New Lego Friends Line Sparks Gender-Role Controversy

MPBN

New Lego Friends Line Sparks Gender-Role Controversy
01/19/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

One of the world's best-loved toy makers is coming under fire from some parents and activists for a new marketing campaign aimed at girls. Lego Friends are a series of girl characters who are taller, slimmer, bustier and more fashion conscious than the traditional Lego people. Critics say the Friends' interests and activities pander to traditional gender stereotypes and run counter to Lego's mission, and they've launched an online petition to ask Lego to re-think its strategy.

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Back in the 1950's Lego marketed its colorful building brick sets to both boys and girls, who were pictured making creations together in this television ad: "Hey kids, look! A whole new world to build. Build hotels, animals, people, boats, skyscrapers and more!"

But as the toy market changed and the company evolved, Lego spent the past decade marketing almost exclusively to boys. In the process, Lego became the world's fourth-largest toy company, whose U.S. sales in 2010 exceeded a billion dollars.

So just before Christmas, when the company announced it had spent four years interviewing 3,500 girls and their mothers around the world about what girls might like, some observers were surprised at the results:

Audio from ad: "New Lego Friends. Welcome to beautiful Heartlake City. I'm Stephanie. I'm going to a party at the new cafe with my new friend Olivia." "That's me. I just finished decorating my house. Time to chill with the girls."

"That it was the same-old, same-old was a big disappointment, I think," says Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor of education at Colby College in Waterville and co-founder of a girl empowerment group known as Hardy Girls, Healthy Women and SPARK, a group that speaks out against the sexualization of women in popular culture.

She's concerned that the new Lego girl characters, who wear pastel colors and enjoy things like party planning, getting makeovers and going to cafes, sends a bad message to young girls. "It's as though there's only one way for girls to grow up, and it's to grow into this particular set of interests and patterns," she says. "And, in fact, those of us who work with girls know that's not true."

"Lego Friends is not the only Lego solution for girls--it's simply another theme that we've added to really, hopefully engage a broader audience of girls in construction play than are currently choosing to do so," says Michael McNally, the brand relations director for Lego Systems, Inc.

He says the company learned two important things from its research: that girls do want to build things; and that they want to build things around storylines or characters who look more like them than the traditional blocky Lego figures.

"First we figured out that they wanted interiors and more details and more accessories," he says. "But on top of that they said, 'And these figures are cute but they just don't look realistic. They don't look like me. They don't look like my friends and none of us really wants to look like that.'"

Some still see a need to engage girls with toys that aren't cute or pink. Meet four-year-old Riley, whose toy store rant on the subject has made her a YouTube sensation. "Why do all the girls have to buy princesses? Some girls like super heroes, some girls like princesses. Some boys like super heroes. Some boys like princesses."

Twenty-two-year-old Bailey Shoemaker Richards agrees. She's an activist and blogger with SPARK who says she loves Legos and still occasionally plays with them. For her, Legos' appeal have always been that they're a gender-neutral toy.

Richards says the Lego Friends aren't as sexualized as Bratz dolls and Barbies, but she thinks the new line is a step backward for a toymaker that prides itself on innovation and creative play. "You know, we're not asking Lego to discontinue this line," she says. "But what we are looking for Lego to do in the future is sort of go back to a style of marketing that is gender inclusive and that doesn't limit girls and boys."

Richards and another activist started an online petition at change.org that has gathered more than 46,000 signatures so far. They've also jump-started a conversation about the Friends line on Lego's Facebook page.

But it has gotten some pushback from parents. Barbara Wistler, a mother from Sidney, Ohio, says she and her daughter feel marginalized for their interest in Lego Friends. "Well, actually I read some of the comments to my daughter and my daughter, she was offended! She was like, 'Wait a minute, Mom. I'm not dumb!'"

On the contrary, Wistler says she's excited that her daughter has found some Legos that appeal to her "girlie girl" side. The Lego Friends went on sale January 1st. Michael McNally says sales so far have exceeded the company's expectations.