Monday, January 30, 2012

LEGO Friends: Feminist Friend or Foe?

I've decided to do a follow up post about the LEGO Friends sets I wrote about in December, now that the sets are actually out. Apparently, the uproar over these sets continues- there is now a Facebook petition against them. As I wrote in December, I'm no huge fan of our super-gendered toy environment, but I also don't think that these new LEGO sets are the surefire ticket to stereotypical gender roles that their detractors make them out to be. And I suspect I have one significant advantage over a lot of the people who are up in arms about these sets: I have actually seen one. In fact, I've bought one, and watched my daughter play with it. I can even compare how she plays with it to how she plays with her other two sets- a house and a castle (spoiler alert: she plays with all of the sets in exactly the same way).

I am fairly confident that many people who have written angry diatribes against the LEGO Friends sets have never seen one for two reasons: many of those angry diatribes were written before the sets actually came out, and many of them are full of misinformation. So let me clear some things up:
  1. The sets are not pre-built. They consist of a bunch of little blocks and special pieces, which are assembled following instructions. In other words, they are just like every other LEGO set in this regard.
  2. The sets are not entirely pink and purple. There are some pink, purple, and pastel blocks. But there are also other color blocks in the sets, and once built, the result is not a sickening confection of pink. (Unlike, for instance, the Hello Kitty Megabloks sets I've seen, which have somehow escaped the wrath that is now raining down on the LEGO Friends sets.)
  3. The sets do not consist entirely of vignettes of girl figurines doing gender stereotypical things. There is a house set (last I checked, some men live in houses, too), sets representing various possible activities (some, but not all, of which could be considered "girl" activities), a treehouse set (not exactly a stereotypically girl thing, right?), and a car (again, men drive those, too).
Oh heck, let's just look at all the sets. I'll put direct links to the LEGO site here, but also links to the Amazon page in case you are won over by the sight of the actual sets and want to buy one:
Now, I will agree that the majority of the activities represent things that are typically associated with girls- the inventor's workshop being a notable exception. However, I think we should remember several things:
  1. It is hard to make toys out of most jobs. I suspect a LEGO cube-farm or server room would sell really well to techies trapped working in such places, but I doubt those sets would appeal much to children of either gender.
  2. The LEGO figurines in the Friends sets are meant to be girls, not grown women. I base this on the fact that the house set seems to include a Mom and a Dad figurine. 
  3. Many grown women like to bake cupcakes, go to beauty salons, have pets, lounge by the pool, and follow fashion while at the same time pursuing challenging and rewarding careers in a variety of fields.  Interests in baking, fashion, animals, and pool lounging are not incompatible with interests in, say, science and engineering.
  4. No one thinks that the pirate LEGO sets are going to turn the kids who play with them into pirates.
Don't get me wrong: I think LEGO could do better with the activities- maybe adding something sports-related and another less stereotypically female career-type activity (although I struggle with what it should be- see point 1, above).  I also do not want to trivialize the concerns people have raised: play is a very important part of how our children learn the skills they will need in life. It is fair to be concerned that the toys we provide give all of our children a fair shot at future success.  But I think many of LEGO's critics are making a mistake in focusing too much on interests and too little on skills. Interests can change on a dime. Skills build upon each other, with skills acquired early providing a foundation upon which later skills can build. On the skills front, LEGO did everything right. They did not dumb down these sets, and they made them interoperate with their other sets, so that they can serve as a gateway to more complicated sets.

In this sense, I almost think that the LEGO Friends sets are subverting gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. There is something to be said for having these sets appeal to little girls who are only interested in "girly" things and to the adults who buy toys for little girls and will only buy "girly" things. (For the record, I think there are more people in the latter category than the former. Far more. Even the most princess obsessed four year olds I know have other interests, too.) LEGO sets are really, really good at encouraging some important skills: spatial reasoning, a "feel" for building things, and problem-solving abilities. All of these skills are critical for careers in engineering, computers, and science. These are good, high-paying careers, and not many women pursue them. I think part of the reason for this is that a lot of little girls do not get a chance to develop important foundational skills early enough. If LEGO has to bring out "girl-specific" sets in purple boxes in order to reach more girls... well, I can live with that. Maybe they'll win some more girls over to the dark side engineering and science.

So, what do we here at Chez Cloud actually think of our LEGO Friends set? Well, it gets mixed reviews. Pumpkin chose the inventor's workshop. (I didn't push her to choose that one, I swear!) She loves it. She came home from the store and built it right away, essentially by herself. She has now started mixing the pieces from that set in with her other sets, creating, among other things, this city scene:



(Those are skyscrapers with a big billboard on them.)

And this airplane/science lab/wheelbarrow:



Hubby, on the other hand, is not a fan. He doesn't like all the special pieces, and he was disappointed that it lacked a base piece on which to build the set. However, these problems are not unique to the Friends sets at all- many of the "boy" sets also suffer from them. I think he is remembering the LEGO of his youth (he was, and is, a huge LEGO fan), and is finding the modern sets a bit disappointing in comparison. He is a bit of a LEGO purist.

And me? I am just glad they come with girl figurines.

A few weeks after we bought the LEGO Friends set, we decided that Pumpkin needed more blocks, so we bought her the castle set we'd considered for her at Christmas time before settling on the starter house set instead. Pumpkin was really excited when that castle set came in the mail. She got me to open the box right away, and dump the pieces onto the cookie sheet my husband had previously appropriated for her LEGO building purposes. She spread out the pieces to inspect them, and then looked up at me and said:

"Mommy, there is no princess in this castle. But that's OK! The girl from the workshop can be the princess!"

This reaction is so exactly what I predicted it would be, that I am afraid you won't believe me- but it is true. I will refrain from writing any snarky comments on anyone else's posts saying "nah, nah, I told you so." But I can't help but feel completely vindicated in my original reaction to this entire topic.

25 comments:

  1. We love Lego beyond all reason at our house. Le Petit still mostly plays with Duplo at home because the Duplo blocks can stay in bins (or a big heap) in one corner of the living room, whereas the smaller bricks are a choking hazard that can't fall into the hands of Mademoiselle. As a result, most of the small Legos he has have been repatriated to Grandma and Grandpa's house, where he spends a couple hours each day after school.

    They've been combined with the Legos preciously conserved from my husband's childhood, many of which are from a "storybook" themed playset called "Fabuland." It no longer exists in stores, and may never have been marketed in the US. It has animal figurines, gingerbread-like and very versatile house components, and some short paper books featuring the characters. The whole thing is charming, and clearly a 1970s attempt to be gender-neutral: no pink or gray, just bright red, yellow, and blue. It says something, though, that it no longer is produced by Lego: I don't think it would sell today.

    Anyway, I agree with everything you said. I love that Pumpkin found a princess for her castle. I, personally, would be tickled to have a Lego server room playset, but I'm probably in the minority here.

    (Speaking of which, le Petit has started asking me "What did you do at work today, Mommy?" and I struggle to find interesting ways to describe my job to a preschooler. "Mommy drew pretty pictures on the screen of a computer!" only goes so far.)

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  2. The inventor girl probably makes a much better princess than catwoman would have!

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  3. this weekend at Target I stumbled across these odd lego sets in the pink section that were in small boxes hanging up on pegs. Small girl was not interested, much to my sadness

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  4. Sonia4:50 AM

    I know I said this in your other post, but I thought I'd say it again here. I showed my boys pictures of these sets on the Lego website, and they were very impressed. I didn't tell them they were "for girls" and the pink did give my older one (just about 8) pause, but I think all the specialty pieces (who doesn't like cupcakes?!) were very appealing. We have more Legos than I know what to do with here (although my boys keep a running tally in their heads at all times, apparently), and I would not hesitate to buy any of these sets to add to our collection.

    My only hesitation is that they are shelved in the "girl" sections of toy stores. Obviously, I could buy them online and that wouldn't be an issue. But my 8 year old is becoming very conscious of gender, and I think knowing that these are supposed to be for girls would discourage him. My 4 year old wouldn't care (he loves his dollies). I understand Lego's reasoning -- put the toys where parents of girls are more likely to shop, and they will be that much more appealing. I suppose my issue is not so much with Lego as with the notion that we have to segregate kids into boys/girls at such a young age, but that is a huge topic to tackle.

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  5. @Parisienne- Pumpkin got her first "little lego" set this year, because Petunia is finally old enough not to try to eat them!

    @Nicoleandmaggie- seriously. I went on Amazon looking for a Princess to order to go with our castle, and unless I was willing to spend $25 on one figurine, my choices were slim. I decided not to do it, guessing that she'd repurpose "Olivia" the inventor.

    @feMOMhist- ah well. Despite what my husband thinks, I guess not everyone can love LEGO!

    @Sonia- I read somewhere that the big retailers were actually the ones dictating the placement of the new sets. But of course I can't find my source now! But I agree, I'd much rather they keep all the LEGO together.

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  6. Interesting. We haven't bought into Legos yet (we do have some of the larger parts -- the duplos and whatever the 4* are called), though my mother recently assured me to my delight that she has all my childhood lego in her attic. Yay! Musing on your earlier post I had been wondering (not just about legos) about whether this propensity of toy makers to build kits reflects an adult (parental) desire to impose order on childrens' play, because good heavens my son's lacks it, but I am relieved to see from the airplane/science lab/wheelbarrow that the kids are thwarting our efforts in this realm.

    Workplaces ... well, firestation, wood shop, auto mechanic, police department, airport, bank, car dealership, train station, hospital, school? Some of those may exist but as "boy" kits?

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  7. mary d8:46 AM

    At Target and Walmart near my house, these Legos are in the same aisle as the other Legos, just at the other end of the aisle. My husband bought me the inventor workshop (what?) but my 5yo boy has no interest in it. He's really into Star Wars legos right now and is more interested in "building the models", following the directions. We need to fix this and get him a big ol' bin of plain Legos, stat.

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  8. I haven't been following this Lego Friends saga but I liked your post and I would have LOVED these as a kid. My brother and I were obsessed with lego and most of our family's basement 'playroom' was turned into a giant Lego city for most of our childhood. From what I can remember my brother and I were equally into the building aspect as well as playing with the scenes once they were built.

    We did have some of the pink marketed-to-girls lego kits of the mid to late 80s, which were are jumbled in with the regular lego in the lego city. I distintly remember that the main thing I loved about the "girl" lego kits were that they came with girl lego figures that actually had "girl clothes and girl faces" (ie: pink shirts and pants on the body pieces and sometimes bright red lips on the head pieces). To me, this was so much more fun than just putting the "ponytail" hairpiece on the man figure and calling it a woman. I don't think this detracted from any of the skill sets that playing with Lego taught me.

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  9. "And I suspect I have one significant advantage over a lot of the people who are up in arms about these sets: I have actually seen one." Love it! Yeah, I'm a big believer in actually going to see the proverbial movie before saying it's the devil. ;)

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  10. I still can't let lego off the hook, though. They're still perpetuating terrible stereotypes through their boys sets. The only female lego characters my son sees, unless we want to spend $100 or more on a set, are people like sexy cat-woman, slave Leia (though, to be fair, she also comes in a non-slave version at only 3x the price)... even the bar maids show cleavage.

    The girl sets may not be a problem, but the boy sets are still pretty shaky.

    I should probably get the invention set just to balance things out.

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  11. >>No one thinks that the pirate LEGO sets are going to turn the kids who play with them into pirates.<<
    I do! Ban them! Bwa ha ha.

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  12. Yay for Lego Server Room ;)

    When I was a teenager there were also girl-themed lego sets. I remember a "pool party" sort of thing, and a house, etc. that had brighter colors and some pink. So this isn't that new and exciting, is it?

    No one is up in arms about the HK Megabloks because no one plays with Megabloks ;)

    I wish I could get my girl interested in Legos. She is not at all interested in the Duplos we bought for her. I'd rather have her play with "girl" sets than ignore Lego completely because I do think they are a GREAT learning toy.

    I do HATE HATE HATE the pink aisle at Target, though. For now all the Legos are together, and that makes me happy.

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  13. Hmm, it interesting to see that the girl lego figure looks like a pretty girl and the boys all look like lego dudes. I can't imagine a boy is getting the message he needs to be a blockheaded yellow guy with no shape but the brown haired cutely dressed lego girl on the other hand.... And if you think kids don't notice details like that the blockhead guy from the lego set tonight had a "scared" face instead of the smile depicted on the box and Tate had a whole conversation with me about why, and trust me it wasn't me that noticed the difference.
    That said I'd like the boy toys to come with less guns but you can only build so many emergency vehicles before star wars invades your home.

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  14. the milliner8:33 PM

    I love Pumpkin's airplane/science lab/wheelbarrow! This is when it gets exciting (for me)...seeing kids unrestrained in re-inventing to their own standards. Seeing DS do similar things is always a good reminder to me to challenge my own stereotypes and assumptions.

    ITA that it's hard to make toys out of most jobs. I think getting figurines of any kind right is a very difficult thing to do (and a very easy thing to do wrong).

    In looking at the girls kits, I think the majority of the themes would be interesting to DS. But I totally admit that I just don't dig the styling of the sets (and even of most boys' Lego sets too). When will Lego invent a build-your-own kit where you could mix and match specialty pieces with basic blocks in colors of your choice? Or perhaps it already exists?

    For now, DS hasn't shown too much interest in his set we got him for Xmas. But I think it's just a matter of time. He is, however, totally in love with a few Zolo building kits (zolo.com ...I think) I had saved for him and he is now big enough to play with.

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  15. @Alexicographer- but how many of those make sense as an activity for a kid? The premise of these sets is that the little figurines are girls in a a make-believe town. But I agree, they could add some more less stereotypically girl activities.

    I think the recent emphasis on sets over big buckets o'blocks (which you can still get, btw) is due to LEGO's desire to make more money! Although I'm sure some parents are steering kids that way, too.

    @mary d- it is good to hear that these are with the other LEGOs at the stores near you! I've only checked at our local Toys'R'Us (where we bought ours), and they were with the Star Wars sets up front- probably because they are new. It will be interesting to see where they end up.

    I wouldn't worry about the fact that your son likes to build to the model, rather than mixing and matching. I read that building to the model is really good for spatial skills. I don't think there is a right/wrong/good/bad way to play with LEGO, really.

    @Liz- don't even get me started on the supposedly female old style LEGO figurines. They mostly look like male figurines with bad wigs on to me! I have to agree with the girls in LEGO's market research- they are UGLY.

    @hush- thanks!

    @Nicolandmaggie- really! The uproar seems aimed at the wrong things, if you ask me. Be warned that the figurines in the Friends sets are a little bit taller than the regular ones. So if you get one, she'd be like a demi-god among the little yellow boxy figurines...

    @Laura - ;)

    @Anandi- she might get into them yet. Petunia is only recently really interested in Duplo, and she has an older sister to copy.

    @mom2boy- I feel your pain. To be honest, I think I'd hate the warrior crap onslaught more than I hate the princess crap onslaught. We're living in screwed up times.

    @the milliner- you might be able to find something like that at a LEGO store. I'll look next time we're at LEGOLand!

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  16. I am with you on the 'if they encourage people who buy girls girly toys to buy Lego then they are good' idea. I hadn't really looked at Lego in toy stores until this came up and I was actually a bit surprised just how limited the scope was. (But that might have been the toy store too).

    At our house we're still happily in Duplo world. Moo has actually recently gotten quite into her Duplo - she actually likes building enormous towers on top of the car bases. Oh and she built a dinosaur that said 'roar' to me the other day. I fear she got the idea for that from watching 'Peppa Pig' who has a little brother who loves dinosaurs... but who am I to complain if she can take watching a pig on tv carrying around a toy dinosaur and turn it into a duplo creation?

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  17. zenmoo10:37 PM

    Oh and @Parisienne, I know what you mean about trying to describe your tech work to kids. It's particularly irritating as my husband is a doctor, so that's a job that kids 'get' because they visit doctors. I know I'll never be able to make my job sound as interesting - even if his job has lots of paperwork too!

    Maybe a dentist workplace? That could be fun...

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  18. Great read! As a mother to two boys (6 & 4) who were very suspect at the "girls' LEGO", both my husband & I got our own sets -- mine the Inventor and his the pet wash. Once my boys saw them, they loved them and play very nicely with them, as they "belong" to Mommy & Daddy.

    It is very interesting watching them play with the sets, as their play seems a bit more imaginative and story-based, actually. NOrmally, they are very task-driven. (Or, I may just be immune to all the car/police/explosions, so when I hear something novel, I take more interest. Bad Mommy.)

    Regardless, I'm anxiously awaiting the LOTH LEGO onslaught. Take that, Star Wars!

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  19. @Zenmoo, your second comment cracked me up. At least both my husband and I have jobs that sound boring to a 4 year old!

    @Jen- interesting that your boys needed the sets to belong to you guys. And that is a really good idea for how to handle this sort of thing, actually. I'm going to remember that.

    Also- are you the same @Jen who commented on my Jeanne Baret post? If you are, send me an email address- you won the drawing!

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  20. Zenmoo6:06 AM

    Yeah, I'm a bit pathetic with the job thing, Moo came out with the statement 'Daddy doctor' the other day and I spent ages trying to get her to say 'mummy Is an engineer' with very little success... I'm mildly comforted though by the fact Moo cries when we go to the doctors. Smart kid really.

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  21. @the milliner- the LEGO stores have walls of individual bricks you can pick and choose from to fill a container. Sometimes, they also have grab bags of the bricks from the old displays. You don't control what you get, but it makes for interesting play. My kids always play exclusively with those bricks for a while before adding them to their collections, and it's a lot of fun to see what they come up with! There's also the Pick-a-Brick section on shop.lego.com.

    There are a lot of both males and females doing amazing things with the new Friends bricks. As near as I can tell, they all approach the sets as sets of pieces to use in their own designs. I don't know how to embed links, but there are airplanes and mechas (robot things the girls ride in), as well as entire scenes and modifications of the minifigures. (Sam Carter from Stargate is my favorite...)

    Does the whole polarization of toys into "boys'" and "girls'" stuff drive me crazy? YES! Do I hate that there are no boy doll clothes for my daughter's doll (adopted from the brother who decided it was only good as cannon fodder)? YES! Do I hate that gender-neutral toys have all but disappeared? YES! Is this the fault of LEGO? Not at all. I wish they had done more to fight it, but they found a formula that worked (and pretty much saved the company in the 90's) and just stuck with it.

    Much of the blame lies on the adults buying toys. From what I've seen, they're the ones pushing kids into the pink/blue specialization. I have been told "I'd buy that [gender-neutral toy] if just came in pink or purple." So, a few years down the road, it does. blech.

    I'm just glad the advent of the Friends line has eclipsed M's lusting after Polly Pockets and Littlest Pet Shop. At least the LEGO will be fun for me to play with, too! Between that and making sure she gets the girls from each minifigure series to balance out all the boys in the sets, I'm doing what I can. It seems to be working, too.

    @Cloud- There's a fairytale and historical minifigures set on shop.lego.com that is about half women. A city and community set, too. 22 minifigures for $50, but it's near impossible to just stumble across. You have to search by item numbers (9349 and 9348). It's pretty much one male head and one female head, from what I see. The create-your-own minifigures in the LEGO stores have more female head varieties, but they're 3 for $10, so not as good a deal. Also, W got a police chase set for Christmas that had a female police officer. Baby steps?

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  22. Also, here are LEGO server rooms:
    mocpages.com/moc.php/189613
    www.flickr.com/photos/josiefraser/4316288199/

    They're someone's creations, rather than a pre-fab set, but I like 'em!

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  23. @VA Hills- OMG, yes! On the preferring LEGO Friends to Polly Pockets. Pumpkin still can't get the stupid dresses on them on her own. The LEGO, on the other hand, she can do all by herself, with the very occasional need to have help getting something apart.

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  24. I love the teeny little crow-bar that comes with the lego sets.

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  25. Love your post! One thing that surprised me is that in all the diatribes against these, I've never ever seen the inventor workshop mentioned. Everything focuses on the house - I'm working in a house right now, omg - the beauty shop and so on. Thanks for clearing up a lot of things surrounding this, for those of us who don't have any of the sets. I'll be sharing this.

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