LEGO Was Already for Girls

I’m sure most of you are already aware of the “NEW LEGO sets for girls!” to quote the email announcement that arrived yesterday in my inbox. My initial reaction was annoyance.

As far as the advertising goes, that hasn’t faded. To explicitly say these sets are for girls both implies that other sets are for boys and that boys shouldn’t play with these sets. I have a girl who has played for years with all those supposed boy sets, and I know a few boys who would probably thoroughly enjoy these new playsets. So I’m peeved by this, and nothing LEGO has done has alleviated that.

I love the old ad that’s been circulating—when was this approach lost? (As an interesting side note, one of my students used this ad for his ad analysis paper a few years back—he didn’t even mention that the child pictured was a girl until I pointed out that this was unusual. Was that an oversight on his part or an insight into how maybe it doesn’t matter as much to kids—he was 18 and therefore still mostly a kid—who’s pictured in an ad as long as the toys look cool?)

OK, so the ad campaign bugs the crap out of me. And unless they back completely off the “for girls” bit and ideally apologize for it, that’s not going to change. (Do they really think they have to label these sets or we won’t know who should be playing with them? So many issues on so very many levels…)

But what about the toys? I’ll admit that I’ve only looked at pictures on the website, so I don’t have a lot to go on. At first, totally biased against them before even looking at them, I was in fact annoyed by them. I assumed this was one of the rare LEGO missteps. But then I started looking closer and a bit more objectively, and I asked my 11 year old daughter what her opinions were. I’m not saying these are great toys, and we certainly won’t be buying any of them, but I do now have a more nuanced view, assuming I can ignore the advertising campaign.

Some thoughts, based primarily on my daughter’s observations (for context, she’s an avid LEGO fan, spending hours building intricate buildings and sculptures of her own design; she got one of the 3 in 1 house sets for Christmas, which she built immediately; she squee’d for days after she learned that LEGO got the Lord of the Rings license, especially since she’d just said a few weeks before that she wished they would make Lord of the Rings LEGO sets; she and her brother set up Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and Hogsmeade—i.e., the village set repurposed—under our Christmas tree):

  • While she would definitely choose Harry Potter and the upcoming Lord of the Rings LEGO sets over any of these, she does find them interesting. She’s likely too old for them, really, so I doubt we’ll ever own any unless someone gives them to us, but they did grab her attention.
  • Stories came to her mind when she looked over the toy sets, and honestly the same thing happened for me. She mentioned that these were more appealing to her than the City sets, and I have to agree with her. Not surprising to LEGO, I’m sure, my son and husband are more inspired by the City sets than by the new sets.
  • Back in the days when she was getting Polly Pockets and Playmobil sets, we very well might have purchased these instead (probably instead of Polly Pockets—I adore Playmobil). She would spend hours playing with little dolls, setting up houses and scenes. These sets would have fit in perfectly, and they’d have the added benefit of combining with toys we already had in the house, unlike Polly Pockets.
  • As Clark pointed out, with most of these sets costing between $6-$20, these are targeted directly at gifts for birthday parties. And if I was getting a present for a 6 or 7 year old girl I didn’t know very well, these would be appealing. Even if you ended up with double sets, it’s LEGO—you can combine them and create something new.

So, I’m still annoyed with LEGO for how they’re talking about and advertising these new sets. To appeal more explicitly to girls, I don’t think they needed to change anything except perhaps their advertising, and I continue to be offended by the implication that girls weren’t and shouldn’t have been playing with other LEGO sets. I’m sure there are stereotypes I could get all worked up about, and I might if I thought my daughter would be playing with these a lot (on the other hand, I do like the inventor’s workshop!).

However, the toys themselves don’t seem like the misstep I assumed they were. These new sets would have fit in well with how my daughter played when she was younger and I don’t have a problem with LEGO trying to fulfill that aspect of her interests as well—they’ll likely do it better than many. Maybe it does fit the stereotypes, but my girl spent probably hundreds of hours playing with toys similar to these, and there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what she chooses to play with.

I just wish LEGO didn’t feel the need to explicitly tell us which kids should and shouldn’t be playing with certain LEGO sets.

(Along those lines, maybe they could add some more heroes without facial hair to the Heroica games? It bugs me that nearly all the heroes are explicitly male, even though it hasn’t stopped my daughter from having a blast with the game.)

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13 Responses to LEGO Was Already for Girls

  1. Cam Banks says:

    I remember, many years ago, when I was but a wee lad, LEGO had introduced a line of aimed-at-girls sets called SCALA which were mostly flower-themed. You could make necklaces, bracelets, picture frames, and so forth. I remember being utterly uninterested. However, what did stand out for me at that age was that both girls and boys were featured in the “normal” LEGO catalog pages, but only girls were in SCALA pages. I don’t remember any “boys only” marketing.

    • ayvalentine says:

      There are now no kids pictured in the catalogs (which is kind of cool – it’s a fully LEGO world).

      Honestly, I never really thought about LEGO sets being aimed mostly at boys (Harry Potter in particular appealed to my girl) until they started pretty much explicitly saying “THIS stuff is for girls.” I think I would have been fine with the LEGO Friends theme if they’d just put it out without declaring an audience and let us assume that mostly girls would buy them.

  2. Clark Valentine says:

    So, here’s a question. Clearly, LEGO Friends are targeted toward girls, but are they marketing them explicitly that way? In my glance around the website, I didn’t see that called out in black and white. Maybe I just want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I wonder how much of this we’re filling in based o our own expectations? That toys with pastel colors and female protagonists and labeled “Friends” is targeted toward girls therefore must be marketed that way too?

  3. Clark Valentine says:

    Answering my own question: yes, the email announcing LEGO Friends explicitly called out “For Girls!” I love LEGO, and the Friends sets are pretty nifty, but essentialism bugs me.

    • ayvalentine says:

      Yes, this is part of what bothers me. There were already plenty of clues that this is targeting girls, which isn’t inherently a problem – our own girl likes plenty of traditionally girly things, and there’s no reason to try to squelch that any more than there’s any reason to try to foist it on her.

      But in calling it out explicitly in emails and other announcements, they’re going that extra step to say “This is for this one group of kids and not for this other group of kids, regardless of individual interests.” And that’s what ticks me off.

      The toys themselves, on the other hand, seem just fine based on a cursory review. 🙂

  4. ayvalentine says:

    My insightful girl had a thought as we discussed this over dinner – while she’s happy to play with all our LEGO sets and has never felt excluded because she’s a girl (some sets fit her interests and some don’t, but she never linked it to being because she’s a girl), it’s possible that some girls have written LEGO off as “boy toys.” A friend on Twitter pointed out that she has seen lots of recent marketing & commercials (in the past year or so) really target boys.

    My girl thinks that perhaps explicitly saying “for girls” in the marketing is intended to reach those who have decided LEGO isn’t aimed at them. I’m still not thrilled about it – I think you can reach out to some without explicitly excluding others – but she may have a point. The girls who were already playing with LEGO already knew that you could build houses and pet shops and tree houses, even if they weren’t in pastels.

  5. tracy says:

    Yeah, the Heroica and Ninjago advertising both use almost exclusively boys as the players. For example:

    • ayvalentine says:

      I rather desperately wish the Heroica games offered a gender neutral character. Again, it doesn’t discourage my girl at all. And I guess if there were a female character she would feel like she always had to play that character based simply on the fact that it’s a girl (I’ve seen her do that). But still. It bothers me that they’re all so very obviously male.

  6. Thomas D says:

    To appeal more explicitly to girls, I don’t think they needed to change anything except perhaps their advertising, and I continue to be offended by the implication that girls weren’t and shouldn’t have been playing with other LEGO sets.

    Since LEGO Friends was announced, I have come across this sentiment on twitter and other social media forums (usually with a tweet like “There already were Legos for girls. They’re called Legos.”). However, it’s misguided. It assumes that LEGO didn’t do any market research before announcing this line. They did — they discovered that boys and girls play with LEGO sets differently. Generally speaking, boys love the mini-figs while girls didn’t like how small they are. As far as creating and building things versus roleplaying with the creations, boys and girls enjoy both, but boys want to build what’s on the box first; girls wanted to get into the roleplaying aspect of the sets sooner. So, LEGO Friends: slightly larger mini-figs and semi-premade sets to get girls to the play experience that they want sooner; other LEGO sets have mini-figs and large building tasks that result in roleplaying activities so boys get the play experience they want sooner.

    It’s not just “let’s put a LEGO set in a pink box and rake in money”. Right now, their customer base is strongly male: “The age of 4 … is also around the time that children become more conscious of gender, and about how to define themselves. So, many girls veer into the world of princesses, while boys leap into Lego.” They really did market research and came up with a product to attract girls.

    NPR article

    • ayvalentine says:

      I have no problem with the toys – if my daughter were younger, we’d probably buy some. My issue is that they felt the need to add “for girls” in the emails and announcements, as though that needed to be stated. This seems to imply that the other LEGO sets are *not* for girls and any boys who may find the Friends sets interesting should keep their hands off. It’s not that they made them – it’s how they’re marketing them.

    • tracy says:

      @Thomas Their customer base is male in part because they’ve spent the last 7 years or so marketing almost exclusively to boys. They did it for a variety of reasons, but of course that would lead to a large percentage of their audience being boys. It’s not that we’re ignoring the market research; I tend to believe that 1) the market research is likely flawed and 2) that they are hiding a lot of crossover in their general statements. However, since I can’t seem to find the actual research except for the information released in press releases, it’s hard to tell if they cherry picked what they needed so people such as yourself would come to their defense. Statements such as these from the Business Week article don’t give me much hope that LEGO has any real understanding of the girl market:

      “It was an education,” recalls Fenella Blaize Holden, an under-30 British designer, on the process of getting Lego Friends made. “No one could understand, why do we need more than one handbag? So I’d have to say, well, is one sword enough for the knights, or is it better to have a dagger, too? And then they’d come around.”

      The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot. A neuroscientist at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Eliot is the author of Pink Brain Blue Brain, a 2009 survey of hundreds of scientific papers on gender differences in children. “Especially on television, the advertising explicitly shows who should be playing with a toy, and kids pick up on those cues,” Eliot says. “There is no reason to think Lego is more intrinsically appealing to boys.”

      • ayvalentine says:

        I can’t deny that a lot of this marketing research does tend to line up with what I see in my own household – as I’ve said several times, I would have no problem with my daughter playing with these, aside from the fact that she’s outgrown this phase and is more about designing her own stuff now.

        But what ticks me off is the fact that everything I saw (aside from the website, which is missing this phrase) in the emails, press releases, etc. drove home *explicitly* – not just through colors and female characters – that these sets are for girls and girls alone and that this is the only way to get girls into LEGO, thus implying that the dozens and dozens of sets in our house should apparently not have appealed to my daughter.

        I am annoyed that they are suggesting my daughter is weird. I am annoyed that they are suggesting that my friend’s son whose favorite colors are pink and purple should not want any of the Friends sets. He would love them. He’d play the heck out them. But they have *explicitly* said they’re not for him.

        Why go there? Why not just introduce the Friends set as the new LEGO line? Why go out of your way to alienate an audience? Sure, most boys probably wouldn’t buy these. But why tell them they can’t?

        I’ve also noticed that the articles don’t mention Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, or the Medieval line, all of which have plenty of crossover appeal. Even Star Wars appealed to all four members of our household. Also, the 3 in 1 houses rock – my daughter and I each have one.

        LEGO has only been purely male-centric if you look at specific chosen sets.

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