“Is that for me? Cool!”
That was the response from my 8-year-old after I brought home the LEGO Friends Heartlake Vet set I won in an office raffle. There were no comments about the pastel colors, flowers, butterflies, stars, hearts, or even the characters on the box. The more than 300 pieces quickly joined hundreds of their little plastic friends that were already littering my dining room table. The Friends line, which consists of 23 sets that follow the story of five tweens living in make-believe Heartlake City, is targeted at girls ages 6–12. My child is a boy.
In contrast to his reaction, the launch of LEGO Friends last December was met with skepticism, disappointment, and frustration as a gender-based marketing ploy. LEGOs, like many other construction-based toys that are marketed to boys, are widely recognized as foundational tools for developing spatial skills and the ability to mentally construct three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional images. Spatial visualization is important to later success in engineering and other scientific fields. While boys tend to outperform girls in cognitive tests of visual and spatial abilities as early as preschool, our 2010 research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics points out that girls’ success can be cultivated with practice and simple training.
This is where LEGO Friends misses the mark. Its simplified construction process, along with its emphasis on the themes of caregiving, playing dress-up, shopping, baking, and other stereotypically girly activities dumbs down the accomplishment of following instructions to master a task. Even the human minifigures in the Friends set are more distinguished by feminine physical appearance — they’re taller, curvier, and more fashionable and doll-like than traditional LEGO characters — than they are by any life or career potential.
The initial thrill of any new LEGO set for my son has always come from putting it together by himself. The afterglow of that achievement generally wears thin within a few weeks, though, and then those same sets mesh into a hodgepodge of other creations. In this case, the veterinary clinic has since been destroyed by a rampaging Hulk, Thor, and other Marvel Avengers in an epic battle against the super villain Loki.
My son’s creativity and enjoyment were not restricted by the gender limitations of the product. And after the millions of dollars that were already spent to market and sell these toys, I’ll assume that LEGO Friends aren’t going away any time soon. I just hope that moving forward, Heartlake City lives up to what LEGOs for girls can really be.