LEGO Bets on the Ladies… and Misses the Mark

Lego Friends

In an attempt to close a gender gap in its sales, The LEGO Group has widened the gap in the toy aisles. The toymaker is set to launch LEGO Friends, the day after Christmas. According to a press release, LEGO Friends is, “a new play theme that tailors the iconic LEGO construction experience especially to girls ages five and up. LEGO Friends delivers on a girl’s desire for realistic role-play, creativity, and a highly-detailed, character-based world with the core values of LEGO building.”

It sounds good in theory – a line of toys that has practically ignored the fact girls exist finally acknowledges 51 percent of the population. Just look at the existing product catalog. With the exception of the Statue of Liberty, there are no girls. But in execution, it is very, very flawed.

LEGO Group embarked on “four years of research, design, and exhaustive testing,” according to this article in Businessweek, and determined girls hate the little LEGO figures. Perhaps that’s because those figures are mainly men and girls want to see themselves reflected in their toys? But the LEGO team concluded it was about looks. Hanne Groth, Lego’s market research manager, told Businessweek, “The greatest concern for girls really was beauty.”  So LEGO Friends includes six new colors – light blues, shades of pink and purple – and new “lady figures” that are taller and curvier than the existing line.

To be fair, the research also revealed girls enjoy “realistic role-play, creativity, and a highly-detailed, character-based world,” and LEGO Friends aims to address that requirement. How they do that however, is disturbing.

LEGO claims that with the new line it wants to stay true to its values – to develop children’s creative and imaginative abilities through high-quality, creatively educational play materials – and to not shy away from the fact that LEGOs are first and foremost a building toy. However, LEGO seems to think girls can’t imagine beyond stereotypical female roles. The Friend sets include a bakery, a splash pool, a stage, a puppy house, a butterfly beauty shop and a house. Not included: a city, a race car, an airport, superheroes.

Twenty years in marketing has taught me never to trust a focus group of one. But when I read in the Businessweek article that LEGO group CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s enthusiasm for the new Friends line, “comes partly, he says, ‘from casual observation: I have two wonderful daughters next to my two sons, and they are in a very narrow age range, 4 to 10, so I have a little home study,’” I did my own home research.

I asked my seven year-old daughter, “Do you like those little LEGO people?”

“Yes,” she says. (I already knew that.)

“This article I’m reading says girls hate them.”

Her mouth opens in disbelief.

“The article says girls don’t like them because they’re not pretty.”

Her jaw falls open a little more. After a pause she says, “Yes they are. They might not be wearing girl suits but they’re wearing their job suits.”

And that makes sense to her. Now Knudstorp has two master’s degrees, and a doctorate, completed coursework at both MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Harvard, and has a Y chromosome. My daughter does not.

We know there is a major gender gap in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math. And research asserts that negative stereotypes – the idea that boys are better at math and science- can affect girls’ test performance. It is frustrating, that in a cheap attempt to market its toys to girls and create a much-needed new revenue stream for the company, LEGO Group is feeding into the stereotype.

My daughter snuggled up to me as I was finishing this post. “Why are you writing about LEGOS?” she asked me.

“Remember I told you the company thinks girls don’t like LEGOS because they are ugly? Well I don’t like the new product line they’re launching. The company seems to think girls just want to do their hair and chat.”

She makes her little OMG-I-totally-know what-you-mean-mom face designed to show me she’s smart and our thought processes are aligned. To underscore my point, I show her the promotional video for Friends. I watch her as she watches it and I see the look on her face morph.

[hana-code-insert name='Lego Friends Commercial' /]

Like most little girls, my daughter has consumed a steady diet of media messages telling her a girl’s value comes from her looks. And despite her mom’s best efforts to teach her otherwise, she believes. Her eyes light up at the pretty little lady figures and she says almost breathless, “I want that.”

Damn you LEGO! Thanks for nothing.

For more on the new LEGO line:

Sign the petition and tell LEGO to stop selling out girls.

Tell LEGO to “bring back beautiful.”

Read how the Girl Scouts are using LEGOS to address the gap in the STEM fields.

 

 

14 comments for “LEGO Bets on the Ladies… and Misses the Mark

  1. eileen
    December 24, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    My daughter had the same reaction as your daughter and when I pointed out that the “dolls were drinking lattes and visiting fancy houses her response was…”they are teen aged girls and that is what they do”. Oy, where did we go wrong? She wants the vet set.

  2. December 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I think those new pink Friends are a vast improvement on the classic yellow minifigs, but if you want to broaden your appeal, Lego, maybe you could try including brown people in Legoland.

  3. Nadine Wettlaufer
    December 28, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I have a lot of respect for the points you and other sibling feminists are making RE: the new “LEGO Friends” sets. And I LOVE LEGO. BUT I would argue that a lot of people are also viewing “non-girly” LEGO through rose-coloured glasses and believing it is gender-neutral. Often it is not!

    For example:

    - we are trained to see “boys” toys as being inherently more neutral and universal than “girls” toys. So we often see “normal” LEGO as more neutral than it actually is.

    - the toy market in mainstream Western society is extraordinarily gendered and dichotomized, and has been for years (though not uniformly so)

    - building toys are still gendered male in mainstream Western society. I hate to tell you, but it is true. It’s nice that some people believe this has gone away, but there are many places where it has never gone away!!!

    - the LEGO people are called mini-figures (minifigs for short). This calls to mind the dilemma of dolls versus action figures. And LEGO is trapped by this paradigm too…

    - the ratio of male minifigs to female minifigs is extraordinarily disappointing in many lines, though there has been some recent improvement!

    - And I totally agree with Robin Lionheart — the RACE/ETHNICITY issues in LEGO are deeply embedded and often terribly sad and maddening! (even though there are occasional moments of improvement)

    • December 28, 2011 at 6:35 pm

      Great points Nadine, and Robin. Thanks for adding your perspectives.

  4. Brooke
    December 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    I don’t really understand. Are you upset with LEGO for marketing towards girls? Sorry, but little girls usually don’t want “cities, racecars, airports, and superheroes.” And even if they did, they could just get a Lego set designed for boys. They are trying to create something DIFFERENT… not yet another Lego racecar set, this time with girl lego figures included instead of boy lego figures. That’s just more of the same. I fail to see how this is any different than Barbie doll sets for girls. This article definitely seems to be an overreaction.

    • December 29, 2011 at 7:26 pm

      Brooke:

      Here’s what bothers me: toy manufacturers that add curves to toy figures marketed toward girls who are 7. What’s the message? That beauty and body matter. Did you know 65 percent of women and girls have eating disorders? Mass marketing and media has a tremendous impact on girls – and it all adds up – the Barbies, the Disney shows, the pop stars, the photoshopped models -and now LEGOS.

      And I take exception to gendered toys. Why don’t little girls usually want cities and racecars and airports? They never see themselves in those situations. Instead LEGO is reinforcing the place for girls, and therefore women, is a splash pool, a puppy house (whatever that is), a butterfly beauty shop and a house.

      LEGO is trying to create a revenue stream. Plain and simple. And they’re doing it by reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes for girls – and for boys. And that’s harmful.

  5. Alex von der Linden
    January 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    “Twenty years in marketing has taught me never to trust a focus group of one.”

    contrasted with…

    “I did my own home research. I asked my seven year-old daughter.”

    • January 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm

      Alex, and in between those two things I wrote, “But when I read in the Businessweek article that LEGO group CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s enthusiasm for the new Friends line, “comes partly, he says, ‘from casual observation: I have two wonderful daughters next to my two sons, and they are in a very narrow age range, 4 to 10, so I have a little home study,’”

      The LEGO CEO studied his daughters and I studied mine.

  6. April 12, 2012 at 7:20 am

    What next? Lego characters that have hair that grows in all the wrong places … seriously though, lego pieces have always just reaffirmed national stereotypes so there does need to be some consideration to moving these into the 21st century. Firefighters are not all men and why are there only token black people here and there.

  7. September 2, 2012 at 3:29 am

    I actually think the new minifigures are nicer than the classic ones, although I agree that trying to market directly to girls with Lego may be a little low. I’m sure there’s a happy medium somewhere though!

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