January 8, 2012

Mainer no friend of new Lego characters

A Colby professor is helping to protest a line of toys aimed at girls that she says promotes stereotypes.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A Colby College professor is helping lead a protest against Lego Friends, a new line of Lego products for girls that introduces taller, thinner and bustier characters who like to ride in a "cool convertible" and can "work on their tans" in a splash pool.

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“Stephanie” and four other main characters in a new line of Lego products for girls like to “work on their tans” in a pool.

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Megan Williams, left, president of the empowerment group Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and Colby education professor Lyn Mikel Brown are behind a protest of a new Lego line.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The "girly" behavior depicted by the pastel-clad characters has infuriated activists, including Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a girls' empowerment group in Waterville, and SPARK, a national organization against the sexualization of girls and women in the media.

Both groups were founded by developmental psychologist Lyn Mikel Brown, a Colby education professor.

"We want to see girls doing more things than clubbing and partying and being concerned about their weight and appearance," Brown said Friday.

After members of the groups started a movement against the toys on Twitter and Facebook, they posted a petition on Change.org, a website that advocates for social movements. There were 1,000 signatures within 12 hours, Brown said, and nearly 3,000 as of Saturday evening.

The new products include five main characters who live in Heartlake City, home to a cafe, a beauty shop and a veterinarian.

The line of Lego sets was launched Jan. 1, after four years of research on what would get more girls to play with Legos, a toy lauded for exercising children's brains.

The study included presenting Lego characters with different looks and in different scenes, and asking girls to pick their favorites, said Michael McNally, brand relations director of Lego Systems Inc. "I don't know if there's the assumption that we have said this is what girls should be doing. ... This is what they told us they wanted," he said.

Brown argues that what children want isn't always what's good for them, and she expected more from a company that prides itself in making a toy with educational value.

"We just thought Lego was above that," she said.

Lise Eliot, Chicago-based neuroscience professor and expert on children's mental development, came down in the middle.

"I understand and share the frustration about the themes being too stereotypical -- the figures being too tall and skinny," said Eliot, author of "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," a book about the differences between boys and girls.

However, Eliot noted, there's a gap between the "mental visualization" abilities of adult men and women. And those skills can be learned with Legos. "So anything that keeps girls building and creating is good," she said.

Backlash against the new Lego line began soon after Bloomberg Businessweek published a cover story called "Lego's Billion Dollar Girl" in its Dec. 19 issue.

On Dec. 21, SPARK and Powered by Girl, the activist arm of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, asked their Facebook friends to remind Lego of its 1981 ad that featured a girl in jeans and a T-shirt with a traditional Lego structure and the tagline "What it is is beautiful."

The next day, they posted the petition to get Lego to include more girls in its "regular" ad campaigns and more girl characters in all Lego sets.

Change.org is considering adding it to a short list of petitions that are sent in an email to some or all of its 5 million members.

McNally said the 1981 ad was targeted to parents. The company's marketing now largely targets kids.

He said the company is aware of the petition but didn't know Friday whether it would respond. There are no plans to change the new line of Legos, which McNally said has sold well in its first week, though he couldn't provide sales figures.

"We're proud of the product we've made. The girls are thrilled," he said.

McNally said girls in the recent market study weren't interested in playing with the girl characters that Lego already has in its sets because they thought the boxy shape was too unrealistic.

He said the company has tried to make Lego sets that appeal to girls, including a jewelry-making kit, but they failed. Whether Lego continues with its new line will depend on demand.

"We'll see, how do the girls respond and is it attractive and does it bring more of them into the positive process of building," he said. "We'll make decisions based on that."

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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