Earlier this year, a letter from a seven-year-old girl named Charlotte to LEGO asking for more “adventurous” sets featuring girl characters made a big impression. Specifically, she requested that instead of continuing to keep the LEGO ladies at home or the mall, “I want you to make more LEGO girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun, ok?”
LEGO responded, saying hey, funny you should mention it, we are totally doing this! And then in August they released that “female scientist” Research Institute set and it sold out virtually instantaneously, and at present the LEGO website somewhat shadily suggests that although it can’t be had in their online store, “limited quantities” may be turning up in some retail stores at some unspecified point during the month of October. (I’m sure LEGO store employees are really thrilled about the vagueness here.)
The Research Institute set is great, no doubt, but ultimately it’s a bit of a one-off gimmick. Certainly, many happy parents bought the Research Institute set for their daughters (and, we can hope, their sons), but this unique piece -- which, it should be noted, wasn’t even designed by LEGO initially, but was a submission to LEGO Ideas, their site for user-created submissions -- isn’t going to kick off a whole world of LEGO female scientists for kids to get invested in.
LEGO’s real clout as a force on the youths is rooted in its many lines of themed collections, which often include small figure-focused sets like the Research Institute, but which also extend up to sizeable (and expensive) sets with buildings and vehicles and hundreds or even thousands of individual pieces to build with. For example, there is the Castle theme, which features dragons and knights and, well, castle-type buildings and sets. There is the City theme, which tends to maintain a weird focus on municipal services like police, fire departments, and even garbage trucks -- i.e., mostly things boys are assumed to be into. LEGO also partners with well-known intellectual properties, like Marvel and DC comics, or Star Wars, as well as creating their own unique stories and worlds, like Ninjago or Galaxy Squad.
And then there is the Friends line.
LEGO Friends has taken a huge amount of criticism since its initial release in 2012. It wasn’t LEGO’s first time creating a theme “for girls,” but it did change things by introducing “mini-dolls” to replace the familiar blocky LEGO figures. The mini-dolls, instead of being shaped like bricks, are curvier and more realistic than their far more stylized counterparts, adding svelte waistlines and tiny little LEGO bosoms. They also dispensed with the standard yellow color of the traditional figurines and introduced a few new skin tones.
The response was mixed: some didn’t like that the new LEGO mini-dolls seemed to be pointedly more adult-looking than the old ones. But the Friends sets included six new brick colors -- all “girly” tones, like lavender and aqua -- and even casual LEGO nerds are usually in favor of new brick colors, whatever the cost. It also launched the most story-driven girl theme so far, with all the “friends” having their own specific personalities and stories, and unlike prior girl lines, did not skimp on the building challenges out of some misplaced assumption that girls are less adept or patient at building than boys.
Still, take a cursory look through the available Friends sets and it’s easy to see why 7-year-old Charlotte is disappointed. Friends has historically included such options as Andrea’s Bunny House, the Heartlake Juice Bar, the Heartlake Pet Salon, the Butterfly Beauty Shop, and three -- yes, three -- different bakery themed sets. Friends has been enormously successful, so these sets are certainly speaking to a large portion of their intended consumers, but nevertheless, they’re not exactly bursting with adventurous options.
The easy solution here is to tell more adventure-minded girls to play with the other, non-girl sets, but girls can hardly be blamed for believing that is not a reasonable option for them when LEGO goes so dramatically out of its way to instruct girls which toys they are allowed to play with. By singling out the Friends theme as belonging to girls, LEGO makes a statement -- intentional or not -- that all the other themes are NOT for girls. And even young girls are often pretty savvy about gender expectations, enough to know that refusing to play along means they may face social consequences (says the person who got a lot of “NO, YOU CAN’T PLAY WITH THAT, YOU’RE A GIRL” from the boys whose Hot Wheels and He-Man toys I strongly preferred over Strawberry Shortcake and Puppy Surprise).
It seems that LEGO really is listening, though, as just this week I was flipping through the latest LEGO catalog and saw several new Friends sets bringing the missing “adventure” piece over to the pink side with a series of brand new Jungle Rescue sets, in which the Friends kids head into the wilderness to save a bunch of cute animals.
The copy on the LEGO website for the largest set, the Jungle Rescue Base, describes the fun you’ll have:
Co-ordinate your animal rescue missions at the Jungle Rescue Base! Help Andrea climb the watchtower and use the telescope to look for animals in danger. There’s a panda that needs your help! Slide Andrea down to the rescue boat, rescue the panda in distress and help Stephanie check it over in the mobile medical station. Jump on the zip line to slide down to the living quarters. Take a shower in the bathroom at the end of an exciting day and help the girls cook and eat dinner together with the animals before heading to bed for a good night’s sleep. There’s another busy day of animal rescue in store tomorrow!
So, it’s not ideal. And the gendered criticism is not entirely resolved, as one lengthy review explains:
The design seems more concerned with how the model appears rather than packing in quality play features. This to me was completely disappointing as the design is so gender specific that it is borderline ghastly; even Little N, through her own assessment, thought the same. "Why do they (the Friends characters) have yellow radios?" [...]
On land, the characters can nurse injured animals, relax in the shelter and use the lavatory and shower cubicle. Again, because this is a 'girls' product, the latter facilities must include hot and cold taps, an oven and a porcelain lavatory. It's generalisations like this that surely defeat the adventure of being in a jungle. Afterall, how can a child have some fun when there isn't a hint of danger to work around?
There’s also the fact that the Jungle Rescue sets all focus on saving defenseless baby animals -- not people. Tiny pandas, tigers and monkeys are all imperiled here, and the task doesn’t end with the rescue itself, as the sets expect their characters to also nurse said animals back to health (an expectation notably lacking in the non-girl sets featuring similar firefighter and Coast Guard rescues), and -- most hilariously -- to cook dinner for them.
I have a deep and abiding personal love of LEGO. Many of my most treasured memories of childhood play are of building my own unique LEGO constructions and creating my own characters and stories to live in them. I had no girl-specific sets then; in fact, I had two pieces of “girl hair” total, and a handful of tiny non-gender-specific hats, and my LEGO play tended to focus on the far-flung travels of one tiny brown-haired brick girl, who also happened to be an accomplished artist and novelist (oh, tiny Lesley).
I never felt like any LEGOs weren’t for me, but I also didn’t have a special section of pink LEGO boxes staring me in the face in the toy store, telling me which toys I was supposed to want. I’m not sure the gender LEGO divide can even be undone now, as by earmarking Friends as the line “for girls,” the other themes default to being for boys, even if that’s not the intent.
Certainly, baby-animal caretaking is a fantasy that appeals to many girls (as well as boys), and even if it doesn’t, the beauty of LEGO sets is that they enable freeform play, so kids can easily rework the sets so that the characters are saving each other, if they prefer. Kids’ imaginations ought to be cultivated, not policed, and LEGO enables creativity as few toys do. And it's not that any of the more "girly" approaches to play are bad, necessarily, but girls should know they can also do other things too.
The new Friends direction may well be a step in a more adventurous direction for those girls like Charlotte, looking for play that is a little less domestic and a bit more exciting. It’s just a shame that the built-in story still adheres to the gender norms that position girls as caretakers first, instead of (or, if we’re generous, in addition to) being just plain heroes.