LEGO: Bricking Themselves In.
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who actually knows much about me that I’ve been following the growing controversy about the new LEGO Friends line with some interest. For those of you not following along at home, the short version is that it appears that someone at Lego HQ realized a few years ago that perhaps focusing their products on male dominated films and a wide variety of warrior story-lines was limiting the number of girls who were purchasing Lego. To their credit, they realized that perhaps they needed something a little more varied than the horse heavy barely-beyond-Duplo “Belville” line, however, they failed to realize that simply expanding that idea into an ice cream shop and a beauty parlor might not be enough. Cue angry female Lego fans who crave more inclusion without pabulum.
This is a tough issue for me – I understand the objections and I have many myself, which I’ll address more holistically below. At the same time, I am no small fan of Lego. We have a Lego room in our house people. And it is still not large enough to contain everything, including things like my personal Frank Lloyd Wright sets (which have pride of place on the mantle, duh), the Taj Mahal and Tower Bridge. The Death Star playset that my son and I “share” is in the former-guest-room-turned-baby-free-Lego room (don’t worry Mom, we’ll set the bed up before you guys visit). We have a lot of Lego (and a lot of Duplo, for that matter). We buy a lot of Lego. I’m pretty sure not a single major holiday, including Easter, has passed in the past three years where Lego wasn’t involved somehow. Although we’ve yet to stand in line for the annual Brickfair, we definitely ID as a Lego Family.
So, I suppose we are actually not remotely the target audience for the Friends line, which may explain the vast chasm of disconnect between what I personally would like to see in playsets aimed at my daughter and what Lego has produced. After all, we make a trip to the local Lego store every couple of months and buy probably 20+ sets a year, if you count the 75 piece/$10 or so ones. We know the brand, we know what is offered and we know the huge variety of what you can make of it. We know that the Taj Mahal can become Princess Leia’s palace with the addition of a few figures. We also know that there are not nearly enough female figures in most traditional Lego sets.
Which brings me to what really really bothers me about the Friends line; it’s not that Lego is (finally) making more female characters and placing them in familiar situations (there is nothing inherently wrong with ice cream and beauty shops and puppies and wanting to lounge by the pool – I like all those things very much, thank you and if the sets were presented in a more gender-neutral brand consistent way, I’d find them pretty appealing) – it’s that those characters are inherently separate and not consistent with its branding and the “regular” minifig. It’s that Lego is giving into the culture-wide push to define little girls as “special” or “other” or not part of the “regular” types of toys and to reinforce the idea that there are boys toys and girls toys. In fact, with Friends and the marketing around it, Lego does one worse – it defines the pinkified, girlified, cupcake-ice-cream-puppified Heartlake City as being “for girls” and everything else as “regular”. There are now “normal” Lego, which include things like Harry Potter (which I’m told is pretty darn popular with girls), City (where in most places typically lots of girls and women live, play and work alongside men), Ninjago (pretty sure lots of girls like martial arts as well), and the other stuff. These are never labeled “for boys”, however, by explicitly labeling Friends as “for girls” and by separating out the corporate communication to include “Lego Club for girls” and just “Lego Club”, Lego is reinforcing and promoting the idea that girls are not only other, but that they are less-than. That girls are not part of everything, but that we need our own little girls only reservations.
From a marketing perspective it’s a little bizarre too – as stories about the Friends line come out, there are lots of examples of boys saying that they kind of like the new sets too – except that they are a little too girly, that the strangely larger, bustier girly-figs don’t fit with the rest of their set, that they wish it were a little more balanced. My son loves the inventors lab and kind of likes the tree house and just isn’t sure how he feels about getting them. Which is fine, since his mom isn’t sure how she feels about buying them.
Which brings me to the hopefully semi-productive part of this post, which I call “Things I wish Lego had done differently to appeal to girls”:
1. Made the figures consistent with traditional minifigs. The difference defines the Friends line as “other” and not fully compatible with existing Lego.
2. Made the line part of Lego City. Surely they could have come up with a “Sweetlake” neighborhood or something that would have allowed for a different, less boxy “perceived-as-boyish” look while still considering the fact that in real life, people in cities need stores and restaurants and eat ice cream and cupcakes and take their pets to the vet. This would encourage cross-gender collaborative play and make it easier to keep treating kids as kids, not as gender stereotypes.
3. Started adding more female figs to its sets in general. In the past I’ve been encouraged by the way that most storylines quietly included at least a token woman or two. Atlantis, Agents, Pharaoh’s Quest –all had women in roles as scientists and explorers. My son and I fervently hope that the Green Ninja in Ninjago will turn out to be Nya (or another female Ninja). I am less than heartened by the lack of non-victim females in the Martian series and the complete lack of them in the new Dino series. I will be horribly disappointed if all non-movie character female figures get relegated to Heartlake City and the few good strong female figs start to disappear from the non-Friends sets.
4. Talked to its actual customers and looked at its branding, rather than going for the easy out. If Lego really wants to know why more girls don’t buy its products, then maybe it should look at the past 10-30 years of corporate history and branding, at least in the US. Because what I see is an egalitarian, largely gender neutral company that lost its way (or that gave into falsified backlash narratives), not an inherently boy-skewed toy that wants to broaden its base. If Lego is disappointed in its sales to both genders, then all it needs to do is stop pushing the vast majority of its products for kids over the age of 5 to only one of them. As noted above, Harry Potter should appeal equally to both girls and boys. There is nothing inherently gendered about ancient Egypt or underwater exploration or Atlantian myths. Or Cities. Or games based on classics like Connect 4 and Mastermind. Or movies – where are the Disney movie tie-ins for films not aimed mostly at boys? Will we get Brave sets this summer? For that matter, not that I’m really a fan of Disney Princesses, but Cinderella’s Castle seems like an awesome potential set with lots of pieces and potentially complicated building instructions and lots of blue and white and clear…but I digress.
5. Taken pains to avoid the boys are people, girls are girls trap. This is most obvious in the magazine marketing, with any kid who checked the “girl” box when she signed up suddenly getting a “Lego Club Magazine for girls” whereas the boys continued to get the same magazine they always got, *not* labeled as “for boys”. But it also relates to marketing and where consumers find the products. I haven’t seen where the Friends line is in my local Lego store, but I’ll be pretty annoyed if they are over in the corner by the Duplo, which is where Bellevue always was. And I can tell you exactly where I found them at my local Target – 5 aisles away from the rest of the Lego, sharing a hot pink endcap with Polly Pocket. Now, Lego might not be able to control it, but you know what – they can. They can encourage retailers not just to keep their products together, with the possible exception of the games, but to put them in the transition aisles in the middle of the toy section where both boys and girls shop. They can take a stand against boy and girl aisles altogether.
6. They can start addressing all of their customers with respect. This means not telling a girl who is unhappy with this marketing that it’s her problem she doesn’t like the new line. It means addressing and acknowledging the tens of thousands of customers who’ve signed petitions registering their objections.* It means showing that they have some sense of awareness that many of their existing customers feel sold out and unappreciated and totally unrecognized by a company that they believed thought better of them. This means telling their designers at their themeparks to be respectful of women and girls and not to belittle them. It means recognizing that yes, some women like lipstick, but that it’s not an inherent part of being female. And maybe it should start not just with researching non-customers, but with bringing on more female designers and talking with more female fans about how to make the product something that we’re proud to love.
*Edited to note that LEGO has finally responded and agreed to a meeting with the folks from SPARK Summit.
**ETA2 – evidently there is 1 female character in the Dino sets, which I missed on my first pass through them.