For a while I’ve been wanting to make an entry refuting both sides of the LEGO Friends issue, since arguments on both ends could use some tweaking IMO. (And as I wrote this, I realized that I tended to refute one side more than the other… oh well.) Ideally, this entry will open eyes on both sides of the issue and find ways to make compromises. In actuality, I’ll probably end up insulting one or both sides. But I’m trying to present this in a non-aggressive manner, which I think is lacking in most conversations on this topic that I’ve seen. And in the end, this isn’t some extensive study on gender issues, but rather my thought-out-longer-than-usual opinion on the subject. Take it for what you’d like.
(Also if it’s too long… which it very well might be… scroll to the bottom for a bulleted list. But don’t go refuting me unless you read the full body of text... or at least the part you were refuting.)
So, in case you’re not a big Lego fan and haven’t been keeping up on the latest toy news (or haven’t wandered down the toy aisles lately)… Lego has started a new theme for girls. Named Lego Friends, it’s a reminder of the old Lego PC game that was also entitled Friends and was about girls… Anyway, this is not Lego’s first attempt at appealing to a female audience. Lego Clickits come to mind, which were some buildable jewelry type of thing, and is probably most famous here because the heart piece fits perfectly into Nokama Metru’s Kanohi. (I seriously wonder how intentional that was.) Also, there is this Lego theme called Belville, which involved using large, specialized bricks to build settings for actual doll characters. (And this theme has been around far longer than I expected… since 1994.) The argument that Lego Friends is the first time the company has aimed at girls is ridicules, although granted most of the other girl themes haven’t been very popular and the majority of the Lego themes out there are clearly targeting boys. Still, Lego Friends is something new; it doesn’t have giant doll figures and comes in fairly cheap and widespread sets. Yes the idea has sparked controversy, and that’s what I’m going to touch on.
(Wow, with an opening paragraph like that, this seems more like an essay! Consider it background info for the random users… cause I’m sure my blog gets tons
So first off, the colors. Lego Friends uses more pastel colors, and a bunch of the shades are brand new for Lego, including various pinks, purples, and some new blues and greens. From an AFOL builder’s perspective, this could be a dream come true. The more artistic of us know there’s a use for any types of colors, and most Lego sets severely lack in the pastel colors. (Heck, for a while we were fearful that the color purple was going to disappear from Lego forever… but that’s a whole other blog.) As Joe Meno said, “Oh, we’re going to buy Lego Friends, but we’re going to buy it for all the wrong reasons.” AFOL builders want the colors, but we’re not interested in the female aspects of the sets. (I’ll get to that later.)
But other problems arise for the casual builders. There are lots of new colors introduced, but the sets don’t contain enormous amounts of them. And the various shades made it hard to incorporate these new colors into the general collection. This argument could be said for the introduction of any new color (and I’m still having trouble with the switch in the shades of grays back in 2004.) Hopefully, future sets will include greater numbers of these new colors in other sets and themes, so it’s really a mute point, but it’s still something that came to my mind. (And while it is hard to incorporate the few pieces in the new colors with the traditional mix, it’s still possible; the Brothers Brick blog has highlighted a couple of really cool space ships MOCs that uses these new colors.)
The other major issue with these colors doesn’t involve the squabbling of AFOL MOCists at all (or for the most part… I’m sure some of them will complain about this.) Yes, the pastel colors that come with the Friends sets are… GIRLY. OMG. I guess this argument can go two ways. 1: These colors are only for girls and thus no boys will buy the sets and Lego will lose money on them. Or 2: This reinforces a stereotype that girls can only like light, pastel colors and can’t be interested in more traditional colors. Well, I can’t really argue much against the first point; while I’m sure some boys would like the new colors, my time in the toy aisles hasn’t proven that they generally have a strong interest in those sets. But there is an argument for point two: Lego did a lot of research for this line, and they concluded that girls tend to like lighter, pastel colors as opposed to darker shades. (I for one disliked the shift into darker colors for Bionicle in 2004, so I wouldn’t say that all boys have to have dark colors in their sets. Hey, I was still within the target age back in 04!)
And just because girls are more likely to go after the more pastel colored sets doesn’t mean they also can’t be interested in the City sets… or Ninjago, Alien Conquest, Dino, or Hero Factory. Just because most girls will like Friends better doesn’t mean that they can’t get into other themes too. Yes, Lego Friends will probably appeal more to a female audience, but it could just be the gateway theme that introduces them to the wondrous world the Lego system has to offer! (Anyway, I’ve seen females… both younger and older… fawn over the Collectible Minifig sets, so it’s clear that there are other themes that appeal to both genders, even if they are more aimed towards boys than girls.) The argument that girls can only ever be into Lego Friends is kind of lame… and inversely, it shouldn’t be expected that girls will move out of the theme and into general Lego either. For example, Bionicle fans did not all move over into Hero Factory even though the building styles are related; there were other factors to consider too. And the same can be said for Lego Friends. Regardless, sales have shown that at least somebody is buying up these Friends sets, and I’m sure it’s not just AFOLs interested in the new colors. I’ve seen people pick up Friends sets in store, and I’ve seen the Lego Friends displays looking rather empty and picked over. So somebody is buying them. Whether it’ll turn into Lego’s biggest selling line is still up in the air, but it’s clear that it’s not the complete failure that some of the more pessimistic predicted.
Onto another complaint about Lego Friends; the building style is too simple. This is extremely evident in some of the smaller sets; the various models are very simple and easy to build, and don’t demonstrate super creative building techniques. Some of the buildings are more complex, but the focus is not so much on the construction. This stems away from Lego’s basic premise of using your imagination to build anything. Or so the argument goes.
I’ll admit that some of the builds are basic, but other themes suffer from this too. Lego City sets in general also have relatively simplistic builds, and it’s not like Lego Friends is without anything well designed; I especially like the car set’s design. Another factor that might be ignored here is age; the sets are designed for younger girls, not advanced pre-teen builders who want something as complex as the Matoran Boxer set to build. (Seriously, has there been a Lego set that was more awesomely designed than Nuparu’s Boxer back in 02?) Sets for younger children are bound to be simpler, and I don’t think there’s much difference between the City set designs and those in Lego Friends… and that’s for better or worst.
Additionally, Lego actually has some reasoning behind moving the focus away from construction. Apparently younger girls are more keen on role playing with their characters. (Although I’m sure it’s different than the violent role playing we see in the BZPRPG and the like.
) So the sets are designed so that they can get built faster to allow for maximum role playing AND that the girls can begin the role playing in mid construction. Some of the smaller sets, for example, have multiple small pieces to build. So the girls can first build the stage, pause for a bit to allow their fig to sing, and then build the piano, where their fig can then play up a tune. Construction is there, but role playing is prominent too. And for those of you who may think role playing is just silly… well, people say they liked Bionicle better because of the story, and the kids would likely build the characters quickly so they could reenact the story. Lego is thus not new to the idea of role playing, but they strategically designed their Friends sets to maximize the potential of role playing.
So what other problems could there be with Lego Friends besides the set design and pastel colors? Why, of course, Lego Friends is extremely sexist and is brainwashing young girls into thinking they have to act like pop stars. The main argument here is that the sets are all extremely girly, and generally lack the Lego feel that is seen in other sets. Color and set design are involved here, but hey I covered those up above, so why repeat? Another aspect is that the settings are all too girly. And then, of course, it’s the mini-dolls themselves, which are a departure from the traditional Lego minifigure. These sets will clearly send girls down the wrong direction, and Lego should be ashamed for even thinking about launching this product because now all young girls are doomed to be skinny and dumb pop stars. (Or so the argument goes.
First, a quick bit on the settings, and this time I’m slandering the pro-Friends side.
That side LOVES to bring up the fact that Lego Friends presents its female characters in various career paths, and the PRIME EXAMPLE is the engineering set where the character can practice science and build robots. (I actually did buy this set.) Okay, fine, score one for female engineers and encouraging girls to go for careers that are not usually female jobs. But there is only one set that takes this approach. ONE SET. Other sets involve being a fashion designer, a pop singer, a cook, and an animal lover (or veterinarian, I suppose.) I’m not saying these jobs are bad
(I especially admire the veterinarian, because she’s gonna have to go through a lot of school to get that degree) but these are all jobs that are predominantly female oriented. Sure, they’re better than sets where the girls are pampered princesses or trophy wives, but I don’t think the various positions are a great factor for determining how sexist (or lack thereof) the theme is. Maybe if there were some more engineering based sets (or other positions that could show a gal working in a predominantly male job) it would be better. But perhaps younger girls don’t want a play set where their character sits around crunching numbers… maybe younger girls like the idea of their character interacting with animals or cooking. Perhaps Lego even researched this point too, and that’s why they made their decisions! But either way, I think this is a weak argument.
So now a lengthy part about the new figs. The mini-dolls (or whatever their official name is, I forget) are a completely new design that is almost entirely incompatible with Lego minifigures. The only parts that really transfer over are the headpieces, but the heads, torsos, and legs are all incompatible. However, the mini-dolls are much better than the larger dolls from Belville. The mini-dolls are at about the same scale as minifigs (give or take a few millimeters) so the sets don’t have to be extra-large like the ones for the large dolls in Belville. The mini-dolls also have the same claw-like hands as the minifigs, and have the same basic arm and leg movements. (Notable differences; there is no wrist movement on the mini-dolls, and their two legs are fused together, so they have to move both at once, ext.) There are multiple characters who are shown using different skin tones, different hair styles, and different outfits.
Why the abrupt change in the mini-dolls? Why couldn’t girls just stick with the minifigs? Well, apparently, Lego’s studies showed that girls don’t like the ‘fat’ minifigs… and let’s be honest, they are kind of blocky. (Just in a way that we’ve all grown to know and love.) But younger girls don’t share that feeling, and apparently want something more realistically shaped. Thus the new mini-doll design. I don’t know why they had to be completely incompatible… it would’ve been nice if the heads had been interchangeable too. But apparently the new mini-dolls are more appealing to girls.
Part of the methods for making the girls more realistic is by giving them thinner limbs and bodies. Plus, I guess technically, the mini-doll torso molds have breasts. Some people are up in arms about the more realistic curves. (May I also point out the head pieces have chins and noses… something most standard minifigs are lacking, but I have yet to hear complaints about those features.) Anyway, people claim that the thinner waists and presence of breasts promote unnaturally slim bodies to younger girls, who will thus be influenced for the rest of their lives and turn into skinny, dumb pop stars. In some ways, I can see where they are coming from. It does seem like the mini-dolls have unnaturally thin legs and arms, and I’m sure human-to-mini-doll comparisons would show that they aren’t realistically proportioned either. BUT the mini-dolls aren’t over the top either. Their thinnerness and curves help differentiate them from the standard, chubby minifigs. And let’s face it, all other girl dolls (even ones from Belville) have the same issues, and usually to a greater degree. So why should Lego get all the hate when the entire girl toy industry seems to use the same technique? (I’ll touch on this more below.)
I also want to mention the traditional female minifigs, since I’m a big collector of them in my attempts to create custom figs. In general, female minifigs are lacking in most of Lego’s themes. Some themes, like Power Miners and AquaZone, are entirely male. Other themes, like Atlantis, Adventurers, and Space Police, have one or two female figs out of many male figs, and the females are only available in the more expensive sets. In short, they were very underrepresented. As of late, Lego has been better about including more various female figs in its themes, and they’re especially numerous in City sets. (Seriously, there’s a female garbage collector this year! How cool is that?) One issue that I do know has come up before involves female torso pieces. In the past, female torsos tended to be rather… busty. Sure, they were just printed on, but it gave the impression that every female fig in the Castle and City sets had big breasts. This has also improved over time, as more modest female torsos have been created. I am happy with the changes Lego is making in regards to its female minifig populations, especially with the increasing female presence in the Collectible Minifigures. I’m still waiting to see a female head in darker skin tones… after all, I want to make a Zoe fig from Firefly, a Leena fig from Warehouse 13, and a Cassie fig from Animorphs. (Idea… if they keep doing Marvel sets, they could do an X-Man one that involves Storm… with a dark female head. Perfect for customizers!) But the point is… there’s been enough controversy with Lego over their portrayal of females in their chubby minifigure style… so of course there’s bound to be some lash back about a new style of girl figs.
Anyway, so yes, the mini-dolls are thinner than the minifigs, which makes them more realistic but still look too thin for a standard human female. Thus Lego is really abusing the stereotype that all girls have to be unnaturally thin and such. This is the main argument for why Lego Friends is sexist. And frankly, it seems a little narrow minded. Have you walked down the girl toy aisle lately? (I haven’t, but I’ve glanced down it once or twice… when I’m sure nobody is watching…
) Basically, all girl doll toys seem to be based on the same stereotypical idea. And the basis of that idea is that girls generally would rather play with a thin and pretty figure than a fat and chubby one. Yes, maybe the girl toy industry is sending the wrong message, but they’re only sending it because it sells. Lego, like other toy companies, is a business out to make a profit. If skinny mini-dolls sell better than fat, chubby minfigs to girls, then Lego will make a change to try to sell more products aimed towards younger girls. Is Lego wrong for analyzing the situation and making that choice? Or is it just an example of a major problem in our culture. Maybe it’s the fact that mass media tends to glorify the sexy, skinny, super star women, and that this leads to girls getting the idea that they need to be more like them to get by in the world. Or maybe it’s their parent’s decision. Maybe the current adult parent generation is the one that’s screwed up for forcing this standard of beauty onto younger girls.
In short, I do agree that there is a sexist problem with the portrayal of women in the media, and I agree that Lego does tend to market towards that portrayal in its Friends line. But Lego is not glorifying it either; while the mini-dolls do have some issues to them, the focus is not on their slim bodies, but rather on the role playing aspect and building the scenes for them. And if the sexist part is still sticking, I think that we can’t blame Lego for it. Lego isn’t responsible for directing the next generation of girls away from becoming super skinny pop stars; they just want to sell some fun toys to an untapped audience and make a profit from it. If we’re looking for someone to blame about the sexist problem, we should blame society as a whole.
So, to summarize in a bulleted list…
- Lego Friends introduced new pastel colors
- Great for MOCists who want new, lighter colors
- Bad for boys who don’t want girly colors in their collection
- Just because Friends is targeted at girls doesn’t mean girls can’t go into other themes
- Friends could be a gateway theme to introduce girls to other themes like City
- But it shouldn’t be expected that girls will move on from Friends into other themes.
- The building style of Lego Friends is too simple
- It’s targeted for a younger audience, and isn’t too dissimilar to City sets construction-wise
- Lego actually designed the sets to maximize role play while constructing
- Is Lego Friends sexist?
- The jobs the girls all have are too girly.
- But there’s an engineering girl set!
- There’s only one engineering focused set, the rest are far more girl-oriented
- But they could be worst, like spoiled princesses or trophy wives
- Either way, using the job argument feels weak to me
- “To equate judgment and wisdom with occupation is at best... insulting.” Benedict Valda, Warehouse 13 Regent
- Mini-dolls promote unnaturally slim bodies for girls
- Lego styled the mini-dolls to be more realistic, compared to the ‘chubby’ minifigs
- Mini-dolls have thin arms, legs, waist, and have curves to represent breasts (and they have noses!)
- Mini-dolls are more realistic in design to appeal to girls
- But they also provide an unhealthy image to girls that skinny is good
- (And standard female minifigures aren’t without similar controversy either)
- Lots of toys for girls show slim-bodied female characters
- Lego also does this because it sells
- But Lego isn’t nearly as bad as other girl doll toys
- Are the toys really the source of this, or is the general media stereotype of women to blame?
- Don’t blame Lego, blame our society.
So, in conclusion, is Lego Friends really the worst move the company could make? Are they forcing girls to stay skinny and pretty for a society that is all about glamour, despite the mental issues that stem off from it? Seriously, are we trying to blame the way women are portrayed on a new Lego product? Lego isn’t trying to revolutionize the girl toy industry; they just want to get their foot in the door, and they took lots of steps in developing the Friends theme to appeal to girls. And, all things considered, the sexist parts of Lego Friends are minor, especially when compared to other girl doll toys out there, or even the old Lego Belville theme. And, despite all the complaints, these sets appear to be selling, so Lego must have found an audience somewhere. Will this develop into a new subtheme for Lego that’s as popular as City or Castle? Will this draw new young girls into the world of Lego, where they can learn to enjoy the other themes as well? Sure, there is still time to determine if Lego Friends is an astounding success, but many of the complaints seem unfounded.
So that’s it for now. I tried to keep a neutral tone here, although it’s pretty clear that I lean more towards one side than the other. Yet I tried to keep both sides in mind, and I hope that I provided a sound argument to which, at least, we can begin a civil discussion about the theme.
Comments appreciated. Thanks for reading this far done… if you did indeed make it.