Lego's "Lego Friends" set, aimed at "the other 50 percent of the world's children" — meaning girls, but only girls who enjoy clubbing, shopping, tanning, and hanging out at the "Butterfly Beauty Shop," whatever that is — has received widespread criticism for reinforcing the pinkest, girliest gender stereotypes. (The backdrop for "Lego Friends" is a place called "Heartlake City," which has a salon, a horse academy, a veterinary clinic, and a café. Congratulations, Lego, you've created Desperate Housewives for six-year-olds.) But, despite the adult haters, "Lego Friends" has been flying off the shelves, which makes sense, given that Lego spent four years researching what girls want in a lego set. So what, exactly, do girls want?
Lego's market research manager told BusinessWeek that the greatest concern for girls was "beauty," but not necessarily in the form of mini makeup brushes and blow dryers: "Beauty, on the face of it, is an unsurprising virtue for a girl-friendly toy, but based on the ways girls played, Groth says, it came, as 'mastery' had for boys, to stand for fairly specific needs: harmony (a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order); friendlier colors; and a high level of detail."
So what about the girls who love miniatures and want to achieve "mastery" but could care less about tending after puppies or designing dresses? That's where Adafruit Industries' Limor Fried, the only female engineer ever to be featured on the cover of Wired, comes in. She's entered "Ladyada's Workshop," a lego set for little girl hackers, into Lego's Cuusoo initiative, which promises to review projects that gain over 10,000 signatures and potentially turn them into actual Lego products.
Ladyada's Workshop's only conventionally "ladylike" features are its female protagonist — a mini Fried with shoulder-length pinkish hair — and an observant cat. Otherwise, the set has unisex lego pieces, like a pick-and-place machine, a laser cutter, a sewing machine, a soldering station, a computer, a microscope, and shelves lined with boxes and other doodads.
"After I saw the controversies around 'Lego for girls,' I thought about what type of Lego set I would have enjoyed as a kid, and thought about one I would have liked to imagine myself in as young maker," Fried told CNET. "So instead of complaining about the current state of play sets which aren't quite inspiring for young girls who may want to be engineers, we worked with (Lego artist Bruce Lowell) to make a workshop like the one I have here at Adafruit. I do this for a living each day and I think it's important that kids can actually see someone in real-life that is doing engineering so they can imagine themselves doing this too."
Fried's set is a great example of how it's possible for toy companies like Lego to cater to girls without expecting them to solely relate to makeovers, karaoke seshes, and little lost puppies. Do many little girls beg their mothers for toys that would let them simulate running an open-source hardware electronics company? Maybe not, but it's doubtful that boys are asking for that, either — and, without the option, how would either sex even know that's a possibility?
Plus, it's odd to assume that girls who are interested in storytelling aren't interested in actual exploration or adventure. I was obsessed with miniatures and dolls as a kid, but I didn't care about their clothes or hair — I was more interested in using the figurines as vessels for lengthy tales about what was going on behind the scenes at Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof. (The backstage drama I came up with rivaled SMASH, let me tell you.)
The Lego team told BusinessWeek they were onto something when girls told them, "I want to shrink down and be there." Hopefully Fried's set will gain enough signatures so that girls can shrink down and imagine themselves as badass engineers, not just placid, friendly fashion queens. Support her set here.
Lead image via a200/a77Wells' Flickr.