Post-LEGO Movie Inspiration: LEGOs, Duplos, and LEGO Friends

If The LEGO Movie inspired the child in your life to get building, we’re re-posting a review we did back in 2012 of the LEGO options that make up today’s market.

LEGO Friends, the new-ish “legos for girls” are a hot item. From the voice of Get More Girls into STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math), some people love them and some people hate them. They were even nominated for a TOADY award (Toys Oppressive and Destructive to Young children). I don’t love them, although since I first wrote this, LEGO has drastically expanded their offerings to be less gender stereotyped, and I even bought one for Fair Play Niece for Christmas. I’ll also go off on a tangent in this post about toy companies and their treatment of horses in children’s toys because this is a lifelong pet peeve of mine.

For a long time, LEGO gave up on selling toys to girls. In fact, they marketed heavily to boys, to the point that girls were frankly excluded from their message and their products. This of course is absurd, since the spatial skills and motor skills built through construction and building play are important for both boys and girls. We’ve talked about this on the blog many times already. But, LEGO found themselves in a position where they could be extremely successful with boys if they marketed themselves in a particular way, to the exclusion of girls, and such is the history of most LEGOS in recent memory.

Duplos, LEGOs for the younger set, are not nearly so stereotyped and appeal to a broader crowd. I strongly endorse duplos as a first building toy for toddlers. The pieces are large, brightly colored, and easy to connect. There are fun sets like a zoo theme and a farm theme. Of course I do not endorse the lone pink set of duplo blocks. Regular duplos get a 5 pinwheel rating and you can find them in our Amazon store.

Now, with toddlers who already love duplos, you might expect you are creating young LEGO aficionados who would later buy other LEGO products, and so the focus should be on increasing duplo popularity among boys and girls, but evidently LEGO doesn’t see it this way. LEGO didn’t hire me to do their marketing. Anyway, suffice to say, LEGO had a gender problem. Enter: LEGO Friends.

Like most toy companies, LEGO thinks they need to speak in different languages to boys and to girls. Try out the gender remixer – you can mash up the audio and video from ads targeted to boys and to girls – and you’ll see what I mean. The timing is the same – for boy ads or girl ads, they devote the same amount of time to introducing the toy, showing the actual toy, and so on, so the mash-up of boy and girl ads is eerily synchronized. LEGO Friends constitute the foreign language LEGO now believes they need to speak to girls.

LEGO Friends are an attempt to appeal to whatever might be different about girls’ interest in or process of building and construction play. This is a somewhat similar tactic as that taken with Goldie Blox, where building is woven into a narrative. However, I contend that Goldie Blox scaffolds building through the use of a narrative, thereby enticing children to build and to stick with building when they are unsuccessful. The narrative could make the spatial play successful. In contrast, LEGO attempts to capitalize on girls’ well-socialized interest in make-believe play by introducing characters in LEGO Friends that are larger and more detailed (attractive) than the small LEGO people in traditional LEGOs. The characters are designed to attract girls to LEGOs, which might or might not encourage building, not to assist in the building process. The first sets released in the past year were quite stereotypical in content, including a hair salon and a pet theme. The sets available for holiday purchase are certainly geared toward girls, but are not quite so offensive. They include a vet clinic (toy companies’ idea of girl-appropriate doctor, I guess), a camping set, and even an inventor’s workshop, among many others. Not at all surprisingly, the sets are overwhelmingly pink, although a few of the newer ones include less pink in the actual toy, just a whole lot of pink and purple on the box.

So what exactly is my issue with LEGO Friends? It makes me uneasy to use one stereotype (pink girly approach) to break another stereotype (girls building things). My master’s research demonstrated that approach very elegantly backfired with Barbie teaching preschool girls about STEM jobs. But, I’m not wholly opposed to that tradeoff approach in theory, so if it does actually get little girls building more, even if it is simultaneously reinforcing all their stereotyped ideas about femininity and gender (eek!) then maybe, maaaaybe I could be ok with it. But! Some have leveled the accusation that the LEGO Friends sets are less challenging than the traditional LEGO sets. LEGOs For Your Spatially Inept Friends (wait…girls?!?!). This is where I take major issue with them.

That LEGO Friends are less challenging is really a question of the age ratings of these toys compared to traditional LEGOs. You could give LEGO Friends to a younger child than they are rated for and perhaps not run into an issue vis a vis challenge. Let’s look at some examples.

Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery is rated for ages 5-12, and looks pretty standard issue for a five-year-old but 12?! Come on.

Compare this to the traditional LEGO Dirt Bike Transporter, also rated 5-12. The dirt bike set has moving parts, more things to assemble, etc.

But if you don’t buy that argument, we can look at this another way. Instead of comparing age ratings, we can do what Elsie Gomez does and look at the most complex toy available. The most complex LEGO Friends option currently on the market is Olivia’s House, rated for ages 6-12.

Now let’s stick to the same 6-12 range and approximate $100 price tag, for fair comparison – Gomez uses the Hogwarts Castle, which is nearly double the cost and therefore not a clean comparison of complexity. In contrast to LEGO Friends, one of the most complex traditional LEGO options is the LEGO Police Station.

Clearly, this is a more challenging building toy than the LEGO Friends Olivia’s House. This wouldn’t be an issue except that LEGO has, through their marketing, said that traditional LEGOs are for boys and LEGO Friends are for girls. If we lift all of our constraints on age or price, we enter LEGO Architecture territory. Rated for 12+ and with very small pieces, these too are marketed to boys (even men). Extremely challenging LEGOs are for boys. Take the White House (only $30, by the way, and 506 pieces):

I appreciate that LEGO is broadening the content of the LEGO Friends sets. I appreciate that they have made room for girls in their toys, although I wish that was by broadening the appeal of LEGOs and not by making Girl LEGOs. But if the sets aren’t actually building age-appropriate spatial skills and girls are capped at a lower level than that for boys, I’m not willing to excuse the stereotypes they are also reinforcing.

If you decide you are going to buy LEGO Friends, keep the following things in mind:

  • Buy a theme that doesn’t reinforce a gender stereotype
  • Buy one of the sets that is more gender-fair in the color of the pieces
  • Buy a set with appropriately complex building requirements for your target child
  • Consider repackaging the toy to avoid giving it in its lurid purple box

For their stereotyped approach to attracting girls to their product and their comparatively less challenging building sets, Fair Play gives LEGO Friends 2* pinwheels.

*If you follow the selection and re-packaging recommendations above, I suspect you could get a 4 pinwheel gift out of them. Like the title of this post, Fair Play recommends proceeding with LEGO Friends with yellow light caution.

The other important thing to remember (the tangent I hinted at in the first paragraph…) is that children are attracted to toys for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with their gender. For example, personal interests play a large role in what make a child pick up a toy, and children are experts in their own interests. Toys that can appeal to a child’s own interest, or broaden their interest, are critical. It doesn’t matter how much a toy can teach if the child won’t pick it up. It is maddening to me that toy companies assume interests and gender are the same thing. I’m going to give perhaps a silly illustration from my own life:

As a child (and still, as an adult), I was really into horses. I know this is a stereotypically feminine interest, and so do toy companies. As a child, I found it extremely frustrating that Barbie’s horses were bizarre colors not found in nature and she couldn’t even sit astride her own horse. I moved on from Barbie pretty quickly. I actually played mostly with Playmobil because the horses were the right colors and the riders sat properly on their horses. LEGO Friends has a new horse set, and the riders stand (stand!) on top of the horses. The horses are the right colors…but the ribbons are pink. Pink ribbons for anyone who doesn’t know are for 5th place. 5th. Not 1st. I don’t know any child, girl or boy, who rides who would prefer a pink ribbon and 5th place than a blue ribbon and 1st place.

You might think I’m splitting hairs here, but LEGO’s own marketing research manager said each set and piece of LEGO Friends captures great attention to detail, and “harmony” among the pieces and colors, LEGO’s supposed magic bullet to bust open the little girl market. If attention to detail means the characters have the toy version of Western ideal beauty, and harmony means the pink goes with the lavender, you’ve lost me. I want my rider to sit on her horse and win a blue ribbon.

Originally posted 12/9/12

What do you think? Leave a comment!