And, for what it’s worth, I adored Polly Pocket as a kid—not, that I’m aware of, because it was made “for girls,” but because the toys were portable, ultra-detailed little worlds that offered a simultaneously self-contained and totally open-ended universe for storytelling. I loved Playmobil for similar reasons. But I never really got into Legos. Maybe I would have loved Lego Friends if they’d been around in the 1980s.
To me, the problem with Lego Friends, if there is one, seems to be in the marketing more than the toys themselves—but the trouble is that the messaging is in many ways inextricable from the product. If Lego wants to convey the idea that any kid can play with any of its products, for example, it’s strange that Friends are found on the Lego website under a subhead “Girls,” the implication being that the rest of the site is not for girls. (And that girls themselves are in a subcategory of children.)
Although Target last year announced it would stop selling toys in designated “boys” and “girls” sections, many other stores and websites still organize products this way. “I went to a store and saw legos in two sections,” Charlotte, the 7-year-old Lego fan, wrote in her letter to the company. “The girls pink and the boys blue.”
“It’s not necessarily the reality we like,” said McNally, the Lego spokesman. “But when you’re talking about toys you’re always talking about the difference between getting the consumer interested and engaging the shopper, who actually brings the item into the home. So what kids are willing to see as for girls, or for boys, or both—shoppers look at it differently.”
Lego hasn’t been able to shake the perception that original Legos are for boys. (Arguably, it really hasn’t tried.) Friends, not surprisingly, hasn’t helped. “When you talk to moms in particular, they say, ‘I just wouldn’t even think to get Lego for my daughter,’” McNally told me. “The reality is that for them to even know that it’s available, you should put it in the girl aisle because that’s where they go.”
At the end of the day, Lego is just trying to sell products that kids want. They may be philosophically all-inclusive, but marketing to girls and boys separately is pretty good business sense, too. If girls suddenly love your products as much as boys do, your sales ostensibly double.
And anyway, adults are often the ones telling kids what they should like. Boys, it turns out, get more negative feedback for perceived cross-gender play, like feeding dolls, than girls do, according to that 2003 study. Its authors worked with 30 children—most of them white and from middle-class families—and had them explore a playroom that had about the same number of toys that would be stereotyped as masculine, feminine, or gender neutral. The room contained a kitchen set, a miniature farm, a toy house, dress-up clothes, blocks, crayons, dolls, puzzles, a plastic phone, a shape sorter, and so on. Children were instructed to play with whatever toy they wanted, and each child’s playing was videotaped for later analysis.
To the researchers’ surprise, the girls didn’t predominantly play with female-stereotyped toys. Half of the top 10 favorites among girls were considered “neutral toys,” meaning these were the objects that kept the girls’s interest longest. The boys acted more in accordance with what the researchers had anticipated, playing with male-stereotyped toys about half of the time. Among all the kids, the toys that were stereotyped as “feminine,” including a pretend kitchenette and the doll areas, elicited more complex forms of play.