Girls’ Best Friends or Worst Toy of the Year?
Browsing the internet, you’ll find that LEGO Friends regularly hits the top ten on lists like “worst LEGO themes” or “worst toy.” The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) nominated the Butterfly Beauty Shop (set #3187) for a TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) award in 2012. They claim that “Voters were especially irked by LEGO’s marketing for the Butterfly Beauty Shop, which encourages girls to ‘get primped and pretty and have some serious salon fun’ and ‘gossip out on the bench by the scenic fountain.’”2
There is no doubt that LEGO Friends is for girls. LEGO introduced the Friends theme in early 2012 explicitly as the “girls theme” to replace the unsuccessful LEGO Belville theme. As LEGO’s CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, put it: “We focused on a play experience centered on the joy of creation, while heeding the way girls naturally build and play.”3 The company thus aimed at counteracting a problematic trend: since the 1980s LEGO had an image of being mainly for boys.
Many fans of LEGO found the gender imbalance unfortunate, because, as studies indicate, playing with blocks, in particular in structural play, can significantly enhance spatial and mathematical skills.4 LEGO’s solution was to create a theme in which purple and pink colors dominate the fictional place: Heartlake City. LEGO also introduced a new kind of figure: the mini-doll. The mini-doll is different from the traditional LEGO minifigures in being less blocky, more styled and taller; it is also a bit more feminine in appearance. In addition, the LEGO Friends sets de-emphasized the construction aspects of LEGO to a certain extent (although though not as much as similar toys like the Barbie Megabloks sets).
Feminists, educators, and parents objected, because LEGO Friends entered the sexist ground of pinkification.5 With Friends, LEGO created a theme populated by conservative female stereotypes. The Friends’ activities included cliched female occupations such as caring for animals (the Heartlake Vet, set #3188 or the Heartlake Pet Salon, set #41007), styling (the infamous Butterfly Beauty Salon, Emma’s Fashion Design Studio, set #3936), and homemaking, baking, and cooking (Olivia’s House, set #3315; Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery, set #3930; or the Heartlake Juice Bar, set #41035).6 While there is nothing wrong with these activities as such, the problem with Friends is that they seem to be presented as the only options for girls in this
LEGO world and in the world in general. This becomes clear when the Friends sets are compared to the sets that are usually marketed to boys. As Charlotte observed, boys get a much wider range of characters in themes like Pirates, the Research Institute (set #21110),7 Speed Champions, or Knights. The mini-dolls are not compatible with these other sets; they do not fit into Lego spaceships, for instance. So, crossover playing with “normal LEGO” becomes difficult.
Rejection of Friends was not unanimous, however. A lot of girls (and their parents) who otherwise might not have been interested in LEGO loved it. From a philosophical point of view, we may wonder: Does “being girly” equal sexism? Why should it be so bad to represent girls more prominently in LEGO? Is there, as Knudstorp suggests, a natural difference in the play of boys and girls?