Let the Friends Go to Space! How to Build a More Diverse World with Bricks
Why should LEGO care? After all, it’s a private company run for profit and free to do what it wants. The girly bricks sell, and girls like them. So LEGO may be constructing biases out of bricks, but no parent is forced to buy them. Plus, there are way worse sexist toys (Barbie, Monster High, many other things in girls’ toy sections).
Though this is all true, the fact that there are worse things is not a good justification for doing something morally reproachable. Just because everybody is a sexist doesn’t mean you should be too. LEGO is a company that seeks profit. If it does not violate any laws, LEGO can produce what sells. Legally, this is true. In addition, political action against sexist toys may be too strong a move, constraining the freedom of people in an open society.
Yet we need to consider moral philosophy, which applies to everyday conduct and to everybody regardless of the legal and political context. If we can agree that promoting sexism is morally problematic, we can say that LEGO’s actions are morally questionable.
People tend to be especially disappointed in LEGO with respect to the creations of sexist toys. In the past LEGO created a different selfimage as, and which was perceived as, being gender neutral and more morally upstanding than other toy companies. That LEGO succumbed to “pinkifying” their toys is thus a letdown for many people, and they justifiably feel betrayed.
LEGO’s blatantly gendered toys feel like a huge step back for them. In 1981, they launched their famous ad “What it is is beautiful”—a perfect example of how to design and market a toy in a gender neutral way. In the ads, a girl proudly presents a house she has constructed of colorful LEGO bricks. No pink, no mini-dolls, no stereotypes.20 Images of these kinds are significant, because they raise the hopes and expectations of consumers. We cannot sue LEGO for not fulfilling these expectations, but we may justifiably feel let down.
As feminists, we realize that our world is not perfect yet, and girlifying LEGO may be one way to introduce many girls to a world of creative play with a toy that enhances spatial skills—even if in pink. Friends has the potential to spark interest in construction and creative play, which may then lead to exploring the other themes of LEGO. Or so some might say. In reality, it is hard to shake off the stereotypes that are expressed in gendered toys and their marketing. Even if parents and children try to ignore the gendered marketing, they might be socially pressured to align with the stereotypes. And children who are different from the norm—especially with respect to gender—are often left out in play, thus paying a high social cost.
So, using Friends as a stepping stone (or brick) to broadening girls’ and boys’ options in play is a tricky move. Maybe it could work, if LEGO were to drop the segregation of Friends by making the bricks and mini-dolls compatible with other LEGO themes, so that, for instance, Friends could go to space. Friends and the female LEGO scientists could also be more closely aligned—there was one Friends set, namely Olivia’s Invention Workshop (set #3933), which showed the construction of a robot, after all. Why not design more of these settings instead of a tenth popstar set? Finally, the marketing needs to change, or rather return to the point where LEGO once was in 1981. Unless some of these changes are made, however, LEGO Friends are not girls’ friends—and not boys’ either.