Legos remain one of the world's most popular and most beloved toys, and for more than 60 years, children of all ages have played with the plastic bricks. But starting January 1, a new line of Legos called Lego Friends will appear on store shelves, introducing what Lego's CEO calls "the most significant strategic launch we’ve done in a decade."
From all appearances, the new product line is aimed directly at girls, a huge shift from their current product offerings.
“They might as well have a No Girls Allowed sign,” says author Peggy Orenstein in the BusinessWeek article about the new Lego products. Orenstein wrote Cinderella Ate My Daughter, about the toy industry's leveraging young girls' fascination with princesses.
Toy store shelves clearly reflect Lego's strategy, aiming products squarely at boys. Sure, girls play with the Ninjago, Alien Conquest, or Star Wars sets, but the themes all revolve around battles, no matter what the brick-building potentials might be.
Those themed sets have been wildly successful, and since Lego started building these types of sets in the mid-2000s (often associated with movie brands like Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean), Lego's revenue has soared. The company topped $1 billion in sales for the first time last year, according to NPR.
So with the new Lego Friends product line, the company wants to "reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children," Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp told Business Week.
It's not the first time that Lego has created products to appeal specifically to girls, most notably with the failed Belleville line in the mid-1990s. Lego Friends addresses many of the problems with the Belleville sets, which contained larger Lego figures to play with that were incompatible with other "regular" Legos.
The new Lego Friends are slightly taller than the traditional Lego mini-figures, but they do "fit" with other Lego pieces and the new figures can hold any Lego accessory. The Lego Friends are less blocky, more curvy than Lego mini-figures. (Yes, curvy.) Unlike the mini-figures, the new Lego Friends aren't yellow; their skin is flesh-colored and represent nine different nationalities. Lego Friends have large eyes, a plastic bump for a nose, a big smile. They're more doll-like, and much like the American Girls line of dolls, several of the characters will have names and backstories: Mia loves animals, Emma has a beauty shop, Andrea loves to make music, Stephanie's the "social girl," and Olivia is an inventor.
Lego says that the new line of toys has been developed after years of anthropological research into how girls play. Girls role-play more, says Lego, and they tend to project themselves more onto the figures they play with (one of the reasons, according to the company, that girls tend not to like the blocky, yellow-faced mini-figures).
But one of the wonderful things about Lego has long been that the toy's imaginative game-play also involves engineering and design. And as the work that Lego Education makes clear, the toy has also become an entry point for students to explore STEM subjects and to transfer their brick-building skills to robot-building ones. (See story about the Khan Academy's summer camp featuring sumo wrestling with Lego Mindstorms NXT robots.)
The broader question here is whether Lego Friends encourage more girls to engineer and tinker, or does it just reinforce some of the stereotypes that already exist -- on the toy aisle as elsewhere: boys build Legos, girls play with dolls.