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Leggo my Lego - March 21st, 2012

I used to have this awesome Lego set.

It sat on my bottom shelf for many happy years. But this story does not have a happy beginning. One Christmas morning in the early 1990s, something went terribly wrong.

Perhaps in the previous month of screaming at toy commercials I had forgotten to actually write a Christmas list. Perhaps I had misplaced my faith in the psychic powers of Santa Claus. But whatever happened, the present I opened on Christmas was not the one I wanted.

Knowing it would be a full year before I got another toy anywhere near as good, I drowned my sorrows in some hot cocoa and probably took down a gingerbread house.

By the time I remembered the Lego, the entire set had been put together by my nerdiest cousin.

Suddenly jealous of MY toy, I carried the whole thing into my room and started playing out of pure stubbornness.

There was much to be done in this little Lego universe. The first thing I did was depose their leader with a ritualistic beheading. Then I replaced him with an interim leader of my own choosing.

The set had some kind of vague underwater mining theme, the long-forgotten Aquaraiders. I’d never had a Lego set as big or complex as this. The ladyfig’s head had come from a windsurfing set whose accessories were an umbrella and a tea table.

Despite my pessimism, I soon discovered all sorts of wonders.

Yes, My Little Undersea Mine (TM) was not the idyllic paradise it first appeared to be. Soon a scout returned from a recon mission, and things took a turn for the worse.

And with that, Lego had made itself a lifelong fan. Hell, I bought a Lego VW Bus yesterday.

Which brings me to this:

By now, a lot of people have weighed in on the “Lego for Girls” thing better than me. But as a little girl who unknowingly played with “Boy Lego,” I just have a couple of observations about the new ‘Lego Friends.’

1) The minifigs look totally different and probably couldn’t actually be friends.

2) The pieces are a different color palette and wouldn’t mix that well with other sets.

3) Some of the sets have a lot of pieces, but where’s the room for creativity?

My point is this: There are no shortage of plastic, barely-poseable dress-up dolls aimed at young girls. But Lego always had the promise of letting you create something totally original using only what was in front of you.

Countless young girls will play with these “girls only” sets and not ever know what they’re missing.

And as a former sea captain and occasional shark whisperer, I’m glad I was a kid in 1993 and not today. Otherwise things may have turned out differently.

It’s probably the difference between “Best Friends 4 Life!” and “Lifelong Fan.” Just sayin.’

Follow the rest of my nonsense on Twitter. Or check out my upcoming video game here.

Edit: I just found out Mom kept my Lego. Here’s Captain Erin, back at the helm. And holding a knife.

38 Responses to “Leggo my Lego”

  1. Alex Says:

    I didn’t know about this. Now I am sad for girls :(

  2. Tim Says:

    Thanks for writing this. It does a much better job of articulating my problems with the new Lego Friends line than I could when I first found out about it.

  3. Ryan Henson Creighton Says:

    i think this is the most damning indictment against the new sets:

    http://teenymanolo.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/vintage-lego-advertisement-e1325657796488.png

    i bought “girl Lego” for my daughters, somewhat reluctantly, but it was the previous generation where the minifigs and pieces were all the same, but some of them were pink, and there were one or two ponies involved (exact same horse figurines as you find in the castle sets).

    You can make plans to keep your kids’ toys completely shopping- and vagina-free all you like … but when your in-laws load them up with Disney Princess bullshit on birthdays and Christmases despite your boycott, you realize how much you’re at the mercy of the way current society is determined to teach and condition little girls.

    - Ryan

  4. Ivy Says:

    Yeah, I know just what you mean. It really gets to me that someone gets to decide what’s ‘for girls’ and what isn’t. Kids are naturally curious. I got sick of hearing people argue that, “Well, girls just don’t like X”, when I’d think to myself, “but I like X! For the love of god, I can’t have been the only one!”

    So that’s where this comic came from. It’s not that Lego doesn’t offer a lot of neat ladyfigs in their ‘main’ sets. It’s that some people will buy “Girl Lego” for the little girls in their life, and those girls won’t get to experience anything else. Especially if their brothers have Lego from the ‘main’ sets – they look like different toys, and of course the kids will pick up on that. So the girls probably wouldn’t play with “boy” Lego even if it’s in the house. Sad!

  5. iWoo Says:

    Great comic… sad state of affairs! I actually started feeling like Lego was taking away originality and was discouraging creative play wayyy back when I was like, 12. Maybe this was early snobbery, maybe this was because my parents would -never- buy these sets that cost $120 for me.

    I had to be content with the $16 50-piece mini space rover set and the $20 pail of 1000 Mega Bloks. (Which are from Montreal!) However, this ratio of “filler” to the more unique pieces made for some pretty creative things. The inverse would have been disastrous, as you pointed out: you could only make a few variants of what the set was intended for.

    I still have confidence that my Lego skills are such that I could turn that beauty salon into a small intergalactic battleship with a terrible pastel palette, but it’s really sad that today, the people designing Lego’s new products just Don’t Get It.

  6. Epicness Says:

    My younger 8 year old cousin loves legos. Whenever she comes to my house I let her play with my old lego sets from when I was a kid. She ended up getting a girls lego for Christmas last year and she hated it! She threw away the ladyfigs and even saved up her money to buy a ‘real’ lego set to get the regular minifigs. I’m glad she hasn’t been corrupted with what’s for girls and what is for boys.

  7. Albert Meissner Says:

    Really great job, Erin. I loved the story, and totally agree with your message. I have 2 daughters, and they played with normal ‘boy’ legos all the time. They had hours of fun, bulding, imagining, laughing together… it was great. There is nothing that the ‘girl’ legos could offer that would have made those times any more fun for them. If anything, the ‘girl’ legos would have kept them in the stereotypical pond of ‘what little girls are supposed to be’ instead of allowing them to swim freely in the oceans of their own imaginations.

  8. Jack Everitt Says:

    Ha, this is so great!

    Side comment: My son (9.5yrs old) loved playing with Lego, but building the sets was boring; making things from scratch was cool. Lego seems to have completely abandoned creative play; almost every set is a licensed product that always feels like a model kit (i.e., it goes together one-way only).

    About a year ago my son discovered Minecraft (and yes, we went to MineCon). Ever since, he has stated that he’s done with Lego. To him, Minecraft is more fun in every way.

    Lego Friends just seems like Lego dumbed-down and Barbie-ized. So sad. And it’s not going to lead to girls becoming game designers, artists or programmers. Or even being more creative.

  9. Brendan Mauro Says:

    Hey Erin,

    First let me say I totally sympathize with your story and the stance you’ve taken. As someone who follows Lego pretty closely, though, I thought I might take a moment to play devil’s advocate.

    The issue that they’ve been fighting with for some time that has eventually led to this current line of sets is barrier to entry. Lego does a TON of user research and they consistently find that girls dislike the blocky form of the classic minifig (finding it harder to identify with) and, like it or not, tend to like pastel color palettes. You describe the problem yourself in the first part of your story; your acquiring of the undersea research station was a mistake! You never would have asked for it and initially completely rejected the idea of playing with it at all.

    Personally I would love for every girl to have your experience but I think it’s pretty rare. I have two nieces who typically won’t play with anything that’s not pink and I was thinking of buying them some Friends sets this year, my reasoning being that as long as they’re building they’d be benefiting from the creativity and spatial recognition skills that Lego does so well for (and at least there’s this set, right? http://shop.lego.com/en-US/Olivia-s-Invention-Workshop-3933). After reading about your experience, though, maybe I should just buy them a castle and a couple extra girl minifigs and see what happens…

  10. Kyra Says:

    I hated Lego ever since I got one of those sets where you can build a spaceship; the exact number of pieces are included, along with step-by-step instructions. WTF? What happened to the giant pail o’bricks that you mash together into a lifesize replica of your brother? Why do girls need pastels, what’s wrong with primary colours? Luckily, I have genetics now, no more plastic for me! >:)

    PS. http://www.thebricktestament.com/

  11. Corey Says:

    YAY! More comics please :)

    I was pretty lucky, I grew up with younger brothers who could be duped into believing my age entitled me to play with their gifts first. ;D It took a lot of Christmases and birthdays before I was able to convince my relatives I wanted Legos and video games too…

    Anyway, I’m glad you hit on the biggest issue I have with the “Friends” (and before that “Belville”) sets: its incompatibility with the main Lego line. I understand that there’s probably market research to support their design decision, but it seems so arbitrarily alienating. I feel like there’s still plenty of room to enhance the designs of the “ladyfigs” (heehee.. still love that word) while still letting them inhabit the same Lego universe as their male-oriented counterparts.

    With “Friends” and Legos proper, it sucks that you HAVE to choose one side and can’t mix-and-match to create awesome shit like an underwater samurai jewelry store. It’s saying “Boys, you play over here” and “Girls, these are YOUR toys” to a toy that’s so universally enjoyed… I dunno, to me that just seems pretty unfair.

  12. ObjT Says:

    Played with Lego as a (boy)kid too and even didn’t like “Playmobil” because it was too inflexible. Didn’t ever see the “Girls Lego” until now. Really enjoyed this post.

  13. Riccardo Landi (@R_McMurphy) Says:

    Everybody, please, don’t panic!
    My two kids (one boy and one girl) play with Lego daily and I can assure you that they play as we used to play (I was a kid in the 80s). The only difference is that now there’s much more choice. You can still buy brick buckets to build whatever you want, and construction sets are full of cool pieces to use as you like in your personal construction. There’s also a specific series called “Creator” designed so that you can build 3 different things with the same pieces, it’s a very effective way to show kids the real power of Lego. There’s also the possibility (thanks to internet) to buy any piece you want, one by one and finally the available colors for brick is 10 times what I had in the 80s.
    To my kids, I buy Lego every month, they have any kind of Lego sets from Ninjago, to Star Wars, Creator, City and, yes, Lego Friends. But guess what? They mix everything together and have fun. That’s it.

    Said that, I agree that “Lego for Girls” is a bad idea. Unnecessary idea, but it’s still Lego and we use the Lego Friends minifigures as characters like Barbie in Toy Story.

  14. Serendipity Says:

    To get around the issue of the limited range for girls, I purchased vintage Lego that did have some pink, but was more ‘creatable’than today’s offerings. My now nearly 12 YO girl saves her pocket money and buys Lego, she doesn’t realise its meant for boys! Go girl.

  15. Gunnar H Says:

    There’s a good explanation of the ethnographic and child research and market study work that led to this redesign here (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/lego-is-for-girls-12142011.html).

    It’s a bit of a difficult question. Old-style Lego is great, but most girls just weren’t buying it or playing with it. When is changing things you make to make them more marketable (giving people what they want) pandering, and when is it just being humble by listening to and designing for your audience?

  16. Jean-Loup Says:

    Is this the set? http://www.brickset.com/detail/?Set=6195-1

    Your sketch matches the photo somewhat so I’m guessing it is.

    I must say I’m pretty appalled by the whole idea of the “friends” series. I have a 3-year old which is perfectly happy to just get some bricks together and play to her heart content without the need for pinks and purples and lipstick and hot tubs. Seriously, is this how society thinks little girls should be or like Brenda says, what Lego thinks little girls identify with? (if so I wonder how they carry out their research…)

  17. HKUrban Says:

    I had that exact same lego set as a kid! Thanks for the nostalgia!

    It was weird though, as a kid, most of my legos ended up part of much smaller and less detailed creations. I’d make police cars and fire trucks out of about 4 blocks each and build cities to have epic disaster movie scenes

  18. Kaleidophonic Says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m a 30-something tom-boy who still plays with legos, and I have been ranting about these new ‘girls’ lego sets for a while now. Why can’t the people at Lego understand that boys and girls can play with the same sets? Why wouldn’t a girl want to play with the medieval castle set? Or a rocketship? I mean, come on. Its the same thing as the whole ‘pink princess’ phenomenon. I find the whole thing deeply troubling, and this kind of reinforcement of outmoded gender-norms will force many young women to repress vital aspects of themselves that don’t necessarily fit into the ‘female’ end of the gender spectrum. Wake up, Lego. You’d do better to just focus on creating cool models, rather than trying to market to some weird creepy idealized notion of ‘what girls like’.

    Oh and PS: I bought the VW van too. It is boss.

  19. Colleen (Kevin's wife) Says:

    Great comic! Fortunately, Kevin outgrew his geekiness! Most of it anyway :)

    This is my complaint about “Girl Lego”, and the themed Lego like Toy Story that have no room to build anything other than exactly what is on the box. Having an older brother, I grew up playing with Space Lego, but tended towards building houses rather than spaceships. I still became an engineer, even though I didn’t play with Lego the same way as boys.

    Our girls have Lego, and I had to explain to Kevin how most (pardon the generalization) girls play with Lego: they build a house, and then play with the house as is. They don’t destroy the house, but they may make renovations. They don’t crash a plane into it, and see if there were survivors. They just play with the house. Even the “Boy Lego” now is more difficult to be creative with. We’ve got two generic boxes of Lego (one pink, one blue), and the girls play with them equally.

    I still think Lego has a long way to go to make things less “Barbie” and more creative for girls. Thanks for addressing this issue!

  20. Chanti Says:

    Loved your comic! My daughter (now 5) started being interested in Lego about a year ago. I remember walking past the shelves thinking: All these themed Lego (harry potter, starwars, etc) but where is the BUILDING element of Lego??? About a month ago it was her fifth birthday and she got some of this friends Lego stuff. When I saw it, I though “Bleh” but it actually was okay when we started playing with it. I had bought her some boxes with building blocks and that helped. We made a house together, completely ignored the instructions of the friends lego and used it to build our house. And it was cool. My daughter is a very creative story teller. She liked the little dolls and suddenly they were being kidnapped and had all sorts of adventures. The icecream cup became a magical crystal that the bad guys wanted steal and we had a blast. Yes, Lego seems to be turning into playmobil a little bit and now you have to buy the building blocks seperately, but if you make an efford as a parent, the little dolls can still be used for fun and exciting adventures! ;) A parent can influence the message a toy is sending a child!

  21. phubans Says:

    A) I had that very same LEGO set on my shelf in the mid to late 90s. It was still assembled there, collecting dust when I left home in 2005. I think it’s been boxed up and put away by my folks back home now.

    B) I recently got back into LEGO after a 13 year hiatus. I’ve spent about $400+ on LEGO in the past month already. I’ve temporarily stopped investing in this habit so I don’t go broke.

    C) LEGO in general has changed pretty dramatically in the past 20 years. They’re more focused on licensed franchises more than anything right now. There seems to be a general dumbing-down that took place for a time with bigger pieces and unique pieces that are exclusive to their respective sets, but LEGO seems to have become aware of this and is phasing it out. The other minor gripe I have is that they now use a lot of sticker instead of printed pieces.

    D) You’re right; the Friends line is extremely patronizing to girls. My girlfriend isn’t as crazy about LEGO as I am, but she’s just as interested in the big modular building sets like the Pet Shop, Green Grocer, etc. We’re planning on collecting & building those together. I think if LEGO wanted to appeal to all sexes and ages, they should create a modular LEGO Dollhouse line. It wouldn’t have to be excessively girly; just different themed rooms like bedrooms, living rooms, dens, kitchens, etc, that you could build and arrange any way you like. Problem solved!

  22. Nik Says:

    I had the same LEGO set as well! My second favourite, just behind the moon-monorail type one. I didn’t even know about this LEGO for girls thing until just now. I’m glad I still have some old brick tubs to give my kids in the future (the far, far future).

  23. Mom Says:

    I love this! Right down to the music box balerina bear and the rainbow wallpaper. That’s my nostalgia. As for the LEGO discussion – also good. I understand that the four open bins of LEGO on the ping pong table is your research lab and will leave it untouched. :)

  24. Patricia(Kevin's mom & Erin's auntie) Says:

    Oh no! I. Just bought two Friends sets for my granddaughters’ birthdays( Kevin & Colleen’s girls.) What have I done??? But when the little one comments on all the beautiful high heels in store windows and they both wear mostly dresses – what’s granny to do?

  25. elisa Says:

    As a kid, the legos were always for boys. Whenever we visited someone with kids (always boys for some reason), I got left in the family room with the toys and always went for the legos. It wasn’t until I had a son that I got all the legos and lego sets I could play with. I would have done the same had I had a daughter, and I would have gotten the same sets. Nothing wrong with a girl imagining she is an astronaut, train person, cargo ship or dock worker, or pirate. The kits never needed to change, only people (parents) had to stop stero-typing the toys. I still wish I could be a pirate!

  26. Heather Says:

    I have all kinds of Barbies, the Dreamhouse, and clothes that were hand-sewn for those Barbies by an aunt’s friend. Wedding dresses to sleeping bags, you name it. I also have an insane collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls (almost 20 or so different ones) and a huge house that goes with them. My mom saved every toy I ever had and I have now passed the, down to my daughters, ages 2.5 and 4.5.

    I also have the Lego Pirate Ship collection, complete with the Skull’s Eye Schooner. Ah, the battles they would have! My little brother was NOT allowed to play with it and I spent my own money on it, well past when I was old enough not to play with Legos anymore. The pieces are small, so I’m saving that until they are a bit older so they don’t choke/loss the pieces/wreck “my stuff”. I wanted the castle ones too, but had to dedicate my money to one series.

    Girls are too “girly and precious and nice” to have fun playing with Legos and just want to have tea parties and play with doll houses is a load of BS. Perhaps they don’t play with Legos because every relative within gift giving distance thinks they need ANOTHER freaking doll from ages birth to 10. They don’t.

  27. Amy Says:

    I always wanted the castle Lego sets when I was younger, but had to be content with the regular blocks because they were cheaper. Most of the new sets lack creativity. Of corse girls are going to like pink better if they’re brainwashed to. Frankly, I always hated pink and felt sorry for girls who liked it. I’ve always hated stereotyping and being slotted into a category. And now I’m an electronic engineer.

  28. Amy in TX Says:

    My girls have a lot of Legos, including several of the new Lego Friends sets, and they love all of them. Voldemort works at the Krusty Krab and has gotten his head grilled at the home of the Lego Friends. The Friends are frequently attacked by a Lego acramantula (giant Harry Potter tarantula) on their way to work at the Fashion Design Studio, where they design some pretty, er, creative fashions. Point being, with the input of imagination, any Lego set can be used creatively. I haven’t found them to be offensive or limiting.

  29. Julie Says:

    I have a 10-yo boy and a 7-yo girl. She can hold her own in a light saber battle with any boy in the neighborhood yet she’s an avid fan of all things pink. This girl loves Legos. But she doesn’t give a fig about the Star Wars sets, or the City sets, or the Harry Potter sets, or any of the other sets that Lego markets to boys. She plays with her (Lego-obsessed) brother’s disassembled sets and loves them but she would never ask for one of those themed sets. She got the basic bin of bricks and wanted to add some of the special extras and figures that only come in sets. Her Lego options were quite limited. Even the 3-in-1 sets (log cabin, lighthouse) don’t have many accessories. She now has most of the Friends sets and couldn’t be happier. They’ve all been disassembled and rebuilt in combination with other sets into fantastical creations. I think the real problem is that any one themed set is not that versatile in and of itself. But once you start collecting the sets, as anyone who plays with them is want to do, the combinations come alive. Boy-themed or girl-themed, it’s all about the entry into the world of Legos.

  30. andrea Says:

    there’s a reason that girls don’t buy Lego: the period during which they would be likely to become addicted (say, between ages 4 and 8) is the period when everybody in their lives is buying them Barbie dolls, or whatever the most recent redaction is on the fashion doll theme. whoever invented Bratz should have been taken out back and shot. my niece, who is now 10, started playing with Lego before she could read, and has progressed on to things like robotics.

  31. andrea Says:

    typo? should say “between 4 and 10.”

  32. Kasper K. Says:

    Lol, i had the exact same Lego set when i was a kid. Actually it’s still in my parents basement. Funny. :D . Interesting read. :)

  33. Minecraft Says:

    Leego :) It’s great fun, but I think they’re too expensive.

  34. Lego Politie Says:

    Great comic. Keep ‘em coming. Lego rocks!

  35. What I was looking at last year – Rethinking Markets Says:

    [...] 9. Girl Legos [...]

  36. Ryan Says:

    My 6yo daughter has quite a collection of “girl Legos,” mostly given to her by friends and family members. She also has my entire (read: “thousands of bricks”) collection of space and pirate legos from the mid-late 80’s. So far, she’s had no problem mixing and matching the “girl Legos” and the “boy Legos” to fit whatever scenario her imagination dreams up. In fact, I think I’m probably the most at risk of mental anguish given that there are now pastel bricks mixed in with my pristine Blacktron sets (the horror!).

  37. Richard Says:

    Friends is an addition to the broader Lego ecosystem that was created after a whole lot of research into why girls weren’t playing with Lego and how to attract them to the ecosystem. It’s more accessible to some (parents and kids) and brings Lego into houses that it wouldn’t otherwise have been in. I reckon that’s a great thing!

    As for the sets being somehow “incompatible” with regular Lego… try this creation:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/richard_jones/8547856680/in/set-72157631884631721

    Lego rocks!

  38. Joel Says:

    Echoing the last few comments, a (female) friend of mine works for Lego, and she said that despite all the comments about dumbing down Lego for girls, they did a ton of research to try to remedy the fact that the vast majority of Lego users were boys. The new “girl” Lego is 100% compatible with “boy” Lego. It just adds colors, figures, etc. to broaden its appeal to girls who weren’t drawn to the existing line. And it’s working. Many more girls are now playing with Lego. If “girl” Lego is the gateway drug that gets them into it, I think it’s great.