Lego is universally beloved because it's a toy that's fun and surreptitiously educational. Instead of just allowing kids to reenact scenes from superhero movies or shoot their sister with a foam dart, Lego bricks let children develop their motor skills, solve problems, and use their imaginations to create anything they want. There's nothing gendered about the most basic sets, which just contain colored blocks in different sizes, yet Lego is considered a toy for boys. Now after extensive research, the company is releasing a new line to woo girls, but the way they're going about it may give you the urge to kick over your brother's Tatooine playset.
Businessweek reports that this month in Europe and on January 1 in the U.S., the company will start selling a new line called Lego Friends, which CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp says aims to "reach the other 50 percent of the world's children." In the past Lego has launched five different initiatives to win over girls, but none of the toys really took off. The gender gap got worse early in the last decade when the company purposely focused on appealing to boys. The effort was wildly successful to the point that some now say there's a "Lego phase" for boys like the "princess phase" girls go through. The company increased its profits dramatically after analyzing how boys play, and now it's used the same methods to develop a line meant to appeal to little girls.
A tremendous amount of thought went into developing Lego Friends — which is part of the reason it's so disappointing. The company didn't just take a regular Lego set and make the blocks pink. Beginning in 2007, Lego pulled together its top designers and sent out teams to shadow girls as they played. After breaking down what girls really want in a toy, they came up with sets of pink Legos that borrow elements from Disney Princess and American Girl. The team found that what girls were most concerned about was beauty, a term that also encompasses "harmony (a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order); friendlier colors; and a high level of detail." Girls hated Lego's iconic minifigure because it's too boxy and they like to have a figure they can identify with. Girls told them, "I want to shrink down and be there." The issue isn't just the look of Lego sets. The researchers found that while boys focus on following the directions and getting the set together, girls like to take breaks throughout the process and start developing stories.
The resulting Lego Friends sets, a line of 23 products Knudstorp says is the "most significant strategic launch we've done in a decade," consists of 29 curvier and taller figurines who live in the town of Heartlake City. Unlike Lego's best-selling city line, which features realistic buildings, the town is built with new pastel bricks and the main attractions include a beauty salon, a horse academy, a veterinary clinic, and a café. There are also five main characters that have names and come with American Girl-like biographies. According to The Brick Blogger, each girl has a different personality: "the smart girl," "the animal lover," "the beautician," and "the singer." Each package features the girls posing together on a purple and pink box that grandmothers venturing down the toy aisle could easily mistake for Disney Princess.
On the one hand, plenty of toy lines for girls wouldn't even include an "inventor's workshop" in which "the smart girl" can tinker with a microscope and a robot, but it's still frustrating that all of the girls aren't smart and her lab is light pink and blue. At least Lego seems to be aware of the perils of gender stereotyping, but Businessweek suggests we should be happy with what we're getting:
The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. "If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I'll put up with it, at least for now, because it's just so good for little girls' brains," says Lise Eliot. A neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Eliot is the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a 2009 survey of hundreds of scientific papers on gender differences in children. "Especially on television, the advertising explicitly shows who should be playing with a toy, and kids pick up on those cues," Eliot says. "There is no reason to think Lego is more intrinsically appealing to boys."
Though there is educational value to playing with Lego, it's just a toy company that needs to make money. Girls have already been conditioned to want pink and sparkly toys about ponies and princesses (though mercifully there's no royal family in Heartlake City) and it isn't the company's job to change that. A commercial that shows girls building creative models with plain Lego bricks would have been cheaper, but we've reached the point where girls see blocks in primary colors and think they're not for them. Girls will probably love "Mia's Puppy House" and "Stephanie's Outdoor Bakery," but they don't look all that "good for little girls' brains." The sets don't appear to be all that difficult to put together, and it seems unlikely that they'll be a gateway for girls to start constructing cities of their own design with a bag of random blocks.