I’m Just Not Impressed

Am I supposed to be?

Building (Pink) Bridges. Or at least swimming pools.

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So, I’ve been meaning to post since Christmas, about a host of things, really, but mostly as a recap of Lego Friends – specifically, the actual building experience and how it compares to building other kits.

As a quick recap – we have more than one hundred thousand Lego bricks in our house, not even including the Duplo and random Mega Blocks and other similar brick sets. These are comprised of a combination of hundreds of project specific themed kits purchased new, a “general” bin – version pink purchased new, and probably a couple thousand bricks purchased via Craigslist or Ebay – both themed kids (original Hogwarts sets FTW!) and big storage bins filled with random bricks that parents wanted out of their house.

We have a lot of Lego. I have personally built most of the project kits, ranging from huge age 16+ architectural sets like the Taj Mahal and Tower Bridge, the Lego Architecture Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernist buildings, the Death Star playset, and probably hundreds of smaller sets – lots of Star Wars, most of the Harry Potter series, Helms Deep and a few other LOTR, virtually the entire Atlantis and Monster Fighters series, Ninjago, Space Police, Kingdoms, it goes on and on. Up until about two years ago, my son built the minifigs and patiently waited for me to build the rest. Now if it’s under 1000 pieces, I usually don’t bother unless it’s Architecture or he asks me really nicely. At last count, I’ve built 3 of the 5 largest Lego sets ever made (and that’s mostly because I’ve yet to bring myself to spend $500+ for the collectors edition Millennium Falcon).

What this means is I have a lot of experience building these sets and I am pretty well familiar with the complexity of various building levels and what the age ranges on the package really mean. And I’m here to tell you – despite what you might have heard to the contrary, Lego Friends is not dumbed down.

Is it very pink? It surely is.

Is it appallingly gender segregated, both in marketing and figure allotment? Absolutely.

Is it persistently and stereotypically “girly” for every value of purple hair bows and hot pink ice cream and lots of randomly placed flowers? And how.

But the building experience is not dumbed down. The building experience for Lego Friends is virtually identical to the experience in other sets in the 5-9 year age range. The separate baggies with numbers on them? In every single set I’ve built that was originally put out after 2010 or so. The use of larger singular wall and other structural pieces to simplify building and increase structural integrity during play? In dozens of other sets, including Hogwarts, Monster Fighters and numerous others not specifically aimed at obsessive adult audiences.

The pink and green camper that my daughter received for Christmas is almost the same set as this City set that came out in 2009. The main difference? Some of the accessories, which presumably account for the 309 pieces in the Friends set to the 165 in the City set, the colors and the figures.

As it so happens, my daughter, who just turned 3, loves pink. LOVES IT. When given the choice for almost anything, she wants pink (a choice between pink cake and chocolate cake being about the only exception). Our son is 7 years older and try as we might, we were never able to totally extricate all “real” Lego from her toddler world. Since she was never very mouthy (for values of toys going in, that is), we went ahead and let her play with some under close supervision and one day last fall my husband thought to grab a pink bin we’d purchased with the hopes of easing our son’s play with some of his friends in the neighborhood who happened to be girls. Our daughter’s eyes lit up and she immediately declared “MY LEGO!” Now, whether at the tender age of two she had already internalized that she was supposed to want the pink set with flowers and horses or if she just saw something being given to her that happened to contain an awful lot of her favorite color, I don’t know. But she was thrilled. And seeing just how thrilled she was, we decided to go ahead and get her some Friends sets because quite frankly, we thought she’d like them.

And she does. My son has never been very into the City sets, so we have a ton of fantasy Lego sets, but not a lot of real world stuff. So we got her the aforementioned camper because she also loves vehicles and Olivia’s Science Lab, because, SCIENCE! For her birthday last week she got the pool, because she loves swimming. And I’m pretty sure we picked up the animal habitat sets at some point in there. We picked these sets very deliberately – because they show girls being active and using their brains and – in the case of the pool and the camper – provide a lot of opportunity for little hands to manipulate things. And she still plays with other sets and still likes to steal her brother’s minifigs and current standard figures tend to do a lot of intermingling. Actually watching her play with them makes me feel a little better about that – she doesn’t care that the size and shape are different as long as it can fit in the car/house/slide. So there’s that.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not becoming a Friends apologist. I still hate the way that Lego markets them (still in the pink aisles, next to the Polly Pocket and Lalaloopsy). I still wish they had fully integrated the line as a subset of Lego City and made the whole thing less gendered. I’m actually weirded out by the fact that Heartlake City is evidently some sort of fake!Amazonian commune with no men…or adults. The weird tweeny inter-world that the Friends occupy is weird to me as well. These two issues get to the heart of the Friends problem to me – it’s not that it’s pink or flowery or that some of the options are to be a performer or open a bakery or work at an ice cream stand, all of which are totally valid options and the dismissal of the line on that basis strikes me as playing into the idea that traditionally girly is inherently bad or lesser. In fact, part of what I like most about the whole concept is the variety of options it provides girls – the Friends sets show girls playing sports and loving science and building tree houses and going biking and playing water basketball and being girly doing it, which is actually a fairly missing message in mass marketing – that liking those things doesn’t make you a “tomboy”, it makes you a girl who can love sports and science and other things that people think of as not-girly and still like pink and hair bows. In all honesty, there are a lot of things that I like about the sets – the ones I’ve built have been honestly fun – having different colors keeps it interesting, and the styling is in some ways more inventive than yet another space ship or armored vehicle.

And it’s these differences – characterized along gender lines that most bother me about the sets. My only real issue with the sets themselves is the total absence of any figures other than the hyper-feminine “girly figs”. Heartlake City has some fun building and play potential, but it needs to diversify – we need more cross gender play for all kids and we need real options for girls. And Friends gets halfway there – traditionally appearing girls are shown doing all sorts of things and Friends reaches out to those girls who may have gotten the idea that Lego is a “boy thing” (can’t imagine how that happened Lego Marketing Department). But there’s a flip side that is totally missed, which is that girls who don’t necessarily like pink or skirts or tops printed with little flowers still may like ice cream and cupcakes and swimming pools and horses and performing and dogs and swimming pools and science labs. We need to make room in our cultural sensibility for those girls. And we need space for boys to like all of those things too.

Written by emandink

May 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm

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