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Gender Controversy Stacks Up Against 'Lego Friends'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk with one of the stars of the new movie, "Joyful Noise," country music legend Dolly Parton. She stars with Queen Latifah. We'll hear what kind of mayhem they've cooked up in a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a closer look at a story that's causing a commotion in the toy world. Recently, the toy company, Lego, launched a new line of its building block sets called Lego Friends. In many ways, it's the same as the plastic block sets that are in toy boxes and covering playroom floors all over the country - all over the world, in fact.

But there are some differences, including a collection of female figurines and - yes - there is plenty of pink because the new Lego toys are designed for girls. Here's a clip of an ad promoting the new line.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: New Lego Friends. Welcome to beautiful Heartlake City. I'm Stephanie. I'm going to a party at the new cafe with my friend Olivia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's me. I just finished decorating my house. Time to chill with the girls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: At the beauty shop, Emma is styled and ready to go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: This is going to be so much fun.

MARTIN: Now, some are applauding Lego's effort to reach girls, but others find it off-putting and even offensive. A petition posted on Change.org is asking Lego to stop distinguishing between block sets for girls and boys and adopt what they call a more gender neutral approach to marketing.

I'm joined now by the co-sponsor of one of those petitions, freelance writer Bailey Shoemaker Richards. Thanks so much for joining us.

BAILEY SHOEMAKER RICHARDS: Hi, Michel. Thank you so much for having me on.

MARTIN: What are you objecting to, exactly?

RICHARDS: Well, the main problem with the new Friends line is not that Lego is trying to reach out to girls after 15 to 20 years of marketing only to boys. It's more the way they're going about it. If you - you know, you just heard this ad and it's very focused on hanging out, on appearance, on beauty shops, and it's a very narrow and limiting sort of idea of what girlhood Lego experience should be.

MARTIN: Now, Lego argues that these new toys are the result of four years of research into how to make its toys more appealing to girls and, if this is what girls are saying that they want, what's so terrible?

RICHARDS: Well, I think part of the problem with Lego's marketing is that it's very market research based. I mean, they've looked at what is going to sell to girls, so when you market pink princesses and beauty to girls from the time they're infants, by the time they're in Lego's target market for this line, which is about five and up, they're going to associate pink, pretty, you know, this very specific gender role with what they think they're supposed to be playing with. It's all they've been marketed their entire lives, so of course, that's what Lego's marketing research is going to find.

The problem that we have with that is that it doesn't really mesh with Lego's core values in their mission statement about wanting to create innovative products that help kids develop creativity. I mean, this fails that on all counts.

All they've done is sort of throw in with Barbie and Bratz and that sort of very, very narrow stereotypical type of marketing.

MARTIN: I mean, isn't it their job to sell toys?

RICHARDS: Absolutely. But...

MARTIN: So why do they have any broader responsibility?

RICHARDS: Well, I mean, they themselves say they want to have that broader responsibility in their core mission and vision statement. You know, they want to encourage creativity and innovation, but you know, they're absolutely failing to do that with this toy line.

I'm sure it'll sell to girls who want that type of line, but I just feel like, if this is the only option they're going to offer to girls, they're really failing their market.

MARTIN: What about on the parents' side? I mean, just like, as a parent, it's your job to keep your 3-year-olds from swallowing the blocks. You know, isn't it your choice what you buy your daughter or your son, for that matter? I mean, why couldn't you equally buy, you know, a crane set for your daughter and then - whatever - a castle for your son?

RICHARDS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you know, no one is saying parents are forbidden from buying Legos Star Wars for their daughters. It's more just the marketing. You know, parenting doesn't exist in a vacuum. Girls who see Legos marketed directed to them are going to be more likely to want that, as opposed to wanting to branch out into the larger Lego experience as a whole.

Part of, you know, what Lego has done is sort of create what we call pink ghetto for girls with this. They've got the Lego Club Magazine, which my younger brother gets, but now they've got the Lego Club girl magazine and it's very significantly different from the original Lego Club Magazine.

And I think, to me, the most disheartening difference in this is how they're expecting girls to interact with Lego. The Lego Club Magazine has build instructions. It has storylines that are, you know, very adventure and activity-based.

The Lego Club girl magazine very noticeably lacks any build instructions and the storylines are very domestic. They're very limited. It's the characters eating and partying and looking for a lost puppy, as opposed to going on these big adventures that they're selling to boys.

MARTIN: And why don't they have build instructions?

RICHARDS: I don't know. That, it just absolutely baffles me that they're...

MARTIN: Well, you know, parents everywhere are going to be burning those, so but...

RICHARDS: Yeah, I mean I just don't know why you would, you know, the whole point of Lego is to build so I don't understand why they wouldn't include that in something they're directing at girls.

MARTIN: But forgive me, though. I have to ask this question. I apologize if it's rude, but you don't have any children, if I understand that right.

RICHARDS: No, I do not.


MARTIN: So why would Lego - and I'm sure you're the cool aunt, but why would Lego or another parent for that matter - credit this? I mean I think a lot of parents say, you know what, Legos are good for building spatial relationship skills, math skills, logic and, you know, all those things. So if this is what gets girls to build, want to build things what's so terrible? Just as like adventure books, a lot of parents don't like adventure books because it's just, you know, way too much sword play or bombs blowing up or whatever, if that's what gets it gets for sports books, if that's what he gets to get boys to read why not? Why wouldn't that be a reasonable answer?

RICHARDS: Well, I think part of the problem and a lot of parents have signed our petition, which has almost 48,000 signatures as of this morning, you know, part of the problem is not that it's reaching out to girls, again. It's just the way that it's doing it. It's extremely limiting. The sets - we've talked to some people who work in toy stores who actually their job is to set up the display sets and they said the Lego Friends line is much more simplistic than lines aimed at other kids in the same age bracket. It's not as innovative as we would expect.


RICHARDS: You know, if they do want to girls develop this is really not I think the way to do it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, Bailey, hold on there. If you have an opinion either way about the new Lego Friends toys, we'd like to hear from you. To tell us more, you could call our Comment line at 202-842-3522 or visit us online @NPR.org/TELL ME MORE. Please remember to leave us your name. You can also find us on Twitter. Just look for TELL ME MORE NPR.

Bailey, this is obviously very interesting. We'll let you know what our listeners have to say about this.

Bailey Shoemaker Richards is a freelance writer and co-sponsor of the petition she just told you about criticizing Lego's new toys for girls. And she was with us from Ohio Public Radio in Columbus. Bailey, thank you.

RICHARDS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.