Lego For Girls = Doing It Wrong

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  • Ever see the Saturday Night Live commercial parody Chess For Girls?

    The last scene in the commercial sums it up brilliantly. A little girl is brushing the queen’s hair, another’s putting pawns into a luxury convertible, and the third is feeding one of the knights from a bottle. “We’re playing chess!” they say, but of course in actuality they’re playing “girl” games – house, family and hairdresser.

    Because, you know, regular chess is for boys.

    In 1997, the idea of taking a gender-neutral strategy game, making it pink and selling it with bubbles to appeal to girls was ridiculous enough to be an SNL bit. But now, in 2011, Lego’s doing the same thing, for real. Its new “Lego Friends” kits still help build spatial, motor and math skills, like regular Legos, but these come with girl characters, bigger pieces, and pastel colors. The characters live in a pink town and embody pervasive, yet unfortunate, female stereotypes; there’s a beautician, a pop star, and a “social butterfly” (always a lucrative career choice.) Legos for girls.

    Lego came up with these products based on extensive research into how girls play. During this research they learned the following:

    • Girls prefer storytelling and collaboration to precision and competition. While boys methodically recreate the pictures on the Lego boxes, girls prefer to evolve their designs based on stories they come up with and collaborative play with friends.
    • Girls identify in the 1st person with their Lego characters, while boys take more of a detatched, 3rd-person approach.
    • Boys like to build linearly, one piece at a time. Girls, on the other hand, build more organically, changing and rearranging based on their storylines.

    They also learned that toy aesthetics are much more important for girls. The separate Lego pieces seem unattractive to them. Boys tend to focus on the beauty of their “finished” products as opposed to the appearance of the individual blocks.

    This research backs up much of what we already know about differences in play between boys and girls. But instead of fixing the larger picture – evolving the existing product to appeal more to both genders – Lego decided to create an entire new line just for girls.

    Because, you know, regular Legos are for boys.

    6 Responses to “Lego For Girls = Doing It Wrong”

    1. And yet, as the father of a six year old girl (and her two older brothers) I and my daughter are both very excited about the new LEGO Friends line.

      My daughter likes playing and building with LEGO, but she struggles with finding sets that really appeal to her. Star Wars? No thanks. Ninjas and Knights? Not really. (And don’t think I haven’t tried to get her interested in those things!)

      The only ones she’s ever chosen for herself are the creator houses and the city sets that involve life situations like camping. Oh, and once in desperation she bought a few police sets because she couldn’t find anything more appealing to her.

      the LEGO research on how girls play meshes well with my anecdotal observations of my daughter. Some (not all) of the new sets and themes appeal to her. For example, she’s interested in the tree house, the fashion designer, the dog show, and the science lab, but she finds the hairdresser, singer, and veterinarian unappealing. I don’t think those feelings are strictly due to her gender — I see it just the same as how my boys are interested in certain LEGO sets and not others.

      I was lucky enough to find a few of the LEGO friends sets already even though they aren’t supposed to be released until January. (Shh, don’t tell my daughter!) I can’t wait to see if LEGO’s design choices actually hold up as applications of their research.

    2. Debra Gelman

      Thanks for your comment, Paul.

      I completely understand where you’re coming from. Lego has focused its more traditional products more on boys here of late, leaving girls feeling left out and disinterested. My main issue with the new sets is that it feels like a band-aid solution to a larger problem. I applaud Lego’s research and desire to appeal to young girls, but instead of cranking out some pink crap, why not look into the current product design and see where changes can be made?

      For example, we know girls prefer more relationship-oriented play (veterinarians instead of vehicles.) Why not, for example, create animal habitats (using existing Lego pieces and colors) and let kids build different animals and their environments?

      It sounds like you’re committed to finding toys your kids like and learn from instead of the latest trend, which is, of course, awesome! And don’t worry, your secret about the Lego Friends sets is safe with me (but come back and share your thoughts after your daughter gets to play with them awhile…?)

    3. Jason Port

      As a father who grew up with legos and who enables my son’s habit, I share your concern as I watch my daughter growing up. He has literally almost every star wars kit and will be doing the Lego Robotics this Xmas. (Yes, he is still only 7 and I am an enabler). Zoe has already started showing the engineering underpinnings by building simple structures with the bigger blocks at age 2 – No not gifted, we just don’t let her have other toys. However, when she hits 4 there will only be a few kits that will appeal to her – Spongebob, or maybe Lego city – community-focused sets like airports, police/fire and other transportation themes like trains and harbors.

      However, as she grows up, I would think that I would prefer that perhaps that she play with legos that foster positive female role models (No, not chain smoking marketing managers), like the vet, the doctor, or dolphin trainer. However, I would wager that lego is trying to reach that mass market – like their star wars success. Unfortunately, our country is saturated in Toddlers in Tiaras, Kim Kardashian, and other tartlette wannabes. In turn, I will train my daughter personally on robotics, cantilever structures, and spaceship propulsion, while 80% of our nation’s daughters vie for seats on “13 & Pregnant”.

      It would be interesting if the attacked the female market, by creating a modular lego dollhouse – capitalizing on the popularity of the traditional doll house, while demonstrating the ideas of good building concepts in structures and design.

      Great article Deb – I think it is very interesting stuff here – I would be curious to know why they are late to production. There aren’t a whole lot of toy companies that target “Right after the jolly fat man” for a new product release.

    4. Debra Gelman

      Hi Jason, thanks for your comment!

      I think you’ve hit on something important – these things are gonna sell. Big. Heck, if I were 7, I’d want one. Not sure about the post-Christmas US launch, but they’ve already started selling in France. Paul, our first commenter, managed to score some ahead of the release, so it’ll be interesting to see how his 6 year old likes them.

      The truth is, the marketing folks at Lego are no dummies. They see how shows like “Toddlers & Tiaras” are faring in the ratings game, and jumped right on the proverbial purple bandwagon. The issue is, girls 5-12 are still learning what it means to be female. And this “lesson” from Lego tells them it means pastel colors, boobs (!), and “social butterfly.”

      I think the science lab kit’s great, but the message here is still that girls need separate kits BECAUSE THEY’RE GIRLS. Something like your dolphin-trainer idea is great because it would appeal to both genders while supporting how girls think and play.


    5. Jason Port

      Love the ideas here Deb – I share the concerns over boobs equal girls and toys without boobs equal killing – ergo boys. However, boobs on Legos are nothing new – There is an older kit where Princess Leia is in the Jabba the Hut scene – Yes, that scene is every Star Wars nerds’ mental image of Carrie Fisher to this day – in that the lego minifig is far more endowed than the original Carrie Fisher. The truth is that Lego has three main audiences – boys, girls and the AFOL (Adult Friend of lego – Yes, it is a cult for Lego nerds, but they make amazing things – Sad and demented, but social). In turn, the comical boobs, the exaggerated muscles on other characters and other gender and physiological characteristics are likely to address the AFOL audience, like Toy Story’s adult jokes along with the kid stuff.

      Where I have to dissent here is the idea that Lego is unique in this behavior. As you mentioned, they are following suit here with their larger competition, and playing to the masses. But as was also noted, Lego in general, is always going to struggle with the female audience – not because engineering is a male dominated – but because the competitive market for girls attention is pretty significant. I was pondering what I would be doing with my son if it wasn’t for Legos. Besides sports, there is little to grab his attention, if you remove video games from the equation. Legos are the male equivalent to the dolly. Factor in that boys are going to be drawn to the “construction/creations/nerd monument” factors, and you get a naturally male dominated toy.

      My bet – Lego uses this as another failed experiment into the female market, and ultimately they extend their city line with the Dolphin trainer, when their Blog watchers see our conversation – stealing our idea and the profits. Damn Scandinavians!

    6. Girls like to build organically and let the building evolve as their story evolves and changes. This is true. This is also problem solving, the sort of STEM skill building is supposed to encourage. So why are the Lego friends sets so rigid? You can build 1 thing, 1 way and once you’ve done it, there is no need to build it over again. Lego has actually managed to develop a building toy that discourages creativity. Products like Roominate, zoob, magnatiles and so forth are gender neutral and my daughter prefers them much more for you know, building.