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Monday, 23 January 2012 02:57

Exploring Gender: The LEGO Controversy

Written by  Cael



Recently, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the announcement of a product launch for LEGO for a line of toys targeted specifically at girls called LEGO Friends. Traditionally, LEGO has made few steps into gender-based marketing and when it has, those products have been short-lived. I wanted to look more thoroughly over the products and see how they line up with the current binary displayed in children’s toys.

Toys on the most basic level are learning tools. They create an opening into the world of imagination, provide an entrance into learning, and teach children how to interact with the world. They represent opportunities at a very young age to give children the knowledge they need for the future. The gender-based marketing of toys, instead of allowing children the opportunity to explore their own interests, pushes them even earlier into the boxes society builds for us. They learn through these tactics that only boys are supposed to like monsters and superheroes and army men while girls are only supposed to like dolls and cooking sets and princesses.

The great thing about LEGOs is their ability to foster a child’s drive to create. They develop logical thinking with their step-by-step processes, teach the basics of structure, and encourage persistence to reach a set goal. All of these things lead to LEGO’s leading status in the toy industry, which is reflected in its profit margins over the past couple of years. A privately owned Danish company, LEGO even has a film slated for release in 2014. Hits such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Pirates of the Caribbean continued to drive revenue despite the downturn of the market (“Silver Screen…”). So if it is obviously not broken, why try to fix it with the roll out of this new product?

The company conducted a study to determine what girls wanted in a toy so they could gear their brand more towards girls, the perception being that the brand was exclusively marketed toward boys. The study found boys seek imaginative toys which allow them to create and girls want toys based in reality so they can place themselves within the world of their toys (O’Brien). Based on the results of this study, LEGO developed a line which they believed would make girls happier with their products. I could not find much information on the study itself, which would have allowed a more comprehensive look into the reasoning behind LEGO’s decision. Knowledge of the constraints of the study, such as how old the girls were, from what section of society they were selected, and the environment in which their play was studied all pertain to the results received and also how those results should be interpreted.

Based on the information I was able to gather and taking that little information at face value, the study confirms the early gendering of children. There are innate differences between the sexes, but the differences found in this study, are they learned or natural? How a child plays is a learned response derived from each situation with toys which is encountered. Each interaction, each different toy, each time an adult redirects the way a child plays with a toy molds the way a child perceives play. These perceptions, then, create the differences seen in the study.

So on to the creation of the new product line. LEGO Friends are remodeled versions of our old LEGO characters. They are more lifelike, and generally look like teenagers. The figures themselves are not particularly troubling. For the most part they look like average girls, though do not represent a cross-section of all girls, just like all modern dolls and figures. The figures come with different settings, which are built from simple LEGOs. From the pictures I have seen, these settings are built very simply, with very few pieces, directing attention away from the building for which LEGO is known. Since construction provides the main outlet for creativity and learning with LEGOs, creating a line marketed towards girls which limits that beneficial interaction implies girls are incapable of gaining those benefits, that they can be somehow satisfied with less. Why should this line be so simple in comparison to the usual LEGO kits?

Another thing to consider when taking a look at the development of the line is the actual settings in which the figures are placed. The majority of these are stereotypical, such as the hot tub, the beautician, the baker. One set was of a girl building a robot, which does break away from gender norms, but she is then labeled the smart girl, implying a certain standard for girls who would want to make robots.

Overall, I believe the great thing over the years about LEGO has been their exclusion from gender-based marketing, allowing children to agree completely on one of the only toys which does not help to broaden the gap between boys and girls at a young age. Entering into this form of marketing will limit this broad appeal, which I believe has been a key to the company’s success beyond recent intelligent choices in product development such as Harry Potter. LEGO Friends, besides seeming to be an unnecessary addition to a brand which has not been struggling, reinforces stereotypes and constrains the potential for learning and creativity all children deserve to explore with their toys.

Below is a list of credited sources and links to more information.

O’Brien, Chris. “New Legos aimed at girls raise questions about gender and play.” Mercury News. 16 Jan. 2012. Electronic.

“Silver Screen Makes Lego a Hit With Christmas Shoppers, Says” Market Watch. 19 Dec. 2011. Electronic.


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