Businessweek: Lego Is for Girls
I came across this interesting petition on Change.org via a reTweet recently. It’s called “Tell LEGO to stop selling out girls! #LiberateLEGOs“. Here’s the basic summary (emphasis theirs):
After 4 years of marketing research, LEGO has come to the conclusion that girls want LadyFigs, a pink Barbielicious product line for girls, so 5 year-olds can imagine themselves at the café, lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends. As LEGO CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.”
The petition is supposed to send a message to the people in charge at Lego letting them know that Legos are already a non-gendered brand; the only difference is that they’re simply not being marketed that way.
My knee-jerk reaction to something like this is to whip out the pitchfork and my barbaric yawp. I’ve always been irritated by the distinct divisions in stores and advertisements where, basically, anything pink is clearly marketed to girls, and everything else is marketed to boys. It feels like advertisements are conditioning girls to like pinks and Barbies and boys to like…well, anything else. But also being an intelligent person (at least, I like to fancy myself so) I know there’s always two sides to an argument and I wanted to hear exactly what LEGO had to say for themselves; surely they’re not bandying about baseless stereotypes. They claim years and millions of dollars of research – surely there must be something in their findings.
So I found an article in Bloomberg Businessweek about the new Lego Friends (coined online as “LadyFigs” in contrast to Legos Minifigs), “Lego is for Girls”. The article describes how in 2005 the company actively directed their advertisements towards boys in a successful effort to keep from going under. This, unfortunately, left parents in search of a comparable option for their girls with nothing but a “little pink ghetto” in the Lego stores, said a mother interviewed in the article.
Now that it’s back on its feet, Lego has decided to focus on capturing the “other 50% of the market” and has determined several things based on its little girl research (and I mean that in the least-creepy way possible). I summarize their results thusly:
- Girls prefer beauty in their gameplay, “harmony (a pleasing, everything-in-its-right-place sense of order); friendlier colors; and a high level of detail.”
- Girls prefer role-play (IE, playing dolls etc) but also enjoy building; they just prefer more storytelling in the process.
- Girls see the minifigs as personal avatars; they want to see themselves in the toys and the blocky yellow Lego Men we’re used to don’t really cut it.
To my surprise, I found that I could actually relate to these points.
The article states that, “Lego confirmed that girls favor role-play, but they also love to build—just not the same way as boys. Whereas boys tend to be “linear”—building rapidly, even against the clock, to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box—girls prefer “stops along the way,” and to begin storytelling and rearranging.” This is something I can definitely related to; I remember as a little girl having entire worlds in my head based off of my boys. I feel the same way about the notion of girls seeing the minifigs as avatars – that’s how I played when I was little. I would become my characters, giving them lives of their own and often being the heroine or woman-in-charge. I like the idea of catering to the girls’ play styles differently and appreciate that extra thought was put into it.
I guess my biggest point of annoyance is the selected stories Lego has opted to give to the girls. There are a bunch of different Lego Friends sets out there, such as:
Much-needed margarita in-hand.
City Park Cafe
- Olivia’s Tree House
- Stephanie’s Cool Convertible
- Butterfly Beauty Shop
- Heartlake Vet
- Heartlake Dog Show
- Stephanie’s Outdoor Bakery
- Emma’s Splash Pool
- Andrea’s Stage
- Olivia’s Inventor’s Workshop
- and more (full list here).
I can be down with the softer colors, I can be down with the new “more relatable” doll styles, and I love that they’re trying to cater to how girls think, but I’m annoyed that the only storylines given to girls involve animals, music, beauty, and shopping. A beauty shop and a cafe? Seriously? With all the research they sunk into these decisions, I’d love to know what sort of results they received saying that said girls aren’t interested in outer space, or that girls aren’t interested in castles or pirates, themes they’ve been allowing boys for years. This is the type of archetype-ing that bothers me and that I feel pigeonholes girls far too early in their development. It reminds me vaguely of this excellent and terrible VGCats comic.
Clearly they’ve made a slight attempt to diversify – there is a vague “Inventor’s Workshop” and perhaps the “Outdoor Bakery” can be construed as having some sort of entrepreneurial slant – but the almost complete lack of anything outside of the arts, shopping, and fuzzy animals is kind of appalling (though to be fair becoming a vet is a huge undertaking…but it’s far more than hugging fuzzy bunnies all day). While I can personally identify with wanting good details and wanting a story to go along with my play time (things that I still enjoy to this day, be it in a book, video game, movie or otherwise), I rarely spent my time playing “sit around in a pool” or “buy a drink and chat with my friends.” I suppose this isn’t unlike girls playing “tea time” with their dolls; they’re essentially just pretending to be grown ups and these days grownups lounge at coffee houses. But as a child I spent more time being a hotel manager, king or queen of a castle or traveling to far away and exotic places (IE, not a pool) and never felt restricted by my toys in that rite.
In contrast, let’s take a look at Playmobil, which was the doll brand I ended up playing with as a kid.
I’m having a lot of trouble finding definitive numbers for Playmobil’s finances, but they certainly aren’t going under. The official Playmobil website cites 474 million Euros (~$599.28 million US) from worldwide sales in 2009, a 5% increase from 2008. And you know what’s cool? Check out their diverse catalog:
SO MANY CHOICES.
There’s police, dragons, hospitals secret agents, knights – the list goes on and this is only a portion of the choices (click the image for their entire catalog). They have 2 sets that are pretty clearly marketed towards girls – Doll’s House an Magic Castle – but they’re not in a “girl’s section” of the Playmobil site (there isn’t one) and they’re not part of a subset of Playmobils at all. They’re all simply part of the entire collection.
I had a talk with my brother about this and I told him exactly what I mention in this post: what bothers me most about Lego Friends is the lack of diversity in playing scenarios given to the girls, especially in contrast with Playmobil. Why is it they don’t have a castle, pirate ship, or spaceship for girls? He pointed out that if you have a girl who would prefer to play with a castle than a Beauty Shop or Dog Show, you could simply buy her the “boy” version of a Lego castle. Because, essentially, Legos aren’t gendered to begin with - just like Playmobil.
So while I really appreciate Lego thinking really hard about how to better cater to girls – using preferred colors, identifying with the minifigs themselves, preferring more storytelling – I feel like it’s truly a damn shame they’re giving girls such a limited play scope. In the article Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist who’s done extensive studies on gender differences in children, comments that, “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.” I guess I just don’t see why confining them to ponies and hairdressers was necessary in the first place.