions figures. It’s everything. Let’s get back to playing together! I played cowboys and indians with the neighbor boy and he played house with me. We just had fun – and it wasn’t about that’s too girly…

      This isn’t PC – it’s real.

  • Flutterby42900

    *house*

  • Gender specific toys do more harm than good. Helping a child figure out who she is tricky business. It should be left to parents and parents should not have to fight against media messages designed to sell toys.

    • Brenda Chapman

      So true and well said.

  • My youngest daughter (then 10) was pretty scandalized by the then-popular Lego ads on TV … where Dad and *son* were building together.

    It matters not a whit *what* you build – be it castles, girly sets, alien spaceships, Hogwarts, or firehouses – but let’s encourage our girls to *build*.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Agreed! Thanks for the input from a dad!

  • I’ve read a lot about this, as a mom of 6 & 4 year old boys, who are absolutely crazy about Lego, and who also feels strongly about gender and “gender roles”, particularly in young children.

    If you watch commercials, you’ll see that most products geared toward children are almost all geared toward one sex or another. And it’s bad. Really bad. Lego commercials are no better, and if you’ve watched the recent Feminist Frequency videos regarding these Lego sets, I’m sure you’d agree. Honestly, I’d never seen a Lego commercial (we’d only watched PBS and other commercial-free channels) before my kids got really into them. The commercials are a big disappointment. Agressive, sexist, etc.

    I thought very little about it the toys themselves, until Lego Friends came out. Lego used to only make a box of bricks. Now, it’s all about sets. I’ve not seen many gender neutral sets or any at all that I thought were geared toward girls, and believe me, I have spent hours scouring the aisles. I’ve also NEVER seen a girl in this aisle. Usually, the plain building sets are kept separately from the themed sets, and are packaged in pink or blue. Essentially, Lego, is giving girls one choice. And yes, I realize that girls can play with anything, and parents (hopefully) would not discriminate, but let’s face it…from the time a child is born, we are constantly fed images of what colors go with what gender, and what girls and boys should like. It affects us.

    I wish that Lego had decided to add more females to their sets, or add sets that were less dominated by male characters. I wish they had decided to change their marketing strategy to show boys and girls, women and men playing with their children, constructing things from their imagination…but maybe that would be too boring.

    And, in reality, I will continue to struggle with this, because both of my children have a PASSION for this toy, and I know it’s a great, constructive learning tool. Legoland is opening 15 minutes from our house in a matter of weeks. We are ingrained in the Lego culture.

    Um, maybe I should write my own post about this. LOL.

    • Brenda Chapman

      If you did, I’d read it! 🙂 It’s an uphill battle – and I’d really like to know how and why we got here after all that work in the 70’s. You should track down and watch “Miss Representation.” Scary.

  • Eezz

    it is nice to see some sets that are not based on fighting. It is also nice to see some new colors. However, Why are there only females in these sets? Why are the sets predominantly pastel? Why are the mini figures different? I have never seen a lego commercial, but I would hope they showed girls, boys, moms and dads all playing with sets…I am a 63 year old woman. I wish that more building sets like Lego had been available to me when I was a kid. I have many many legos now, and enjoy building stuff. I don’t think the pink sets are going to make it in the market place, except as collector’s items. They just don’t reflect modern values.

    • Brenda Chapman

      From you lips to Legos ears! 🙂

  • Thank you for this. I found the new “line” unimaginative and insulting. (I signed the petition here if you are interested: http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-lego-to-stop-selling-out-girls-liberatelego)
    I had great fun playing and building with my brothers’ Lego Space Sets and my own beloved Robin Hood set as a girl – despite the lack of pink. My two year old niece loves her off-brand duplos which do have pink, purple and yellow blocks but she uses all for purpose not color design. She creates towers and castles, bridges and tunnels, animal habitats and houses with equal spirt of fun, problem solving and imagination – what I had always associated with Lego. I too wish instead of trying to limit to stereotypical form, Lego had expanded in other ways to try and engage girls.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Exactly. I don’t understand why they just can’t brand it altogether as a family toy. Parents still love to build with them. Show boys and girls building the castles and the bridges. Thanks for piping in!

  • Milo James Thatch

    The problem being fully honest is themed sets, especially the licensed sets that have been going on for over a decade with “Star Wars”and then moving forward with other brands. If Lego had kept it to just the simple, basic Lego bricks, you’d have a great point. However, as soon as they started making “Castle” sets or “Pirate” sets, they officially stopped being fully gender-neutral.

    Then when they got into the various licensed sets, such as “Star Wars,” “Spongebob Square Pants,” or “Harry Potter,” it became even more boy focused. Heck, even the newer Disney Lego sets thus far have been more boy focused. You probably won’t find too many girls desperately wanting to play with “Cars” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” Legos.

    Now, Lego could reverse the clock and go back to strictly theme-less sets, but don’t expect Lego to ever go back to that. Frankly, they make too much money off of their boy themed sets like “Star Wars” or their own “Ninja-Go” theme.

    Now a more realistic approach is Lego could try to push the basic line of bricks some more. And to be fair, in their own way, they do. Anyone who has ever been to a Lego Store will know about the “Pick-a-Brick” wall, a thing that has carried over to Lego.com not very long ago.

    The other thing they could do is start making sets based on more girl based licensed characters. They could do “Disney Princess” Legos. I personally think it is loopy that after two years of Pixar Legos for the new films of those years, they skip making Legos based on this summer’s “Brave.” I think the feeling there however is that girls want those characters in doll form. I don’t know that I fully agree with that, especially when I think of such things as “Polly Pocket,” but it’s not my call sadly.

    I realize there are a lot of angry people over these new girl-based “Lego Friends” sets, however, these sets are just the natural progression from the sets and themes of the last 10 to 20 years. I don’t remember much out cry over “Batman” Legos or “Spy” Legos from a few years ago. Why the outcry now after it’s too late? Just something to think about…

    • Brenda Chapman

      The outcry is because the Star Wars and Batman sets aren’t limiting a boys imagination. These beauty focused ones for girls are pigeon-holing girls into a superficial role.
      I loved StarWars AND Batman – why not target market those to girls, too? Girls like Spongebob… why are the toys only geared toward boys? That is the problem.
      And I don’t think it is too late – thus the outcry.
      The boys are getting all the things that say “be imaginative!” and “create and build things!” – The girls version is stuck in a pink beauty pageant world.
      It’s not too late to market their products to girls and boys at the same time. If the marketing industry put as much push into marketing Pirates of the Caribbean towards girls and stop putting them in the pink box, it would eventually pay off. They’d have a bigger consumer base for their lines – and just maybe not have to invest in yet another line of pink toys.
      Baby dolls are baby dolls – Tonka trucks are Tonka trucks. I played with both when I was little – so did my nephew who is only 2 years younger than me. Why can’t marketing and media capitalize on that instead of the gender stereotypes?
      As many boys as girls went to see Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella when they first came to the screen and several re-releases after that, as well as Pinocchio and Bambi. Not anymore. Why is that? Marketing. Media. They had the power to change it – and they have the power to change it back – or rather, forward – for the next generations.
      I think it’s their moral obligation – and if they weren’t so short sited on getting the $$ now, they’d see that it would be a bigger pay off in the long run.
      Sorry for the rant. It’s just so frustrating – especially as the mother of a 12 year old daughter, worried about the world she’ll be getting as an adult.
      It shouldn’t be superficial and pink. It really shouldn’t.

      • I really could not disagree more. Have you looked at these sets? There’s one that gives a girl her own designer’s studio, one that has a girl tearing around the countryside on an ATV, and one that’s has a girl inventor busily innovating away in her robotics laboratory.

        A robotics laboratory!!! The line has design studios and inventor’s shops, and you’re objecting to the lack of “be imaginative” and “create and build things” messages because it doesn’t have a licensed superhero? It almost sounds like you just saw the pink and purple colors and never stopped to look at the actual contents of the sets.

        Certainly some of these new sets contain the more “traditional” gender-stereotyped elements and colors, it’s true. But if there’s a complaint to be made, it should be that the “boy” sets haven’t been offering the same range and depth of imaginative play that these new “girl” sets offer.

        • Brenda Chapman

          Okay. So I just checked out lego’s website… and I did find “Olivia’s Invention Workshop” which may or may not have “robotics” as part of the invention aspect – I couldn’t seem to find the one specifically geared toward robotics. If you can point me to it, I will be happy to look it up. But this one comes along after “Olivia’s House” with the pink roof, “City Park Cafe” where girls are eating and being served by a waitress in a pink uniform (very imaginative!), “Butterfly Beauty Shop”, “Emma’s Splash Pool”, “Stephanie’s Cool (lavender and baby blue) Convertible”, “Olivia’s Tree House”, which has a little more going for it since it has a telescope in the lavender, pink and baby blue tree house, “Heartlake Vet”, which is great despite the pastels, “Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery”, “Emma’s FASHION Design Studio”, you forgot to mention ‘fashion’ in your example above, “Mia’s Puppy House”, “Bunny and Chick”, and a couple token “Pirates of the Caribbean” sets thrown in – which is great – THEN we get to “Olivia’s Invention Workshop”. It is followed mostly by Princess line legos and other stereotypical “girly” fare.
          I think you are way off base in saying that the boy sets aren’t as imaginative as the girls sets, based on only one or two of what the girls actually get. You sound as if you are satisfied if we girls are thrown a bone or two – “be happy with that.” I can’t accept that.
          My overall point, is why make the toys gender specific at all? Make the inventor set for both. Make the bakery set for both. Make the Pirates of the Caribbean set for both. They have put it randomly into the girl’s section, but I have seen no advertisements that make it truly for the girls, too.
          If they feel that marketing to the separate genders works better financially, then just show in one commercial, boys playing with the toy, and in another, girls playing with the same toy. They will play differently, yes, but they both have imaginations that propel them into adulthood. Giving girls things that keep them trapped in the above stereotypes is not encouraging their imagination to the higher levels that they are actually capable of, just as the boys. And it is teaching the boys that they should take a “higher” role over the girls.
          Okay. I’m done now.

  • Businessweek published a very thorough article about the last decade of Lego and how they’ve been rethinking and restoring the Lego brand through modern analysis and direct study of their core children audiences. [http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/lego-is-for-girls-12142011.html] Part of that goal was to try to reverse the trend of fewer female fans as as children get older.
    What they found is, especially as they get older, girls (in general) play different than boys. They put higher emphasis on aesthetics and role play with figures rather than in the third person like boys often do. Lego Friends resulted from these findings — a line that had characters that looked more like the people expected to play with them, and in more harmonious colors.
    Could they have accomplished the same goals without resorting to such familiar gender stereotypes? Probably. But my guess is Lego is almost a victim of what social expectations already exists, and they’re not interested in risking their business in the name of progress. If anything, I hope they expand out from this initial line into a much broader set of characters and settings that still meet the needs of their model female audience, but in more expansive and progressive forms.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Yes, I understand the business needs. And I know they are the “lucky” ones to be on the spot right now. This arguments should go across the board to all media and marketing for toys and adult products, as well.
      But if we don’t speak out, nothing will ever change.
      Thank you for your well thought out comments.

  • KrisAW

    I think it is the responsibility of the parent, not a toy manufacturer, to instill in a child a sense of independence and self-worth. It’s one thing to discourage kids from playing with toys aimed at the opposite sex, (that’s not okay), but it’s another thing to market to kids based on the way they play and interact with each other.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Absolutely. But when a parent is up against such mass media and their children’s peers whose parents may not be as diligent, it can be quite an uphill battle.

      • It is definitely an uphill battle! For us, it’s peers. I, nor my husband, haven’t ever referred to a toy or a color as a girl or boy thing, but they have picked it up anyway. The good thing is, I’ve seen them play with “girl” toys and enjoy them, as long as no one mentions that it should be for “a girl”.

        I can say with authority that this area is one of the hardest that I’ve dealt with raising 2 boys. We are bombarded with imagery, peers, etc., regardless of our diligence.

        • Brenda Chapman

          Yes, it is very hard.

  • Andrea Dailey

    In my opinion…

    Most people assume the idea is to get rid of pink and frilly things all together. Of course it’s not. That’s not what is wrong. It’s the effect that, pink and purple means girl, boy means everything else.

    When I heard Lego was now marketing to girls, I was excited! I assumed they would finally start featuring girls in those often boy dominated Lego commercials. Maybe I’d see a girl and her mom or dad building a skyscraper or maybe a girl and her brother fighting dragons and monsters together in that Evil castle. But instead, I see what looks like “polly-pocket” but worse. If I saw a girl playing with these, I’d never guess it was Lego. I’m not against girly toys, but what was wrong with the regular girl -block Lego toys that boys play with? I suppose they were too blocky, no room for breasts and a waist.

    I do feel like things are looking up in younger generations. More girls then ever before are going into the media industry. Anywhere from doing animation (computer and 2-d) to developing ideas for films, games, and toys. I hope that this might help the poor gender inequality in children’s toys (and films). It’s not about girls or boys, it’s about giving everyone the chance to grow and learn, without predisposed ideas that will hinder them.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Here! Here! You say it much more eloquently than I have been!

  • Tragedy of p

    Again with the “trying hard to appeal to girls”?

    SIGH.

    • Brenda Chapman

      🙂

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  • nw

    My daughter LOVES the Lego Friends line but also plays with her brothers Legos too. I actually thought it was an ingenius way of getting girls into building and creating and couldn’t believe they hadn’t thought of it sooner. Most of the Lego sets are not gender neutral these days and are obviously marketed to boys (look down any Lego isle) I am personally happy to see that girls are being encouraged to use a toy that has been so deliberately marketed to boys. My daughter personally loves the karate Lego Friends set. I think that’s awesome.

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