The Lego Friends Protest

Lego was originally built on the concept that the colorful blocks were made for girls and boys and would encourage shared play.  A new Lego "Friends" line, designed specifically for girls, may change all that.

SPARK Summit started a petition and a movement that has now gained over 47,000 signatures. They've also recently sent a letter to the CEO of Lego asking for a face to face meeting to express their concerns over the Lego "Friends" line. This line has figures that are more doll like, are curvier than the normal Lego figures, and are taller than traditional Lego people. Additionally, they have a "variety" of activities they can do in their overwhelmingly pink town. There's a hair salon, a veterinarian office, and a boutique to shop in, among other activities. Adventures like you'd see in Bionicle or even movie tie-in sets are missing. Mostly, the emphasis on engineering and building is as well.

Worst of all, the more "girl-friendly" set discourages boys and girls from playing together.

Lego executives claim that this modified play set is exactly what girls want, that they're only following what years of science and gender-based research has told them is best. I, however, call them on the science they're using.

First, let me clarify something personally. I'm a twin and my co-twin is a boy. It means that we often shared activities. I grew up on Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, and erector sets. In turn, I was never exceptionally girly. I wasn't into Barbie dolls. My thing was always stuffed animals and my brother and I were equally playing with Popples, Cabbage Patch dolls, and even this really neat plastic pretend zoo set I had from the National Zoo. It never occurred to me until I got to kindergarten that we were supposed to like different things when we played.

As a researcher, I studied play behavior, albeit mostly in lemurs (we all have crazy undergrad majors, right?). I know though from both those studies and going through floor time play with individuals with autism that play time is extremely important for growing children. It's how they develop physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It's also supposed to be a flexible and freely chosen activity. 

When you constrict young girls (or individuals who identify as female) to a world of beauty shops and malls, then you're telling them this is their role; this is who they're supposed to be. It isn't flexibility and it is taking away their choices.

Now some of the "science" Lego has used includes studies that claim that girls prefer pink. That it's something intrinsic to them at a young age. Similarly, studies of monkeys have found that even female monkeys show a preference for dolls over cars and male monkeys are the opposite (see Orenstein's excellent New York Times piece). However, that's not the full story. 

A recent paper by LoBue and DeLoache tested children from five months to seven years of age to determine if they always showed a pattern of color bias. Until they were two-and-a-half, both girls and boys actually preferred primary colors. Similarly, boys showed no avoidance of the color pink. However, once they reached around two-and-a-half, at the same time children begin to internalize gender roles and create their own gender schemas, then they started to show a difference in their feelings for pink. They learned from example that pink was for girls and blue for boys (see any color coded newborn nursery). 

Similarly, creating sets like Lego "Friends" just reinforces the stereotypes. There's no in-born love in girls for frilly and pink. There isn't even in nuturing. Male infants under twelve months have been found to prefer looking at baby dolls over more "manly" things like cars. Telling girls they can only be a few things and have to look pretty and trendy is cheating them of so many options in life.

Peggy Orenstein argues this point more eloquently than I can. I love her point that research also shows that boys and girls who play together at young ages are better able to maintain healthy social relationships and dating relationships as teens. Isn't that something we'd all want? Similarly, girls do play differently than boys. They are actually more into social groups. Why can't part of social interaction include building with original Legos or creating set pieces a la Star Wars or Harry Potter sets? Why does it have to be shopping and commercialism in that vein?

It doesn't.

Children learn their gender roles. I hope that SPARK Summit is successful in their campaign because I want young girls to have the ability to choose what they want to be. I don't want them to be hemmed in by pink or shopping mania. I want them to be able to play with boys too. Hell, I want them to be like that girl below because it's a sorely missed sight.

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1) Vanessa LoBue and Judy S. DeLoache - "Pretty in Pink: The Early Development of Gender-Stereotyped Colour Preferences."

2) Peggy Orenstein - "Should the World of Toys Be Gender Free?" (from The New York Times)

3) Nicola D. Ridgers, et al. - "Examining Children's Physical Activity and Play Behaviors During School Playtime Over Time."

Images are not propert of Legendary Women but the Lego corporation.