There’s been some controversy lately over the new “Lego Friends” line of the classic building toy: they’ve been billed as “Lego for Girls.” Some people think this a great move to encourage more girls to play with Lego, while others feel it’s demeaning, further entrapping little girls in the Pink Ghetto. To get an on-the-ground perspective, I interviewed Lego builder extraordinaire, eleven-year-old Emma Cole.
(Makes face): “They’re terrible! Like they’re supposed to be for girls because they’re all pink and purple, as if girls only like to play with pink and purple things, and they’re supposedly all cute with their big heads and their big eyes and … ugh!!! It’s like they’re forcing us into stereotypes, where everything has to be all pink and purpose and cute and big-headed and big-eyed and …” (this rant went on for awhile).
Emma is, along with her older brother, a designer, architect, builder, character creator, visionary, chronicler and, oh yeah, film-maker of Bricktown, an ongoing Lego project that had to be moved, over Christmas, down to our basement because it had outgrown its previous space in Chris’s room.
When Emma was younger — probably about the age group the Lego Friends are aimed at — Lego was mostly a boy’s toy in our house. Chris was always into Lego, but as a younger kid he was very interested in Bionicles, Knights’ Kingdom, and other similar sets. Emma occasionally played with some Lego, but it was never a big thing with her. We had a brief tryout with Ello, but she never took to it in a big way. The one Lego set she had of her own, at about age seven of eight, was a small set featuring a soccer pitch and ten female mini-figures — a women’s soccer team. She put that together, kept it around for awhile, and then let it gather dust.
Then one day, about a year and a half ago, Emma decided to take some of her old soccer figures and some borrowed Legos from her brother (always a tricky negotiation) and build a Lego restaurant. Chris got interested and, working together (though not without conflict) they expanded on the restaurant, then branched out into other buildings. Chris was getting more interested in traditional Lego buildings and this fit well with Emma’s new interest: within a few months, Bricktown had become the thriving, growing community it is today.
If Lego Friends had existed when Emma was seven or eight years old (and wanted everything pink or purple), would she had been attracted to them? I’m sure she would. Would that have drawn her into Lego play sooner? Perhaps. Would Bricktown have been the end result anyway? Hard to say. There’s always the possibility — and this is what makes me uneasy about the Lego Friends line — that the idea of a separate “Lego for girls,” while it might appeal to and attract some little girls who might not otherwise get into building sets, might also send the message that regular Lego must be “Lego for Boys.” (Kind of like the “women’s fiction” label — does that mean that by default, then, all the other books are “men’s fiction”?)
And the beauty of Lego, surely, is that it’s for everyone.
I think if Lego wanted to attract more girls, adding pink and purple and pastel blocks is a great idea — but they should have been added to sets in existing Lego lines, like Lego City. Those colours may catch the eyes of some girls, and they should be available, just as there should be a LOT more female mini-figures available in the regular lines. If Lego wanted to try introducing a different-looking set of characters like the Lego Friends characters, that certainly could have been tried too — though I can assure you that the purists who run Bricktown, and who have populated it with over 100 minifigures, each with names, jobs and backstories, will not be allowing any big-headed Lego Friends to dilute the racial purity of the town. Heck, they won’t even allow the minifigs with peach-coloured faces (which come from movie-tie-in Lego sets) — Bricktown is an all-yellow community. (They also won’t allow Megablocks, even if they’re compatible with Legos. Building codes are THAT rigid. You think it’s hard getting St. John’s City Council to approve renovations to your heritage home? Try putting a new building in Bricktown if you want to see some strict bureaucracy).
A lot of these innovations could have been brought in to new Lego sets and lines to attract more girls — but labelling one Lego line specifically as “Lego for Girls” is potentially damaging, I think. Because not only will boys go out of their way to avoid playing with Lego Friends; some girls will get the message that they are restricted to the pink and purple building blocks, and that Lego City and the dozens of other fantastic Lego lines are not for them.
The new Lego Friends line includes more “girl friendly” (?) sets like a beauty shop, a cafe, a pet store, etc. Bricktown has, among other things, a bank, a police station, an airport, a beauty salon, a record shop, a school, a pet store, an outdoor stage, a swimming pool, a farm, and a coffee shop called Starblocks. Some of these came as part of sets, others are originals, created by pieces from other sets that have been repurposed. Some originated in my son’s brain, some in my daughter’s, and I’m pretty sure that while there are some stereotypically male/female choices there, I’ve also observed that a lot of things in Bricktown don’t divide neatly along gender lines. And that’s exactly as it should be.
I wish there were tons more girls as interested and involved in Lego as Emma is, because it’s a fantastic toy that inspires all kinds of creativity. But I don’t think introducing “Lego for Girls” is the way to do it. Lego already is for girls. And boys. And teenagers. And grown-ups. And anyone who wants to play with it.