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New Legos make Barbie look like Betty Friedan

January 24, 2012 |  3:10 pm

Betty Friedan
Sometimes, despite our best efforts to avoid gender stereotypes with young children, an unseen force seems to take over. You give a toddler girl a toy truck and she uses it only to store her doll clothes. Her twin brother grabs it to use in his play construction project.

Or vice versa.

As Times reporter Shari Roan blogs, some parent and consumer groups are up in arms because of the new Lego line for girls. They claim that it reinforces gender stereotypes, and they have a point. Lego didn't just respond to the demand it saw for more brightly colored Legos with more realistic figures. Look at the commercials that go with the Lego Friends line, and what you see are a lot of pink and lavender, and girlie-girl Lego characters who do their interior decorating, run out for a party with the girls to bake and eat cupcakes -- after a stop at the salon. Worse is the continual audio backdrop of high-pitched chanting and giggling. These gals make Barbie look like Betty Friedan.

But there are girls who are going to love it -- and maybe boys. And there are parents who will say no, period, to a toy whose values are about decoration and primping as opposed to, say, saving the world, a common theme in the more traditional Lego sets. The part that puzzles me is how up in arms people can get when a company creates a toy that it has reason to think will sell. (There are actual petitions against the new line.) If girls' hearts yearn for this, if parents like it enough to shell out real money (and Legos are not cheap), who's to say what the proper gender role for someone else's daughter is? She might be the type who climbs trees, or braids her toy horses' manes with glitter, or both. As for claims that the slim bodies of the Lego gals will cause eating disorders -- would it somehow be better if they were chubby?

Certainly, it's not just about the demand; it's also about the marketing. And though, as I said, the commercial for the girl line is annoyingly 1950s in its gender approach, the bigger question will be whether Lego changes its generally gender-neutral advertising on its more (yes, I'll say it) engaging and interesting sets. A quick review of TV commercials on YouTube shows a fairly offputting series of ads based around the idea of a father and son going on Lego adventures together. The sounds are serious, no-nonsense, and so are the projects -- giant castles instead of little cafes. But more of the ads are studiously asexual. There's adventure galore, but if a human child is shown at all, it's in the form of a hand or arm propelling a flying car (or spaceship or ...) through the air.

A toy is one thing. How a child plays with it is another. Some kids might play tea party with a Star Wars set; others will reenact a boxing match with Mia and Stephanie, two of the Lego Friends.


Let the preschoolers play

Gender equity: Doing the math

Would a plastic-surgeon Lego set be OK?

--Karin Klein

Photo: Betty Friedan is seen in 1966 speaking about a national women's strike. Credit: Associated Press

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