In a bid to increase its appeal to girls, Lego has released a new line of toys specifically geared towards to the needs and wants of the fairer sex. The announcement led to a great deal of both anticipation and scepticism, which culminated in the release of 'Lego Friends' earlier this month.
When the product was unveiled, Mads Nipper, the executive vice president of products and markets at Lego waxed lyrical about the intellectual benefits of children playing with Lego: improved concentration, development of spatial awareness and creativity. In light of such passion and commitment to these vital parts of the Lego experience, one would expect the new product to provide all the great learning opportunities that other Lego products offer.
However, that does not seem to be the case. While Lego products have traditionally focussed on building as a creative, universal experience, their marketing has become increasingly divisive in order to appeal to the supposed different requirements of male and female children. The toys aimed at boys have become increasingly conflict based, focussing more on role-playing games with minifigs after the construction is complete, rather than the construction itself. The Lego City range, for example, has recently introduced a series of toys within the theme of 'cops and robbers', emphasising violent forms of conflict resolution.
Girls, meanwhile have the worse lot with the introduction of Lego Friends. Aside from the obviously gendered design, dominated by pink and purple hues in the imaginary location of Heartlake City, Lego Friends fails to promote creativity and development for girls. The creative building aspect has been almost completely eliminated in the advertising, as girls are encouraged to play with the new minifigs as they would any other doll, "going to a party at the new café" or "chilling at the beauty shop". Considering how dominant men are in the construction and engineering industries, with women making up only 11% of the engineering workforce in the USA, this is highly problematic as the failure to engage girls in constructive, creative play at a young age is likely to be a contributing factor to such statistics.
The activities the girls and their minifigs are encouraged to do in Heartlake City are also highly gendered, such as baking at the City Park Café, getting their hair done at the Butterfly Beauty Shop and taking care of pets at the Heartlake Vet. Compared to the exciting range of activities and occupations that boys' Lego toys offer such as astronaut, fire-fighter and construction worker, the girl's universe seems incredibly limiting. Lego underestimates the influence toys hold over children if they believe that such gender segregation of occupations will not influence children's attitudes and ambitions as they grow up and make their own career choices.
The new minifigs themselves also pose a problem. While the traditional minifigs were, at least originally, universal and relatively ungendered, the Lego Friends minifigs look just like miniature Barbies, with long hair and curvaceous figures. This only goes to reinforce and exaggerate the difference between boys and girls, portraying the male as the norm and the female as 'the other'.
Lego claims that segregating their products by gender is necessary due to the demands of their customers: girls want pretty, pink toys that allow them to do 'girly stuff', while boys demand blue, macho, conflict-based Lego sets. However, this seems to me to be self-fulfilling marketing. By taking both sets to such gendered extremes and marketing them solely to one sex, Lego understandably attracts only one gender to each product. The result of such segregation in the toy industry is not just destructive to the development of girls; it also has a negative affect on boys. By having toys that are centred on violence, they fail to develop skills of non-violent conflict resolution and care giving that girls' toys promote. In order to free society of the traditional gender roles, toys must become more universal, promoting both male- and female-indentified skills to all children.