In response to an October, 2021 Guardian article about Lego and its decision to (finally) end gender bias in its toys, another post from my archives about Lego and its “girl toys.” You can find the original through the Wayback Machine. For all of my archived Lego posts, follow the Lego tag.
In a previous post I was critical of the new LEGO for girls, called LEGO Friends. Wanting another opinion, I asked my son. I told him nothing about what’s been said online. I merely browsed the most recent LEGO catalogue with him.
For the record, he is five years old. He is a LEGO fan, so he is somewhat less than objective about new products from the company. And he has been raised to believe there are no gender limits on playthings, a philosophy that could colour his view of toys like LEGO Friends.
On looking at the 2-page-spread of these toys, he said he would really like to play with them. I asked him if the toys looked the same or different from his LEGO. He said the characters’ hands and hair were the same, but the bodies were different. He later noted that their shoes and dresses were different, but that he liked them just as much as regular LEGO mini-figures. He also said he liked the colours in the sets.
As far as the sets themselves, he was quite excited about Olivia’s Tree House (which he called a “fort”). He liked Olivia’s house as well, because it has a lawn mower, barbecue, and mailbox. And he loved the City Cafe. He could not figure out what the Butterfly Beauty Shop was, but when I told him the name of the set, he immediately said he didn’t like it. Maybe it was the word “beauty”? But, all in all, he quite liked the toys and was intent on buying a set with his Christmas money.
My son’s reaction to the toys shows what can happen when you separate a toy from the marketing, in as much as it is possible for anyone to do so. He has only seen the catalogue ads, which aren’t nearly as pink and “girly” as one might assume. He can’t read the catalogue copy that says things like: “Shop for lipstick, makeup and hair accessories. Emma and all of her friends will look fabulous with bows, sunglasses, a hairbrush, mirror, lipsticks, and new hair styles.” And he hasn’t seen the TV or website ads for the toys, which I’ve heard are pretty stereotyped. (I thought of showing them to him to get his opinion but decided not to. Why promote the view that these toys are only for girls, when he sees them as suitable for anyone?)
Our conversation reinforces a point I’ve made on this blog before. In the absence of advertising that dictates who should play with a toy, kids are free to make their own decisions about what they like, without feeling that their choice is wrong or some kind of betrayal of their sex. They can put their own spin on things and make imaginary worlds of their own choosing, as my son started to do by calling Olivia’s tree house a fort. I could see the wheels turning as he imagined everything he could do with that set. The fact that it comes with a female mini-figure didn’t faze him in the least. Even the hair dryers and other accessories that come with some of the sets were okay by him. After all, to him a hair dryer is just an everyday object that he sees being used by both his mom and dad.
(Unfortunately, the marketing did exert some influence, even during our short conversation. As excited as he was about these toys, he did seem to recognize that they are intended more for girls. When we turned to a second page of the toys, he said, “Here’s some more girl stuff and boys’ if they want it.” I asked him if he thought boys would like these toys and he said “Maybe a little bit.” His assessment did not dampen his enthusiasm for the toys, but it did make him think twice about whether all boys would like these toys.)
What he said got me thinking–a lot. My first reaction to these toys was that they are very limiting to girls, and I still believe that. But what about boys? Could the toys that narrow girls’ opinions of themselves actually broaden a boy’s world view? Toy sets in this line include a nearly non-gender specific lab, tree house, and restaurant. The play scenarios are led by females. And there is nothing like them in other LEGO product lines. My son can completely relate to these toys, so I found myself asking: are the toys really that terrible or is it just the marketing that surrounds them?
On the other hand, I wondered if these toys would restrict a boy’s view of girls. The mini-skirted, makeup-wearing mini-figures do not exactly send positive messages about how girls should dress, and may reinforce the idea that girls should always look “pretty.” And then there’s that beauty salon. But if he’s okay with the mini-figures and most of the sets, should I be worried?
We went out today to buy a birthday present and he gave these toys a good, hard look. The one he really wanted was out of his price range, so he went home empty-handed. I’m still not sure if that is a good or bad thing.