Pink Lego For Girls Makes Parents See Red

The Lego Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop

The Lego Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop

The Age reported today that Lego’s controversial new line for girls, Lego Friends, has won Toy of the Year for its City Park Cafe.

Lego Friends was launched last December, with curvy doll-like figures, given names and distinct personalities, pastel-coloured bricks (including lots of pink) and playsets that include the Butterfly Beauty Shop, Andrea’s Stage and Mia’s Puppy House.

The product – which borrows elements from Disney Princess – is a response to the fact that Lego has appealed mostly to boys in recent years, especially over the past decade, with the company adding superhero and Harry Potter themed sets to its line. Lego CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstrop said they’re aiming ‘to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children’.

Lego Friends has attracted outspoken enemies, with an active petition to ban it.

‘Girls see blocks in primary colours and think they’re not for them.’

‘So, now we have boys’ Lego and girls’ Lego, instead of just Lego, a creative toy that all children could play with,’ says Monica Dux, Wheeler Centre regular and author of The Great Feminist Denial. ‘This development is symptomatic of the deepening gender divide in early childhood, a divide which is becoming ever more ubiquitous, and is being forced onto children at younger and younger ages. But where does this process end?’

‘Though there is educational value to playing with Lego, it’s just a toy company that needs to make money,’ said feminist website Jezebel. ‘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 … we’ve reached the point where girls see blocks in primary colours and think they’re not for them.’

Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, also believes girls are put off Lego by social conditioning rather than any implicit need for pink and princesses. But she reluctantly endorses the Lego Friends range nonetheless. ‘If it takes colour-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.’

‘Silly, insipid girl version’

Penni Russon, author of books for children and teenagers and mother of two girls, recalls playing with Lego as a child ‘in a way that could probably be perceived as gendered’; she made houses and cars, and especially liked the doors and windows that opened and the flowers. But she says that although she probably would have played with pink Lego if it was around, she won’t be buying the ‘silly insipid girl version’ for her children.

‘I think we have all been conditioned by nostalgia to see Lego as something beyond a product and a corporation. Talk about lifelong brand affiliation! Nostalgia (and totally brilliant marketing) drives us to see Lego as some kind of vital childhood experience that enhances intelligence and creativity. But do kids really get more from Lego than wooden blocks, art materials, electronics sets etc? Is it so vital that every child find a Lego set that suits them?’

Girls talk, boys fight and die

Writer and philosopher Damon Young is, like so many of us, a product of that lifelong affiliation. He’s been playing with Lego for 30 years – first as a kid, now as a dad. ‘Over the decades, Lego’s become more ‘boyish’: less smiling mini-figures in space-suits, and more snarling villains, stubbled heroes and licensed film tie-ins. More guns, tanks, missiles, fast cars and so on,’ he says. ‘Girls can play with all of this, of course – my daughter does. But they often don’t, because they’re taught that girls like pink, flowers, horses, fairies, nail salons, café chats and so on. Play is gendered very quickly.’

The curvy, pastel-clothed Lego Friends minifigures

The curvy, pastel-clothed Lego Friends minifigures

He says the hyperfeminised Lego Friends is a problem; toys that reinforce traditional ideas about gender roles and make concepts like ‘girls talk and worry about beauty, while boys fight, die and save princesses’ make these stereotypes seem natural, rather than choices, among many available. ‘Toys clearly help to shape our gender identities.’

But he believes that girl-branded Lego, while ‘dodgy’, can still encourage free play that transcends the boundaries of its pastel boxes.

‘With good encouragement from parents, girls need not be stuck with traditional feminine characters and scenes. If pink bricks or ponies are first step, they are not necessarily the end of the road. Parents can provide primary colour bricks alongside the pinks and purples. They can prompt children to remake their café or salon, rather than keeping them pristine on the shelf. If a family genuinely cares about gender equity, and provides a home life of robust respect and reflection, Lego play – regardless of its colour – will reflect this.’

But Monica Dux remains sceptical. ‘If you think this initiative from Lego is benign, just look at the focus of their new gendered product. Girls get to play ‘cafe’ and hang out in Lego hair salons (!!!), while boys can do almost anything, from travelling through space to constructing cities, having adventures in a wide variety of worlds both historical and imaginary.’

‘If children do learn through play, which of these two lessons would you rather give your daughters?’

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