We are just starting to get into Lego Friends at our house. By “we” I don’t just mean Iris. In fact, I especially don’t mean Iris. For those unfamiliar with Lego Friends, let me summarize:
Lego Friends is a new line of Lego toys transparently marketed toward little girls.
On my first exposure to Lego Friends (via the Lego catalog, natch) my immediate reaction was a kind of low-grade horror. Especially as a father of daughters; and as a father who would love to see all his kids grow up to be engineers. Lego could do better than this. Lego Friends seemed so … gender-normative. There is pink. And cute animals. The figures have nice haircuts and big faces. They are skinny. They have names. And horses: so many horses.
But I’ve spent a few weeks now with Lego Friends. And after visiting Bricks Cascade with Orion this weekend, I think my opinions now are more subtle.
But first: I have two biases that will color the remainder of this essay. If you can’t get indulge me these biases, we are not likely to have a fruitful conversation about Lego Friends.
1. Certain aspects of personality are inborn.
Some people are drawn to far-flung adventure; some to objects with complex, interlocking parts; some to social interactions. Some people love talking; some love listening; some people are plain exhausted by other people. Some people have long attention spans and deep focus. Some have broad interests and are easily distracted. Prior to having kids, I’d have put myself down on the “nurture” side of the “nature/nurture” debate. But minutes after her birth, Iris already displayed a radically different persionality from Orion. Not kidding. Ada: different from either one. Trying to interest a people/faces/multitasking person in two hours of quietly building a space ninja helicopter: might be a tough sell. Of course, people mix it up: even introverts can like parties. But let’s don’t expect introverts to want to party every night.
when I say “aspects of personality are inborn,” I explicitly reject that “inborn” is synonymous with “inherited alongside sex traits.” Any random girl might prefer building space ninja helicopters for hours on end; any random boy might prefer role-playing Unicorn High School; society should encourage either behavior in both individuals. What I mean is exactly what I said: an individual is born with certain mental/social/physical proclivities, and will be drawn to activities that engage those proclivities.
2. The only moral obligation of a business is to make money.
I’m not nuts about this, but expecting a business — however ethical — to do something against this obligation is pointless. If we want businesses to behave differently, we can 1) vote with our wallets; 2) open a competing business that carries itself more ethically; or 3) use the machinery of democracy, government, and collective action to force better behavior. Yes, we should register our objections with online essays, but if we’re unprepared to follow through with one of those courses of action, all we are doing is shouting into the ocean. (Note: even less effective than the usual metaphor!)
1. and 2. together explain how Lego Friends came to be
From Lego’s perspective:
there exists a large population of kids who find more interest in social/imaginitive play than building;
our only ethical obligation is to make money however we can.
I’ll expand on this later, but in a nutshell: Friends is Lego’s attempt to get social/imaginitive play out of the “Pink Ghetto” (and make money on it.) This is a laudable goal and I have come around to view it positively. Unfortunately: the pieces are still pink.
Lego Friends: Pro
Cool Colors. In all seriousness, this is a huge win. Multiple shades of orange, pink, purple, green, aqua. Awesome fun new colors. I am man enough to want pink Legos.
What’s so wrong with horses, anyway? Isn’t this just another kind of fantasy play? For that matter: what’s wrong with The Big Concert or My Awesome Beach Restaurant? To the extent that play mimics or conditions adult behavior, there is nothing wrong with playing Hair Salon. If we have a problem with playing Hair Salon: perhaps the problem is that we, as a society, inadequately value things like helping other people.
Not just horses. This weekend we picked up Olivia’s Laboratory. She has a microscope, a work bench, a blackboard with for-real algebra, and a robot. There’s also Lego Friends flight schools, veterinarians, a karate dojo, and jetskis. In fact, pretty much everything going on here is something I’d be proud to see my kids doing. Iris likes Olivia’s Laboratory OK, but in all honesty we bought it for Orion as much her. In fact, when we were looking at what sets to buy, I wanted to get one with a kitten in it, on the theory that Iris likes cats. Orion sagely noted: “that set has Stephanie, and we already have Stephanie. We should get Olivia, she’s the hero.”
Play while you build. This one was a little surprising. Lego Friends sets aren’t at all like dollhouses (which would have been the obvious analogue for a building toy: a building! For girls!) Friends sets are composed of many small mini-sets, with which you can begin playing almost immediately. You don’t need to get through the entire instruction book to play. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care to spend all afternoon closely following diagrams and performing mental rotations, traditional Legos can be kind of a turnoff. You have to work for hours before you can begin to play.
Better figures. They have hair. They have well-proportioned limbs. They have facial expressions. Hell, they have noses. Yes, they’re kind of skinny. But not Barbie-skinny. They mostly look like real human beings. I find myself, as I play with the stumpy little Minifigs, wishing that Lego had invested the same attention to realistic proportioning for other lines, particularly licensed properties like Star Wars or The Hobbit. Lego put a lot of energy getting Bofur’s hat just so but then they plopped it on a figure with a lightbulb for a head and arms that hang below his knees.
Stories about social relationships and families. We have a couple of Lego Friends story books now, and while they’re not high literature they have the same kind of pull that Henry Huggins has. Stories about relatable people doing things with other people, besides shooting at them. Both Orion and Iris can recite whole passages of Lego Friends books from memory.
Kids who otherwise wouldn't play with Legos are now also interested in Legos. This is bad, how, exactly? At Bricks Cascade tons of little kids were excited to see Lego Friends anywhere on display. The Master Builders haven’t (yet?) taken to sculpting 400,000-piece Lego Friends-themed creations, but then the line is only a year old. And: perhaps building 400,000-piece custom creations isn’t what Lego Friends is really intended for? (Although, sidenote: I would argue the rich interiors of Alice Finch’s massive Hogwarts betrays that you can combine social imagination with creation.)
Gender normative. Well, duh. Lego Friends are pretty transparently marketed at little girls. Of course there’s pink. My immediate visceral (negative) reaction to Lego Friends was to all the OMG pink. As for the color pink itself, I have no issues. I am good with my kids — all of them — wanting pink things. But some of Lego Friends’ imaginary activities reinforce superficialities (horse shows, hair salons, “hanging out”) — and by dint of the überpink marketing we are expected to associate certain traits — I’ll just say it: superficiality — with girls. (and, in reality, there is not that much pink. Much more orange, aqua, and purple.)
Secretly not just for girls but … the relentless Girlification of Lego Friends would drive off most little boys. Little boys also like to role-play social interactions, they just do it as Ninjas and dress in red and blue. The deal with gender norms is that girls can play with boys’ toys (the “norm” or “unisex” state is thus “male” except for the most aggressively violent toys). But anything different from the norm is “for girls.” Femininity is marked, it is never anonymous. This is why putting a single pink bow on a baby dressed in blue marks her as a girl; the reverse is not true. Lego Friends’ marketing is guilty as hell of this. It has “for girls” all over it.
Why aren’t there more female Lego characters elsewhere? The real problem with Lego Friends is actually all the other Legos that aren’t Lego Friends. Why aren’t approximately half of all Lego minifigures female? I get that there aren’t many girl Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so for licensed properties Lego’s options are limited. But when I crack open an Elite Police set, I’d hope that half the Elite Police (and half the robbers!) would be female.
Why aren’t any of the Friends boys? Like, none. I think there’s a male mayor(!), and Olivia’s dad. That’s it.
My disappointment is not that Lego Friends are inadequate for my daughters. It’s that they exclude my son.
The first thing Orion does, when he emulates a model (example: Warg Attack) from the catalog using Legos at hand, is build the characters. He cares about giving them the right hair, right clothes, right accessories, right facial expressions. His total mode of play is classic Lego Maniac: he’ll spend hours at a single model. But there’s room in that play for the social/imaginitve play theories in Lego Friends.
Orion likes Henry Huggins and Beezus and Ramona. He gives his friends hugs. He likes to do nice things for people. He plays dress up. He likes to model simple social interactions with his Legos. But he’d rather build. Iris, despite being only two years old, shows almost the opposite proclivities.
This isn’t because “Orion is a boy” and “Iris is a girl,” it’s because Orion has one package of preferences (objects, numbers, spatial relationships, minutiae) and Iris has another (people, words, social relationships, gestalt).
The Lego Friends characters don’t do anything that I wouldn’t be proud to see my kids doing in The Real World.
If I had my way, Lego would make more pink bricks and fewer guns, and they’d be less shy about mixing those together. Why don’t Lego Friends solve mysteries? Dive for sunken treasure? Explore houses reputed to be haunted? Rescue each other from dangerous situations? Conversely: why aren’t the new, more detailed figures being worked into other product lines? Why aren’t there Pink Ninjago ninjas? Why are all the Ninjagos boys?