In the six weeks since Lego launched their controversial (and pink) Friends line aimed at young girls, pushback has been strong. But sales are strong as well, and the company's response to criticism has been consistently clumsy, exacerbating rather than calming the problem — a problem, of course, that they fail to see. Sales are sales!
Featuring a Butterfly Beauty Shop and a Fashion Designer Workshop, the 14 Friends sets are built around girl-figurines who live in what pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian calls the "pastel-colored, gender-segregated, stereotypically female suburban paradise" of Heartlake City. Taller and curvier than the traditional Lego "mini-figs," Mia, Emma, Andrea, Stephanie and Olivia represent a different species from anything the company has created before.
Lego Friends has also brought an unprecedented degree of criticism for the venerable toy firm, particularly from advocates for women troubled by the way the set reinforces traditional female roles. SPARK, the campaign against the sexualization of girls, sent an open letter to Lego in late January, accusing the company of a "lack of faith… in girls' skills and interests." More than 51,000 signatures accompanied the statement.
Though Lego hasn't released exact figures, they claim that despite the controversy, sales so far have "exceeded expectations." The latest figures from online retailers Amazon and Walmart.com bear that out: at Amazon, as of this writing, the Friends' "Olivia's Tree House" is the only Lego product in the top 20 bestselling toys and games (Note: Amazon rankings can change pretty quickly, but there you have it). At Walmart, six of the top 12 selling playsets are from the Friends line. Sarkeesian, however, points out that Friends may be selling especially well simply because they're the newest Lego sets on the block. (The company's highly anticipated updated Lord of the Rings sets are due later this year, so we'll see if that theory holds.)
Both Sarkeesian (who this week released a video history, at right, of 40 years of Lego's attempt to market to girls) and SPARK advocate Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker report that they've heard from young girls who've been turned off by the "princessy" marketing. On the other hand, some parents are pushing back against, er, the pushback. In an Amazon review, one mother who bought the topselling "Olivia's Tree House" for her five year-old daughter writes that "creating a ‘girl' themed product line in no way forces her into a gender role, limits the possibility of what she can achieve in life nor does it undermine her equality; rather it gives her the option to play with sets that appeal to the girly part of her personality." None of the reviews for the playset have given it fewer than the maximum five stars.
Whatever the impact of the controversy on sales, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Lego's handling of its critics is making matters worse. To complaints from girls and their advocates, the company's standard reply is that Friends was created by a "team of experts in Denmark" who "put a lot of thought" into every aspect of the line's development. "We are very aware that girls are powerful and need to be represented as such," Lego says, even as Olivia, Stephanie, Andrea, Mia, and Emma focus almost exclusively on shopping, tanning, baking, and caring for sick puppies. While Lego's PR response has not yet reached Komenesque levels of incompetence, the constant reiteration that Danish toy designers know what's best for girls borders on the tone-deaf. Judging by sales, however, that clumsiness hasn't hurt them yet.