Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Uproar over new Lego Friends sets

So, I've been hearing (well, mostly reading online.. and making myself) a lot of fussing especially from mostly Adult Fans of Lego (aka AFOL) about the new Lego brand "Friends" line that is targeted specifically at girls (read what you may into the fact that my biggest problem with it is NOT the gender stereotyping of the activities presented - my biggest issue has to do with functionality of the humanoid figurines. I've always been much more of a nerd than a feminist.). Even given that, I was still surprised to get the following email from change.org - and really bothered by the level of inaccuracy in the claims they make about the product. It concerns me because now I will be questioning the veracity of the claims they make about much more important issues than children's toys (though, as a sociologist-in-training specifically interested in child development and symbolic interactionism, toys are a VERY important issue to me - ESPECIALLY those that are targeted specifically to one traditional stereotype subset of gender).

The text of the email was:

Tell LEGO: Stop marketing sexist toys to girls
Sign the Petition

Dear Ahmie,

Iconic toy brand LEGO recently launched a new line of toys meant just for girls -- but two young women, Bailey Shoemaker-Richards and Stephanie Cole, think the products are unfairly "dumbed down" for girls.

The new line is called LadyFigs, and it's made up ofbusty, pastel-colored figurines that come with interests like shopping, hair-dressing, and lounging at the beach. The uninspired toys even come with pre-assembled environments -- so there is no assembly (or imagination) required.

Bailey and Stephanie say they're frustrated that LEGO is pushing outdated gender roles on girls and cheating them of the opportunity to build and discover. So they took to the internet, blogging about what they call the new "Barbielicious" LEGOs andpetitioning the toy company to lose the sexist LadyFigs line and go back to empowering both boys and girls with its original products. Click here to sign Bailey and Stephanie's petition today.

LEGO hasn't always thought its toys were only for boys. In the 1980s, the company was actually celebrated for a major advertising campaign that spotlighted a young girl and her LEGO creation with the tagline "What it is is beautiful." But since then, LEGO reversed course and decided to market its products only to boys.

The company claims its research shows girls just don't appreciate the original LEGO line. But Bailey and Stephanie argue that with LEGO's renewed emphasis on boys -- featuring only boys in its ads and stocking products in the boys' aisles of toy stores -- it's no wonder young girls wouldn't think LEGOs were meant for them.

Bailey and Stephanie's fight to get LEGO to return to its gender-neutral toys is already making waves, with the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Time weighing in on the issue. But LEGO is stubbornly holding its ground and told Business Week that the LadyFigs launch is a "strategic" move to "reach the other 50 percent of the world's children," as if girls have never been part of LEGO's focus.

Public pressure can prove LEGO wrong. If enough people sign Bailey and Stephanie's petition, it could convince LEGO that the new LadyFigs are bad business and the company should return its focus to empowering boys AND girls with toys that inspire creativity and innovation.

Tell LEGO to stop selling out girls -- sign Bailey and Stephanie's petition today.

Thanks for being a change-maker,

- Shelby and the Change.org team

My reply (which I suspect may have gone to an unmonitored email address - I didn't research who to reach Shelby specifically yet and am unlikely to get a chance to tonight - hopefully I will remember to do so tomorrow) was:
I don't know if this message will ever be read, but I feel the need - as an Adult Female Fan of Legos and mother of three sons ages 7 and under, to clarify some inaccuracies in your email.

First, the sets do NOT come pre-assembled. Basic investigation reveals that they are full of standard bricks in addition to the human-esque figurine. The other parts are standard Lego products, and work fine with any of the other sets they've made in the last 30 years and beyond for the most part. The tools are the same size as standard minifig tools, in fact most of them are actually from the same molds as long-existing parts, just in new colors. The $10 sets have about 80 pieces each, of which only four are the humanoid figurine. Many AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego - gender neutral but mostly males) plan to buy the sets and get rid of the dolls, because the sets themselves are actually quite a nice assortment of parts. The Cafe set will be finding its way into our own expansive Lego village. These sets actually have more complex builds than many of the sets targeted to boys or gender-neutral over the years (many of which are in our own large personal Lego collection). For instance, the Harry Potter series sets often had large prefab wall pieces that offer much less repurposing flexibility than what is in much of these sets (though as a caveat: that's not apples-to-apples entirely, as I have not had chance to examine the most expensive set currently on offer on the Friends line - the house may have the same pre-fab walls like much of the Castle/Kingdom/Harry Potter sets used; I can't tell from pictures). They are comparable in complexity, from all appearances, with the currently offered Superheros line Lego is offering.

Secondly, Lego refers to them as "mini-dolls" not "LadyFigs".

Third, this is just the first few sets to come out. Barbie didn't become a doctor or an astronaut for a LONG time after she hit shelves, I would predict that Lego will be having its Friends in space much sooner (and the new Series 6 Collectible Minifig set features a female surgeon along with the uber-pink blond-bombshell-in-space that I affectionately refer to as "astrobimbo"... baby steps, I guess...). Given that Lego is headquartered in a country that is lightyears ahead of the US in pretty much every indicator of social inequalities (I say this as a sociologist-in-training), I trust them to advance the cause of women pretty rapidly. The "Olivia" character seems a pretty competent budding scientist with a well-stocked personal lab (including microscope) in which she appears to have built her own robot, "Mia" with a little imagination becomes an animal rights activist, and "Emma" has a nice complex design studio that is NOT dumbed-down (yes, she appears to be designing fashions, but swap out the "whiteboard" piece - it is a standard shape available without the printing on it - and she could be a budding architect with the rest of the stuff in the $10 set... this would be the ONE time I am sorry to NOT have had a sticker instead of a pre-printed brick come out of the box).

As for Lego being in the "boys" part of stores, every Target and Toys R Us I have been in in the last decade has a "Lego aisle" (if not several) that has nothing but Lego products, many of which I, as a female, have considered as interesting as my husband and other Lego fans in my social circles have.

I do not hold Lego innocent in this at all - I am actually working on an academic research project that will hopefully be a published academic journal article about what I believe are the REAL roots of the "lack of affection" girls have for the standard minifigs - number one problem being the horrible gender imbalance in the Lego Minifig population (it's less than 20% female, and the female offerings generally are not as interesting and detailed as the average for the male offerings). I do believe Lego made many missteps in this new Friends line. I am severely irritated that they have less articulation in their joints than the minifigures do (their wrists don't turn, their legs don't move independently, and they can't lean backwards - I do not believe that evolution should reduce functionality) and the shape of the feet is problematic with positioning in relation to built components on baseplates, and they can't sit on the studs/pegs of the bricks and be locked into position like the minifigs can - all of these are functional design problems that they should have solved before going to market if they wanted to prevent the severe negative response they've gotten.

My personal opinion is that the company AND consumer base would have been better served by first bringing the standard minifig population into gender-balance via offering all-female minifig packs (similar to how they offer "battle packs" for various lines), making some new female face and torso designs, and releasing those as well as the already-available minifig hair pieces in every color option through their online pick-a-brick store at minimum (as a box set assortment similar to they have done with "community workers" and the "fairytale figures" sets for retail shelf purchase would be a good move too). THEN work on evolving the minifig - taller, rounder, more humanly shaped like the mini-dolls without losing the functionality of the minifigs, ESPECIALLY if it meant they didn't look somewhat anorexic (I do commend them on giving the mini-dolls a more realistic breast size than many other dolls-with-breasts on the market over the years, but those arms are scary-skinny in relation to the hand size, and the skinniness of the arms is why the physics of a functional wrist don't work). It is the lack of functionality that makes these mini-dolls less appealing to my 7 year old son (who, when given free reign to build three minifigs for $10 at our local Lego store generally goes for female minifig parts without prompting since he knows intuitively that he doesn't have as many of those as the male parts on offer). When looking at the Friends sets on the shelves at our local Target, once he realized they were actually Lego products (he was more confused by them not being in the Lego aisle and mini-dolls than by the actual content of the sets or color of the boxes), he was actually quite interested in playing with them. I have video recorded his initial impression at the store as well as his initial reaction to the mini-dolls themselves, and have his permission to share those publicly.

I will be reposting this message on my blog. I believe more discussion is better, all around, and that nothing is furthered by folks going off on a crusade based upon faulty first impressions.

Thank you for reading.

Mom, writer, Sociology graduate student, and AFOL - amongst other things.
I will be uploading the videos of my eldest child Liam (age 7.5 years) and his reaction to the products shortly and will edit this post to include the link when I do. If you have thoughts to share with me about this, please do so here on my Blogger blog (http://dragonmama.blogspot.com) instead of on Facebook or Google+ or wherever this might be reposted, so that the conversation stays in one place visible to all interested participants.


edit: update - after kids fell asleep I did some googling and sent a @ message on Twitter to ShelbyKnox with a link to this blog post, hopefully she sees it and comes to engage here, if time allows. She sounds like a busy woman.


Jenny R said...

THANK YOU! This e-mail asking me to sign this petition angered me as well-esp as an AFOL. Esp since my husband and I were so excited that a playset for girls included a science lab, bakery, tree house, design studio and vet clinic. We feel it satisfies the interests of a large group of girls by not giving them just the shopping type playset. I really liked your point about Barbie's career choices as well.

Colleen said...

Thank you! I've been getting into a few arguments over this set as well so it's nice to finally have some more facts to back up my claims since I didn't have any myself beyond common sense and what I could see with my eyes. Having some actual proof to use about the fact that they aren't pre-built and that sort of thing was truly reassuring.

I have a younger sister in my life who is currently thrilled about this set and wants to own the entire thing. So people trashing it kind of annoys me on a personal level especially when they're just spouting misinformation. What happened to looking into things and coming up with your own conclusions? Do we really have to be spoonfed our opinions?

I got that same e-mail and I promptly deleted it without opening it, because I knew it was going to be full of the same information I'd been hearing all evening.

Ahmie said...

Jenny and Colleen thanks for your comments (tho anyone reading this who doesn't agree, please do feel free to speak up - I won't sensor anything unless it's vulgarly offensive in a clearly intentional way, or outright spam i.e. links to totally unrelated websites).

I can confirm - the sets are regular Lego pieces. There are full reviews with pictures of all the parts included online at the Eurobrick forums, easiest way to get to them is via classic-town.net as they are the top several posts. The review of Olivia's house actually has me drooling a bit, the new colors for the standard brick shapes are well displayed and used there in BUILDING furniture (i.e. there's a sofa that I estimate to have been made out of about 10 separate elements... the rooms themselves are at least as complex a build as the average Hogwarts Castle room, but not Medaevil Village complex - hubby built Cafe Corner and Grand Emporium so I can't compare to those). The new flower molds (that fit on the green 3-stalk stems like the old five-petal flowers) are GORGEOUS and I can't wait to see them in colors beyond red... the roses... omg... the roses.... wish they'd included THOSE in the bride & groom sets!!!