The first year of LEGO Friends – worst toy of the year?

LEGO Friends logoA year ago today, we shared LEGO’s official announcement about their new Friends line. You may recall that images had leaked a few days earlier, and there was already massive controversy swirling all over the web.

The hubbub centered around the very idea (the nerve!) of “pink LEGO” or “LEGO for girls.” Critics suggested that LEGO was reinforcing gender stereotypes and that the sets had been dumbed down for girls, lacking the normal construction-based play common to all other LEGO sets. After our initial shock at the new “mini-dolls,” adult fans of LEGO (AFOLs) generally responded positively, even if we haven’t embraced LEGO Friends as deeply as the latest UCS Star Wars or modular building sets.

The late Heather Braaten summarized the initial AFOL consensus nicely, in a comment on our original post:

I think this is as close as LEGO has ever been to getting it right when it comes to targeting the young female demographic. Appeal to the people who buy the toy for their little girls by making them appear girly and cute and then sneak in the universal appeal of being able to create whatever your imagination desires – whether it’s pink and frilly or a mecha robot that just happens to be purple. I’m not a big fan of the “doll” fig but I think that’s the sentimental side of me speaking. My little girl will probably adore it. Just as long as she builds, I’m a happy camper.

By now, multiple waves of the actual LEGO Friends sets have been out for nearly a year, but the controversy really hasn’t abated. One organization even included LEGO Friends in their list of worst toys of 2012. Really?

As infrequently as I bring up politics, long-time readers of this blog will already know that my personal politics lean rather far to the left. I’m not shy about calling social injustice when I see it, and I’ve posted about marriage equality, pacifism, racism, and so on. Whether you agree with my particular viewpoint or not, I suspect my “progressive credentials” here in the LEGO fan community are not really in question. But I also take issue with unthinking, reactionary opinions from either end of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, I think that much of the negative criticism surrounding LEGO Friends has been of the unthinking, reactionary sort, and it deserves a good debunking.

Parent and LEGO fan Ty Keltner responded to some of the criticism during a talk at BrickCon in October:

New York Times parenting blogger KJ Dell’Antonia responded specifically to the “worst toy” accusations, saying:

The Lego Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop … remains a noncommercial building toy that promotes an understanding of spatial relationships and calls into play fine motor skills, problem solving and creativity. The fact that it does so by providing the material to build a beauty shop (and then, once that’s done, any number of small square houses that differ from the ordinary Lego house only in their color) shouldn’t be any more “destructive and oppressive” to youth of either sex than the boxes upon boxes of Legos [sic] offering more stereotypically masculine battleships and superheroes.

David Pickett over at Thinking Brickly doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of the critics, but takes on the claims that LEGO Friends sets are dumbed-down (“juniorized” to use AFOL-speak) in terms of construction complexity, and that the women and girls of Heartlake City have been locked in gender stereotypes. David’s post is particularly interesting as it compares LEGO Friends to the new Barbie “construction” sets.

I’ll readily admit that LEGO Friends sets really aren’t my thing — I’ve bought a few to see what the fuss was about, and picked up a few more for parts in interesting colors. I’ll also agree with Ms. Dell’Antonia that these sets don’t do a whole lot to change existing gender roles among children. But is that really the LEGO Group’s responsibility? Like David, I have a lot more problem with LEGO’s marketing today than I do with their core set designs.

Remember this beautiful ad from 1981?

What it is is beautiful

This classic ad demonstrated a clear understanding of gender-neutral childhood development, and contrasts strongly with the gender-locked advertising for today’s play themes — Ninjago, Star Wars, and even LEGO City — that I encounter in LEGO’s TV commercials and in print. When was the last time you saw a girl playing with a LEGO bus or recycling truck in a LEGO ad? I certainly haven’t (though I’ll admit to being outside the target demographic, so it’s possible I may have missed it, and I do love the Build Together campaign).

Despite the advertising industry falling over itself praising LEGO’s latest “creative” ads (more often than not a leaked sample or test ad from an agency bidding on the LEGO Group’s business, and not an actual ad you’ll ever see LEGO use), I believe that the real advertising that children and parents see does reinforce gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. I’d love to see LEGO City and Creator in particular marketed as often to girls as to boys.

For example, 3368 Space Centericon includes a female astronaut, while the new 60003 Fire Emergency includes a female firefighter.

And yet, the female astronaut in Space Center is the one in all the pictures wearing the opaque helmet, so you’d never know — again, a distinction between a gender-balanced set design and the marketing for the set.

Do LEGO Friends sets include colors that many little girls are attracted to? Undoubtedly. Do the jobs that Mia, Olivia, Andrea, Emma, and the other LEGO Friends characters perform in Heartlake City reflect the wish-fulfillment of the average 8-year-old? Presumably (I wouldn’t know). Nevertheless, I believe that the actual set designs across the full range of the LEGO Friends line do no more and no less harm to the progress of the human race than any other LEGO sets.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments…

22 comments on “The first year of LEGO Friends – worst toy of the year?

  1. JasonSpears

    Being the father of two girls (7yrs & 5.5yrs), I think Lego hit their target market spot on. My daughters very much enjoy these sets and doll-figs. In particular they definitely like the doll-figs better than regular minifigs. My daughters mostly build their own sets, but from the part selection I’ve seen, they can’t be that juniorized. Very little difference in the quantity of new POOPS, than Star Wars or Harry Potter sets. The fact they we (AFOLs) get new colors and new animals makes me pretty happy for these sets as well.

    It is all well and good from a theoretical standpoint to say the ad 1981 is a prefect example of gender neutral advertising. But it didn’t sell sets. And in the end, Lego has to worry more about selling product than taking some moral stance about gender neutrality. Like it or not, a majority of girls (and women) like pink, flowers, hair salons and traditionally girly stuff.

  2. Marc Nelson Jr.

    My seven-year-old daughter has been a big fan. While she’s always been into LEGO – building rooms and houses that are pretty similar to the Friends sets – she’s been much more enthusiastic about official SETS since Friends came out. Which I guess is a triumph of marketing. Another great idea was (at least at WalMart) stocking these things in the Barbie aisle rather than the LEGO aisle.

    While she like the look of the Friends sets and minifigs, I think she would have been equally happy with City sets and regular minifigs that portrayed the same sort of subject matter (i.e. humans doing something other than fighting fires or engaging in police chases). But anything that holds her interest in LEGO is a win by me. If purple boxes and named minifigs is what it takes, so be it.

  3. worker201

    My youngest niece, who just turned 6, is a big fan of the Friends line. I don’t really know what she thinks of the doll figures or the color palette (her other tastes suggest that she prefers pink and purple). But one thing I do know is that she likes the fact that the sets are pretty obviously for her. She played Lego with her older brother, who loves Star Wars and Ninjago, but those sets were his – and more importantly, for him. The Friends sets aren’t just her own sets – they’re obviously not made for her brother at all. Which, especially in the case of a younger sister, is very important.

    I was kinda disappointed, shopping at Target today, that Friends sets are segregated from the regular Lego display isle. That irks me way more than the set design ever could.

  4. wyldjedi

    The ‘problem’ started years ago, with the minifigs. Even before Lego changed the faces on them to be more than simple smiley faces it was in their themes. There was basic castle, space, and city sets. With the castle and space sets it started out simple enough but Lego created factions within those themes (Blacktron and futuron, Black Falcons and the forrestmen, etc etc). Even before most of the figures became men, Lego created the whole bad guy vs good guy thing, which is mostly a male way of thinking. Even if that was not their intent, that is how we saw it. Everyone knows about the Robin Hood story so who wouldn’t make the Forrest guys the good ones? Even now, at least some part of the city theme is based around cops and robbers. I guess my point is that a tub of basic bricks gets boring to anyone older than a 5 year old after 15 minutes. A central theme helps keep the interest going so is it really so bad that Lego is following every other toy company and marketing some things specifically to one gender or another?

    On a side note, I think how kids play with Lego now is different than when I grew up (I am 37 and grew up with Blacktron and the greats). My nieces only want to play with the girl minifigures I have and maybe the horses and such, and my nephew does not seem to even have the patience to finish building something, even the small sets like the sith speeder. (he got halfway done and said something like ‘it just blew up’, and then put it aside). He just wants an army of figures to fight with. It feels like most toys cater to the instant gratification with guns or action figures so when presented with a box of Legos creativity gives in to impatience. I remember when the Lego boxes would have alternate versions of the set to give you ideas. I really miss that. I feel that the toy industry in general caters to childrens short attention spans too much, which in turn makes it even shorter. I am not saying this about all children, but I have noticed this heavily with my sisters kids and my brother in laws kids.

  5. rangerwez

    My daughter (5, almost 6) got two of the Friends sets back at the beginning of the year. She liked them for a very short while, and now 6 months later, she would rather gravitate to my boys LEGOS as a general rule; actually she’d prefer MY LEGOs … much to my dismay :)

  6. Luigi

    As a father of 2 boys and 2 girls I try to avoid gender stereotypes, so have typically bought more Creator and Technic sets that don’t skew either way.
    That said, I am a huge fan of the Friends line but I’ve only bought the more gender neutral sets (tree house, camper, pool, convertible) and avoided the beauty shops etc.
    2013 looks very promising as it seems a majority of the Friends line are actually very neutral. Soccer, Karate, swimming, magician, rock band stage…
    Kudos to LEGO for this line. I love them, my daughters love them, and even my boys will play with them a little bit.

  7. vexorian

    First of all, I must underline that a year ago, the only information most people had about LEGO friends was the business week article:

    It was ominous because if the research procedure that the article describes was true then indeed LEGO were being sexist and endorsing gender stereotypes. There is no way around it but their market research experiments were sexist by design.

    Then we have the boxes. Although LEGO friends does not feature that much pink. The boxes of course have to be pink. I would like to apologize for holding LEGO to a larger standard than other toy companies, but that was not a nice move in anyway.

    Finally, I think that overall friends sets are great* . But I think that LEGO fluked in here. At least that is the conclusion I am making after seeing the finished friends sets, the advertising and the business week article regarding the “thought” and studies put into this.

    The success with LEGO friends was a fluke, because if TLG merely followed the sexist market research they conducted, the result would have still been another belvile. TLG got lucky in that their designers actually know better than their stupid market researches. Whilst research was revealing a ton of gender stereotypes to make TLG make yet another mediocre girls theme. The designers knew the real answer to make friends a good girls theme : WELL DESIGNED SETS. That is the key difference between belvile and friends. The sets actually have construction in them. The sets actually have innovative build techniques and are interesting to the eye.

    The 80s comedian’s stand up show-esque study “girls like beauty, boys like role play” was a big fail and it was completely fair that it was giving TLG such a bad reputation. I’d like to thank the sane minds in LEGO that figured out that in order to sell sets to both girls and boys, the sets have to have some good construction involved. Thank you LEGO designers, you did a good job and saved TLG from making another flop. It is time for TLG to stop making dumb market researches and focus on delivering an actual good construction toy product. That is their key for success.

    *The segregation is minifigures for boys and girls is still bad.

  8. Syruss

    While I can understand the way some people feel about gender stereotypes, I can really only comment on my own personal experiences. My daughter, who is 7, absolutely loves the Friends line. But she also loves other popular culture lines, like Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean.

    One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in my experiences as a foster parent and an owner-operator of a home daycare is the style in which many kids approach their play. Take playing the drums, for example. Most boys would approach this in an “I’m playing the drums” way, while many girls would say “I’m a drummer.” It’s a very subtle, yet important, distinction, and much of the actual activity is ultimately the same. Now we could debate all day about nature versus nurture, but as I said, I can only comment on what I’ve seen.

    On a related note, the sets that my daughter seems to enjoy the most are the ones that are more like a play set, with furniture and/or lots of utensils. For instance she chose “Mia’s Bedroom” (3939) over “Olivia’s Speedboat” (3937), because one had more open-ended play potential. (Not her exact words, but a sufficient paraphrase.)

    I suppose the point that I’m eventually getting to is that while some people may complain about LEGO Friends line, there are people who will criticize anything and everything, so you just have to take it with a grain of salt. For my family, the Friends line has been and excellent, versatile, and welcome addition, both for my daughter, and for the numerous AFOLS within it.

  9. Tromas

    My sons are not ones to care about whether a toy is for a girl or a boy. They are used to seeing me take a Hello Kitty lunch kit to work everyday. They both got baby-dolls for their first Christmases, Tate likes Jesse better than Woody, and they have a pink and purple tea set they play with non-stop. However, when I showed Tate the early pics of the Friends sets, he immediately said that those were for girls. When I asked why he said that, he said it was because of the colours. But when I told him that I wanted to get them because I thought the colours were awesome he said, “No I said, that they were made for girls, but that doesn’t mean I can’t play with them too.”

    I thought that summed it up quite well for me. LEGO is a company that whether we like it or not, is out there to make money. If they have to change up the shape of the minifig to get more girls into LEGO then I am all for it. I will buy Friends sets for my sons and also if I have a daughter, because once they build the set I know that they are going to take it apart and build infinite other things with the pieces anyways…It is all about sparking that creativity!

  10. Creative Anarchy

    People who will say that Friends is the worst toy of the year are monumentally uninformed of toys that came out in 2012. They aren’t even the second worst Lego product of 2012. The line wasn’t successful, the shelves are always well stocked with Friends boxes and many retailers never orderred the later releases because they just didn’t sell like other Lego product. I don’t think friends failed because it was maligned. The big voices that decried that Friends dismorphized women or depicted them as inferior to male characters or said that pink legos were evil weren’t really the voices of terribly relevant people. I doubt many parents even knew there was a controversy. I believe friends failed for exactly the reasons Andrew said. Girls don’t want pink and purple girltown sets. They want a girl Dino Hunter or a girl recycling truck driver. They don’t want to be segregated, that’s not fun, they want to play with everyone else.

  11. msmitchel

    I think it is all much ado about nothing. My 10 year old girl loves to play with Legos because her mother and father grew up playing with Legos (and they both still do). We have been buying Lego products for her since she was a baby. She doesn’t see gender assigned roles in Lego sets (or life) because we never say “that’s a boy or girl activity” or “that’s a boy or girl toy”. She doesn’t have any of the Friends sets because she has never asked for any of them. She loves Ninjago, Harry Potter and Superheros but will also happily help her dad build his Star Wars, Raiders, Sponge Bob, Train and Space sets because she likes playing with Legos and doing things with her father. I think gender stereotypes come more from the home than from advertising (and we do our best to limit her exposure to commercials … what a great invention the DVR is). She likes the sets that she likes because we don’t make judgement statements about her choices. As for Friends sets being in the “girl” toy isle, I think that is a great idea. Some adults who are shopping for girls would never think to go down the Lego isle but will happily stumble upon them in the “girl isle”. The smart stores put them in both isles (just like I’ve found Skylanders in both video game and toy isles). As for Friends being the worst toy of the year … that’s just a ridiculous statement. Lego is laughing all the way to the bank. Lego wasn’t trying to discourage girls from playing with the sets they already offered, they were trying to increase their customer base by offering sets they thought would appeal to parents and kids who had not considered Lego up to this point. From what I have read sales of Friends are good and I’m not surprised they are planning more sets. So their plan seems to be working. Lego has been trying to reach this particular market segment for years and it looks like they finally have a hit on their hands. They are providing a quality product to a new segment of kids and increasing their sales while doing so. If that is not success what is?

  12. Stevolteon

    The whole issue boggles my mind a bit. If nothing else, Lego are being unfairly singled out.

    When was the last time you saw a boy in a Barbie commercial?
    Are the dolls not all sold in pink boxes?

    Are Disney sexist for seeking out properties to appeal to boys to compliment their home grown Princesses line?
    Or is it that they should abolishing the Princess line for the stereotypes it represents?
    What if Lego had obtained a license to make Disney Princess sets, would they have inherited Disney’s sexism shield?

    There might be an age guideline on set boxes but there isn’t a gender one. If a child isn’t interested in a set and states “because it’s for *gender*s”… at what point did this become Lego’s doing? Surely it’s down to values instilled in the child?

  13. Jake of All Trades

    I do wish more of the sets were like 3933 Olivia’s Invention Workshop. As a (sorta) adult male, I thought this set was a brilliant combination of science and girly flower-power. I thought it had a great message of “you can have hobbies like this and still be a girly girl.” My niece, who spends equal amounts of time talking about being an entomologist as she does a pink pegasus, loved it as well :)

  14. cortman

    The people who rant about how “LEGO for girls” or “pink LEGO” is a horrible thing that forces girls to conform to traditional gender roles completely miss the fact that they are doing an equal injustice by forcing girls to play with “gender neutral” toys ONLY. I don’t think justice is served unless both options exist.
    Therefore, I am all for LEGO attempting to appeal to girls through traditional colors and traditional activities associated with that gender.

  15. fallentomato

    Thanks for mentioning my article, Andrew. I obviously care a great deal about this issue and have spent a good deal of time thinking and writing about it, so I’m very happy to see it discussed here. I feel that us adult fans have a responsibility to be active participants in the ongoing conversation about LEGO Friends and combat the blatant misinformation about the product that is out there. The general public isn’t going to know all the nuances that we do and we owe it to them to share our expertise. LEGO Friends is problematic, but not deplorable. 

  16. Syruss

    I also feel like I should clarify, for reasons of accuracy; Vexorian stated that the boxes are pink, if I understood correctly, and I suppose it may be different in different regions, but the boxes I have seen actually have very little pink, leaning more towards purple. Which works to LEGO’s benefit where my daughter is concerned, since she favors purple much more than pink anyway.

  17. The_Fisherman

    Success? It depends on what you expected.
    I am an AFOL from Germany and as soon as Friends hit the shelves I was urged to buy them. I was surprised to find every store virtually robbed of the Sets.
    Maybe TLG was cautious with the shipping numbers because of the last lines ‘for girls’ failures. But if I thought the emptiness of the shelves would degrade over the year I found myself wrong.
    Yesterday I was visiting a toystore and what do you know, the clerk was not able to stack the new 2013 Friends sets in the shelf because the customers grabbed them of his cart leaving him hardly enough time to put a price tag on the boxes.
    I do not think this is a German phenomenon, but then at least I would say Friends is a big success here.

  18. Creative Anarchy

    It could be a local phenomenon but the shelves where I am are full. That doesn’t mean that Lego hasn’t sold a great number of sets or that they haven’t exceeded projections, just that they don’t appear to be making it to check-out stands or going home to building tables. I don’t see them in the clearence bins very often so they’re selling better than the Hero Factory or heroic superhero sets. However if the Star Wars and LoTR sets are gutted ghost-town holes in the shelving and there are nicely fronted deep-stacked rows of Friends Products and full end-cap displays it paints a picture of one toy line selling much more poorly than the other.

  19. robotacon

    I have nothing against the Friends line and my 5yr old girl loves the new color bricks but she doesn’t play with the dolls since she already has a wide selection of girl minifigs that don’t match so well with the new minidolls.

    I think that Friends is intended to bring girls that don’t play with LEGO hooked but it’s just one theme at the moment and since my girl likes to play with princesses and pirates and other themes the minifigs suit her better.

    What I’m saying is that LEGO could make Barbie LEGO for all I care, but I wish they could also cater to regular LEGO builders, that just happen to be girls.

  20. frog101

    I certainly wouldn’t have thought this was the worst toy…

    I too am a little frustrated that the Friends line is segregated from the Lego lines – but then I think many of the toy shops really have gone for gender specific focus (so the boys will head down one aisle, the girls another… leaving the parents to work out where their children have gone :) )

    My largest concern though is the minifigures themselves. As children learn through play, in many cases they “become” a character in their play. Sadly many children do have issues with how they look (and how they think they should look) and whilst Olivia, Mia et al are dolls, my worry is that the young girl will think she has to look thin and skinny. At least the original minifigure had a “standard” size that no-one would want to look like!)

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