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Your LEGO Gender Bias is Backwards

I grew up loving LEGO and am now a practicing architect with two young daughters. That means I am constantly being asked about LEGO Friends—or being sent various commentary on it.

Heartlake Hot Air Balloon buildThere have been attempts at creating “girl” LEGO a number of times: in 1971, 1991, and 1997. Each of those was a failure. While the 1991-97 Paradisa sets probably failed due to poor marketing and crummy set design, the other attempts just didn’t seem to be compatible enough with the primary lines of LEGO. It was obvious that they were by LEGO but not of LEGO. In 2012, with the introduction of LEGO Friends, The Lego Group finally figured out how to bridge the gender gap. I think this will be a permanent addition to the world of LEGO. Or as permanent as any LEGO theme ever is. It’ll survive exactly because it fixes the previous failures. The sets are as good/varied/complex as any other LEGO theme geared at a similar age group, and the pieces integrate perfectly with all the other themes.

I think most people who condemn LEGO Friends haven’t actually been exposed to them. Growing up my brothers and I built endless LEGO cities—buried somewhere at my parents’ house is great photo documentation which would be perfect for this post. If we wanted to build the cities we built in the 1980s and early 1990s with current LEGO sets, as boys we’d have to get over our fears and buy sets with pink and purple—or exclusively buy extremely expensive Creator sets (which look amazing, but are beyond expensive). The LEGO City theme in 2015 is primarily various rescue groups (police, firefighters, swamp police, coast guard, arctic teams…) and a few construction trucks. Not the town sets we bought as children. Furthermore, we always wanted to build extensive natural landscapes (who doesn’t want a city with trees and terrain), but couldn’t because we lacked the right kind of pieces. LEGO Friends has all the solutions right now.

In many ways the LEGO Friends sets are more comparable to the types of town sets available in the 1980s. One only needs to look at the Holy Grail of 1980s LEGO town sets and its grotesque descendants to get a sense of this. The greatest and most iconic 1980s town set was Main Street. When my brothers and I built this, it always felt like the heart of the town. It was the center and everything else—police stations, hospitals, various high rises we designed, other shops—grew from it. In 2015, Main Street has two primary descendants: Town Square and Heartlake Shopping Mall. There’s something amazing about the evolution of these three sets. Main Street is a classic small town main street. Town Square has no sense of place. Heartlake Shopping Mall is clearly some sort of warm climate suburban fake town center. A LEGO person would live near Main Street, pass through Town Square, and spend the day at Heartlake Shopping Mall. If that isn’t a chilling reflection of how our culture has changed in the past thirty years, I’m not sure what is.

Town Square has some great aspects, but the whole seems lesser than the sum of its parts. Each bit seems like a worthwhile set, but together they don’t make anything special. The statue is killer. And the bus and crane are cool. But the buildings seem a bit lacking. Perhaps it is fitting that the theme is now LEGO City, not LEGO Town. The Town Square isn’t so much the center of a town, but just some random bits of a much larger, alienating city.

Heartlake Shopping Mall, while the ugliest of the three, is arguably the truer spiritual descendant of Main Street. The set feels like a unified whole. One could imagine actual engagement with the buildings or having all the pieces be the backdrop for some larger cultural event or city-life imaginative play. Interestingly many of the other LEGO Friends sets allow one to expand the New Urbanism suggested by Heartlake Shopping Mall. Combining Town Square with the other LEGO City sets would result in armies of police chasing bad guys into nearby swamps. Seriously. Perhaps an accurate reflection of modern society, but not one about creating the built environment. New Urbanism isn’t everyone’s favorite city-planning development (and LEGO choosing that over other ways to depict modern cities is a fascinating can of worms), but it does represent a reality that will be more understood by young LEGO builders than the tiny store front car dealership of long lost Main Street.

Steampunklake Hot Air Balloon

Of course the LEGO Friends sets aren’t perfect, but what LEGO sets these days are?

To condemn the current line of girl-focused LEGO Sets like this comic does, is to succumb to the very bias it’s trying to over come. Too many people railing against these girl themed sets make a fatal mistake in the quest for equality: assuming that some LEGO sets are worse because they are “girly”, that LEGO doesn’t need to evolve, that there is an appropriate version of LEGO and a bastardized version that attempts to cater to some ‘other’. LEGO are great for every child, regardless of gender. But that also means LEGO should be available in all varieties and colors. If it’s okay to have extreme boy sets, then overtly girly ones are okay too. We need pink and purple bricks as much as we need blue and yellow ones. If a box of pastel LEGO bricks gets a new group of children interested in LEGO, that’s fantastic. Having sets with more animals and things like vet clinics, jungle rescue centers, and princesses is great. It adds diversity and they are more appealing to some kids than others. Just like not every girl growing up is into pets and princesses and pink, many are. And that’s okay. Many now enjoy LEGO more because there are choices for them.

Look back at Heartlake Shopping Mall and Town Square. Girls have the opportunity to imagine what a DJ would do. Boys on the other hand can drive a bus. We can pick apart all the horrible gender stereotyping in each set and across LEGO as a whole (there’s a ton), but there’s also hints of much more progressiveness in the LEGO Friends sets than the other ones. It seems a safe bet that the set that replaces Heartlake Shopping Mall in a few years will be a better all around set that maintains the spirit of Main Street (each year of LEGO Friends sets appears to be getting less stereotypical and of higher quality). The Town Square of a few years hence will probably devolve into police and firemen at a construction site.

This article is fabulous and covers the arguments surrounding LEGO Friends extremely well (plus it discusses on the overall genderization of LEGO throughout the years). If the evolution of LEGO and its relationship to gender is of any interest to you, then the article by is a must read (I’m all on board for his final recommendations, well points 2, 3 ,4, & 6). And please read his follow up post that compares LEGO Friends to Mega Bloks Barbie. In the second article he shows how much the theme evolved in its first year, among other interesting observations. I will say I have one issue with his analysis, which revolves around the primacy of the minifigure. Claiming the LEGO Friends minidoll is un-LEGO and should be banished because it is different and dilutes the brand feels a bit like the classic lament about MTV not playing videos anymore (FYI, that link goes to an amazing video that breaks down the MTV argument for you—a must watch). Sure the minidolls are different, but so is the Hulk, the LEGO kids, and all the other weird figures that show up in many of the other themes. Furthermore we are just leaving the first generation of minidoll sets, so I expect a deepening integration as there become more and more of them. One minidoll is an oddity. A hundred is an opportunity.

Your LEGO Gender Bias is Backwards

The real issue with girl focused LEGO themes is that the LEGO Friends sets are segregated and thus less attainable to boys. There’s no stigma for my girls. We can have (and do have) Batman playing with Cinderella. Or a castle with a puppy, a ghost, a spacemen, and a mix of every color in the rainbow. My girls can go to the store and buy any LEGO set they want. It can be girly, boyish, or gender neutral. They have all the choices. They can explore the life of a LEGO DJ or have a spaceman drive a bus full of princesses. It’s parents of boys who have it tougher. Will parents of boys steer their kids away from sets with pink? Or sets with minidolls instead of minifigs? Is the minidoll of LEGO Friends bad because it breaks tradition, because it is an affront to your nostalgia, or because it is harder for boys to accept? That’s a problem.

The Lego Group shouldn’t make the LEGO Friends sets less stereotypically girly or banish the minidoll so that boys feel more comfortable using them; we should raise our boys to be comfortable wanting a set with animals, pastels, and non-traditional LEGO people. Yes, we live in a world of highly segregated LEGO. But it’s not that the girl LEGO options are worse than the boys’. They are just different. Both are sadly one dimensional. And that is bad. But since 2012, the options for girls are at least getting less one-dimensional and less stereotypical.

There have been and will continue to be missteps in the evolution of LEGO, but the general trend is very positive. The LEGO of 2015 is not the LEGO of 1988. LEGO is evolving and growing and becoming more inclusive. The sets connected to the LEGO Movie are a great sign. And The Lego Group clearly is moving in interesting directions with Elves. Old castle sets plus those forthcoming 2015 sets would make for some awesome creativity…

We can help and embrace this development by growing a bit ourselves. We can walk down the wrong colored aisle at the toy store. We can buy our kids the “wrong” LEGO set. Then we can think about why it’s so much easier for me to buy my daughters the Mos Eisley Cantina LEGO set than it is for someone else to buy their sons the Heartlake Lighthouse or Heartlake Hot Air Balloon.

LEGO availability by gender

If you suddenly have the urge to buy some LEGO sets, here’s a handy-dandy amazon.com link for you. Or if you want more about LEGO, gender, and architecture in 2015, you’ll probably want to follow Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and the RSS feed. For my hardcore base of readers, don’t worry: I’ve got so many ArchiCAD thoughts that I’m actually a little worried that Shoegnome could revert to an ArchiCAD blog. But nobody worry. Shoegnome in 2015 is going to be a mishmash of awesomeness that combines and extends everything that has been on the blog since 2010. I’ll do my best to break all my old rules.

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