A post from my archives about my puzzlement over Lego Friends, a toy that could have appealed to boys and girls, if Lego hadn’t been so determined to divide their target audience along gender lines. You can see the original on the Wayback Machine and you can see all of my Lego articles by following the Lego tag.
I wrote a while back about my son’s opinion of the new LEGO Friends line, aka the “girls’” LEGO. In that post I said:
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?
The conundrum of these toys hit me again on March Break. Both of my sons had received gift cards that I had kept tucked away for a rainy day. I decided a weeklong school break was the perfect time for something new to amuse them. Turns out the store from which the gift cards were issued had LEGO on sale. Before we set out for the store, my older son decided on a Harry Potter Hogwarts LEGO set. My younger one wanted the LEGO City Park Café, part of the LEGO Friends line.
I cringed at the thought of contributing to LEGO’s profits for this new line of toys, with its highly stereotyped marketing and horrible, hyper-feminine minifigures. But I also worried over what kind of message I would send to my son if I denied him the toy. He didn’t bat an eyelash at the fact that the characters sold with this toy were female. He was completely comfortable with the idea of female-driven play. I thought, why alter his opinion or imply that playing with this toy would be wrong for him?
So we bought the toy and, truth be told, it’s pretty cool, save for the minifigures (Also known as “ladyfigs.” More on them in a minute.)
I’d heard that the LEGO Friends toys had been dumbed down, but this set offered a decent level of complexity for a 5-year-old. He built it mostly alone, but needed occasional help.
For a boy who loves playing “restaurant,” this set is great. It has a small kitchen, a cash register and oven that opens, a soda fountain, and an outdoor seating area. This last feature came in handy when the kids from Hogwarts decided to pop over for a bite to eat.
After the Harry Potter characters joined in, it wasn’t much of a leap for my son to incorporate LEGO minifigures from other sets as cleaning staff and other customers. Then he built boxes out of random LEGO bricks to store the tiny pieces from the restaurant. All in all the café was a great choice for him, and it was mostly compatible with other LEGO, save for those damn “ladyfigs.”
As I said, my younger son has no problem playing with these characters. He even referred to them as the “bosses” of the restaurant, which is a good thing. But as I watched him play, I kept wondering why they had to be different at all. Why can’t LEGO be LEGO, completely interchangeable, one set with another?
My older son, the LEGO connoisseur of the family, said he liked the City Park Café “minus the people.” When I asked why, he said that they don’t fit with the other minifigures. Apparently part of the appeal of LEGO minifigures is “customizing” them by exchanging parts among them. You can’t do that with the LEGO Friends figures. Their hair is removable and fits on traditional minifigs, but nothing else does. (You can’t even move the legs on the LEGO Friends minifigs, so they are always just standing still, unlike the traditional minifig who can be made to look like he/she is in motion.) He also noted that the characters look “out of proportion.” He said they were too big, and made it look like a 10-year-old (the ladyfig) was bigger than an adult (the traditional minifig).
And why so overtly and stereotypically feminine, with breasts, miniskirts, long hair and makeup? Or, in my older son’s words, why so “girly” and “stereotypic”?
Again he elaborated. We were looking at Olivia’s Invention Workshop—essentially a lab. He pointed out that Olivia was wearing flip-flops in a lab, which he deemed to be unsafe. He made note of her sleeveless top and short pants, accented with hearts and butterflies (hence the word “girly”.) He felt that this clothing was also inappropriate for a lab. I hadn’t even thought of that. Why isn’t Olivia wearing a lab coat or at least long sleeves and some running shoes? Other minifigs have their appearance altered to suit their roles, why not the LEGO Friends?
Although a little off-topic, I should also share his thoughts on the chalkboard in the lab, with details I hadn’t noticed. Among the mathematical formulas are some flowers and a stick figure with a heart beside it. My son said these features say that Olivia is “kind of crazy.” He didn’t mean it in a bad way, just that the inclusion of this fluffy stuff with the science is a bit strange.
I guess that sums up my feelings about the LEGO Friends line. It is strange and perplexing. Many of these toys, including the City Park Café, have lots of creative play potential for boys and girls. So why include these odd characters who fit with nothing else in the LEGO universe and serve only to further entrench the division between boys’ and girls’ toys? Why LEGO? Why?