ONCE, NO toy seemed more universal than a primary-color set of plastic Legos. This is no longer the case. The Danish building blocks have, in recent years, become a haven for boys, with kits themed to ninjas, aliens, and Star Wars. Now, Lego is poised to release a new line of blocks specifically for girls, which fits every stereotype you might expect. The “Lego Friends’’ figurines have skirts, live in a place called Heartlake City, and go to a hair salon and a horse academy.
The backlash has been fierce: A flood of angry blog entries and posts on the company Facebook page, demanding to know why Lego can’t push a unisex toy instead. The answer, from the company’s standpoint, is that Lego needs to make money. Boy-specific kits saved the company’s fortunes a few years ago, after sales of unisex Legos faltered. In a Bloomberg Businessweek article, Lego executives explained that they are trying to regain a foothold in the girl market - and that research has taught them that girls want beauty with their play.
That may be true, but it points to a problem that’s larger than Lego itself. In the big-box stores where most toys are sold, boys’ and girls’ toys are often segregated into separate aisles: war toys and model spaceships for boys, baby dolls and craft kits for girls. Surely, there’s more crossover potential than that - boys who are budding fashionistas, girls who are budding engineers - but the toys reinforce more predictable patterns of behavior. At what point do those products drive kids’ ideas about themselves, and how they ought to play?
This is an important question, because toys encourage skills that kids will use throughout their lives, and different toys encourage different skills. Recent research from Purdue University found that the toys most likely to develop children’s physical, cognitive, and artistic skills are often categorized as masculine, while feminine toys tend to focus on physical attractiveness and domestic skills. It’s possible that Lego Friends could bridge that gap, inviting girls who lack an interest in Star Wars weaponry to still play with toys that build interest in math, engineering, and science. That will depend on what the new kits encourage girls to do. If it’s merely to play hair salon, then Lego is serving nothing but a stereotype. If it’s to build a hair salon, with complex architecture - well, maybe everyone will win.