Earlier this year, Lego released a “Lego Friends” series that would widen the plastic blocks’ appeal to girls. Pundits bemoaned the range’s perpetuation of stale gender stereotypes, questioning whether it was really necessary to replace the traditional boxy Lego figures with curvy teenage girls that hang out in beauty parlours and cafes. Despite the controversy, Lego’s sales have increased 24 per cent year-on-year and “Lego Friends” have proved a success.
This is unsurprising considering the amount of market research that went into the range. Lego spent four years analysing girls’ playing preferences. According to Businessweek, the company found that girls paid more attention to things like aesthetics, level of detail, and role-play (this last point justifies the “Ladyfig” innovation – girls see the figurines as avatars, and are therefore, allegedly, more likely to see themselves reflected in a less angular piece of plastic). Furthermore, they found that although girls enjoyed building as much as boys, they did so in different way; while males enjoyed the more “linear” process of copying what is on the box as quickly as possible, females preferred “stopping along the way” for story telling and rearranging pieces.
The study confirms that boys and girls, at least broadly, play differently. But I suspect that the range’s success is less tied with this than with the simple fact that Lego Friends have made it more socially acceptable for girls to ask for Legos. The truth is, the brand has always done its best to fit squarely in the boys’ aisle of Toy’R’Us – since 1966, the Lego has been selling gas stations, trains and cars. Its recent makeover (side note - makeovers happen to be one of Emma’s [a Lego Friend] favourite hobbies) has made it possible for the brand to compete alongside dolls and kitchen sets. The difference between the Star Wars series and Lego Friends is, basically, a matter of packaging. But at an age where – however artificially - gender divides are at their most blatant (everyone knows that six year old boys have cooties and are to be derided for it), neither boys nor girls want to be seen wandering down each other’s aisles. Lego can't be held to blame for effectively doubling its demographic, and it is unequivocally a good thing that little girls can enjoy building blocks without feeling like a silly boy.
Or maybe kids don't actually care about these things and it's adults that find it easier to narrow their options when choosing presents.
In any case, it’s sad that even toys are a partisan affair.