Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts about LEGO Friends

Two items made the rounds among my Facebook friends during the past few months: "The Little Girl from the 1981 LEGO Ad is All Grown Up, and She’s Got Something to Say," which was posted at in February, and a LEGO Friends installment of the webcomic Seasonal Depression from December. Unsurprisingly, this generated another round of debate about whether the LEGO Friends theme was a good thing or bad thing for kids. As both a parent and a former LEGO employee, I decided that it was time for me to revisit my own thoughts and feelings on this subject.

During the 1980s, the company started marketing their toys heavily to boys. This strategy helped create the enduring stereotype that all LEGO toys are for boys. The company made a few attempts at creating products lines for girls, including Belville, Scala, Paradiso, and Clickits, but except for Belville these themes were short-lived. At least part of the reason those lines failed is the fact that they were not designed to be fully compatible with other LEGO themes. Belville characters were on a larger scale than minifigures, and the sets involved fewer building elements. Clikits was a jewelry-making line that had even less to do with the traditional building experience. The most enduring "girl" toy has to be the simple pink bucket of bricks, with its pink (and later, purple) bricks mixed in with the classic primary colors.

Eventually the LEGO Group conducted several years of research into what kinds of products would appeal to girls, and the end result was LEGO Friends. This new theme was designed to be a girl-friendly counterpart to LEGO City. The sets focused on the hobbies and adventures of five teenaged girls, whose interests included many stereotypically girly hobbies (baking, fashion design, cute pets) as well as a few less gendered activities (music, science). The models used a more pastel color scheme than LEGO City, and introduced "minidolls." These new character figures had more realistic proportions than classic blocky minifigures, but their slenderness necessitated having fewer points of articulation. The hands and the tops of the heads were the same size and shape as a minifigure's, which allowed their hair, headwear, and accessories to be compatible with other themes.

The theme was introduced at the very end of 2011, and sold extremely well from the start. I was working in a LEGO Store at the time, and the reactions from customers ran the full spectrum. Some adults and children were overjoyed that there were finally LEGO toys for girls, while others saw the theme as a ploy to marginalize the girl fans of LEGO even further. My own reaction was rather mixed: I was skeptical about the theme's chances of success and disliked the pastel palette, but I had a duty to learn to sell this theme along with the rest of the store's inventory. Once I finally got my hands on a set to build for the store's display cases, my opinion improved: these sets did include a decent amount of building, so girls were not being shortchanged on that critical part of the LEGO experience.

I eventually came to a conclusion that many of my co-workers shared: The new theme would attract some girls who would otherwise not touch LEGO toys, then many of those girls would eventually explore other themes. But perhaps more importantly, the parents who felt that LEGO City was too boy-centric would be given more options for toys they might find more suitable for girls. Our attitude about that may have been a bit cynical, but sales figures showed that the company had indeed produced a successful new theme.

My own children, who were 7 (girl) and 6 (boy) at the time of the theme's debut, had played  with LEGO and DUPLO toys pretty much their entire lives. They both liked a wide variety of themes, including City, Castle, Pirates, and Ninja. In fact, the Christmas just before the first Friends sets were released, the two themes my daughter most desired were Ninjago and Alien Conquest! When they discovered the new Friends theme, both my daughter and my son were equally enchanted by them. My daughter immediately wanted the Invention Workshop set (a small science lab) above all others, and they both clamored after the cute animals. This new interest did nothing to dull their appreciation of other themes, and they regularly mixed together their minifigures and minidolls for shared adventures. For them, Friends was just one more theme to love, out of dozens of equally cool lines.

Since then, the Friends minidolls have been adapted for other themes, including the current Disney Princess line and the brand-new LEGO Elves sets. As with Friends, the Elves theme has elicited a wide variety of reactions among my acquaintances. These seem to fall into two camps, either "They are elves, so must be mine," or "They are a sickening parody of elfkind, and must be destroyed." It's the LEGO Friends argument all over again! Personally, these two new themes are just not my thing, and the handful of interesting parts I might find uses for don't justify the cost of the sets for me. (The Merida set comes very close, but like most Brave merchandise, her minidoll is just a bit too pretty for the character.) For the most part, I'm not much interested in acquiring Friends sets for myself. The one exception is the polybag pets series, which are a cheap way to get new animals for my RPG minis collection. But I will continue to buy the occasional Friends sets for my children, along with a wide variety of other themes.

Last year's Research Institute set, part of the LEGO Ideas theme, includes three women scientist minifigures and the tools of their fields. It's a great set for showing girls that science and LEGO are cool without any of the pink nonsense that pervades "girls' sets." Sadly, LEGO Ideas sets are produced as limited editions, so this set has little hope of getting the wider distribution it deserves. The set's entire production sold out online within just a couple of days, and despite the LEGO Group's promises of manufacturing more, they remain unavailable.

The Exo Suit, another recent LEGO Ideas set, features two astronauts, a man and a woman, distinguished only by their faces. This minimalist gendering for a space-themed set actually comes pretty close to the solution presented by Maritsa Patrinos in her Seasonal Depression comic. If the LEGO group can make more sets like these two in their larger-production themes, we may see some real progress towards a more gender-neutral toy line. In my opinion, designing all LEGO themes to appeal to both boys and girls is the only sure way to continue to grow the brand in a world that is increasingly sensitive to gender bias.

On a lighter note, these fantasy heroines were created using parts from Friends and at least five other themes. How many can you identify?

1 comment:

  1. What I consider emblematic of the problem is int he LotR/Hobbit line. When they finally released a Witch-king battle set, it was Elrond who was fighting him. Pointy-bloody-eared Elrond! Galadriel was there, but her accessory was basically a magic light bulb. I know I'm not the only one who has clamored for a set from RotK with Éowyn and Merry in armor at Pelennor fighting him with his giant morningstar and fell beast.

    (Disclaimer: I haven't seen the movie where this happened, if it did.)