This is when Lego decided to roll out its newest line: Lego Friends, aimed squarely at girls.
Lego Friends figures are strikingly different. They don’t look anything like the traditional Lego minifigure. Lego Friends have big eyes, button noses and pink lips. They wear skirts. They have names like Mia, Andrea and Olivia.
They come with pink and purple bricks, in sets that can be built into a pet hospital, or a bakery, or a fashion design studio.
They also come with the biggest gender controversy since J. Crew featured a mom painting her little boy’s toenails pink.
“Hey Lego!” shouted one commenter on the company’s Facebook page. “I’m a girl and I don’t like your new Lego Friends set. I think it promotes ridiculous gender stereotypes that damage little girls everywhere.
“We like Star Wars, Harry Potter, space ships and explosions, too, not just salons, cafes and drinks by the pool. Some of us want to grow up to be engineers, not manicurists.”
Jennifer Garlen of Huntsville has found herself swept up in the controversy. Garlen is a visiting professor of English at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. One of her areas of expertise is feminist criticism and theory.
Garlen is also an adult fan of Legos — or AFOL, as they call themselves. Garlen was in Birmingham this weekend, at BrickFair Alabama, the first-ever Lego fan convention in the South. She gave a seminar on Building Like a Girl: Women, Girls and the Lego Community.
She had no idea the topic would be so controversial.
Lego has been trying to tap into the girl market for more than 20 years, Garlen said. It’s tried dollhouses (the Scala sets of the 1970s), jewelry (Clickets sets) and horses and castles (the Belville line).
“Lego keeps trying to put out a product that will really hook the girl market, but it hasn’t happened yet,” Garlen said.
This time, though, Lego invested four years in research. The company followed girls in different countries, talked to families, watched how girls play. “It’s not like they said, ‘Let’s make something pink and throw it at girls,” Garlen said. “They really worked the science behind this.”
How boys saved Lego
Lego has been making plastic interlocking bricks for more than 50 years. The company — which is still family-owned — never intended them to be boys’ toys.
“Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the company ran ads that Lego is for girls and boys,” Garlen said. By the 1990s, however, the company had overextended and found itself in financial trouble. It sold off assets, including its theme parks, and focused on the bricks.
The company realized that its main consumers were boys, and that boys were interested in adventure, vehicles and what Garlen called “conflict-driven play.” So that’s what Lego focused on. The company came out with “Star Wars” sets. Sales took off.
But at the same time, Garlen said, Lego has always made toys that could be considered gender-neutral — the City sets, for example, with their city buildings and firetrucks and airplanes.
Lego is also making many more female minifigures than in years past. “I think they’ve really opened up their product to be more inclusive,” Garlen said.
“But I don’t know if the way the product is perceived by the public has changed along with that.”
The blue aisle
Toy stores are part of the problem. “Toy stores are so divided. There’s the pink aisle and the blue aisle. Where’s the ‘both’ aisle?” Garlen said.
Legos are deep in the blue aisle, down there with action figures and cars. “Girls don’t even go down there,” Garlen said.
(Sure enough, toy stores are debating where they should put the new Lego Friends line. Does it go in the Lego section? Or does it go next to the Barbies?)
“From the kids’ perspective and the parents’ perspective, Legos are for boys,” Garlen said.
If some people have a problem with Lego Friends, Garlen suggests that look at the gender equation from the other side. “I like ‘Star Wars.’ I like superheroes. I like ‘Harry Potter.’ And I’m a girl,” Garlen said. Her 10-year-old daughter likes those things, too. “We don’t look at those Legos and say those are for the boys. Nobody has stopped parents from buying those Lego sets for their daughters.
Garlen’s daughter used to wear “Star Wars” T-shirts to school, and the other kids would tell her that girls weren’t allowed to like “Star Wars.”
“I think that’s at the core of this debate right now, this perception of who gets what,” she said. “I think Lego might be suffering from that same perception.”
After all, nobody’s saying that Mattel should make more boy-friendly Barbies.
The girl inventor
And nobody’s saying that boys (and grown-ups) can’t play with Lego Friends. The best thing about the new sets is that the pieces work with other Legos, which hasn’t been the case with Lego’s other girl-themed toys.
Adult Lego fans are excited to have new colors of bricks to work with. They’re using the new Lego Friends bricks to build pink and purple starfighters.
Other builders have taken the Emma’s Design School set and used the pieces to build Emma a giant plasma cannon (which, when you take the guns off, transforms into a snowmobile).
Garlen and her daughter tried out Olivia’s Inventor Workshop. “My daughter is not particularly girly, and that’s the least girly set,” Garlen said. “Olivia is a girl who’s a robot inventor. It’s not all puppies and kitties.”
So how did Garlen’s daughter play with her inventor set? “The little girl figure died in a robotic accident,” Garlen said. “She drank something in the lab she shouldn’t have.”
What boys think
One of the beauties of Lego is, no matter what it says on the box, kids are going to take it apart and turn it into something else. Perhaps that will make Lego Friends successful.
“If all the previous lines that Lego has put out for girls have failed to catch fire, history tells us we ought to wait and see what happens,” Garlen said.
“If Lego Friends takes off, that says something about the accuracy with which Lego has understood the market. Regardless of what mothers think, if girls like it, then Lego has done its job.”
We asked a brother and sister from Piedmont to test out the Olivia’s Treehouse set. Will Burkhalter, 7, refused to play with it. “I want the aliens Legos,” he said.
His little sister, Nora, 6, declared Lego Friends “the funnest Legos. Funner than boys’ Legos.
“I love the toy pets. I like the way I can feed the bird and cat,” she said. “I thought I saw a bird just like the Legos bird, in real life.
“And I see on the box a lot of friends for the Legos girl. There’s one with red hair and black hair and brown hair. I want to buy them.
“I’ve been dying for one of these.”
When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. today
Where: Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex
What: Displays of Lego creations made by adult fans and artists. Also lots of Lego things for sale, including custom minifigures, accessories and more. Billed as primarily a “look-don’t-touch” event. Strollers are not permitted.
Admission: $7; free for kids 3 and under.
A brief history of Lego
The Lego company estimates it has produced more than 400 billion Lego bricks — about 64 Legos for every person on earth. Here’s a look at how it all started, 80 years ago, in a small workshop in Denmark.
1932: A Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen switches from crafting furniture to wooden toys. To name his toy company, he coins the word “Lego,” from the Danish words “leg” and “godt,” meaning “play well.”
1939: A British toymaker named Harry Fisher Page invents plastic blocks that lock together.
1947: Christiansen discovers the plastic blocks, and begins to refine their design.
1958: Lego design evolves to the state we now know it, with the “stud and tube coupling system” that makes for stable, strong, interlocking bricks. Bricks from this era still work with brand new ones.
1961: The Lego wheel is invented.
1966: The first Lego motorized train debuts.
1966: Norman Mailer builds a utopian City of the Future in his living room using 15,000 Legos. It’s featured on the cover of his book Cannibals and Christians.
1967: Supersized Duplos, designed for small hands, are introduced.
1968: Legoland amusement park opens in Billund, Denmark. It includes a model of the Statue of Liberty made from Legos.
1975: The Expert Series is introduced, featuring complex sets for older builders, with working gears and cogs.
1978: The first mini-figure arrives. At last, people to populate Lego houses and cities.
1979: Ole Kirk’s grandson, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, takes over the company and introduces play themes such as Lego Space.
1980: According to a survey, 70 percent of all Western European families with kids under age 14 have Lego bricks in their homes. Most likely scattered all over the floor.
1989: Seymour Papert of MIT, a longtime proponent of kids using computers to learn, is named “Lego Professor of Learning Research.” The Lego Mindstorms line of robotic toys is named after his book.
1996: Legoland Windsor amusement park opens in England. It includes a model of St. Paul’s Cathedral made from Legos.
1999: The first Star Wars Lego sets are released, ending the era of smelly model glue and changing Lego history.
1999: Legoland California amusement park opens. It includes a model of Mount Rushmore made from Legos.
2001: The Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle becomes a huge bestseller, with more than 1 million sets sold.
2002: Legoland Deutschland amusement park opens in Germany. It includes a model of the Reichstag made from Legos.
2003: Mini-figures change from yellow to realistic skin tones.
2003: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and 21 other NBA players become Lego mini-figures.
2004: Photos of two astronaut mini-figures land on Mars aboard the NASA rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity.”
2008: Google celebrates Lego’s 50th anniversary by illustrating its logo in Legos. (Google’s founders are huge Lego fans. Google’s New York office is filled with Legos as artwork and Legos for play.)
2008: A model of the Taj Mahal, with 5,922 pieces, becomes the biggest Lego set ever sold, surpassing the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, the previous record holder with 5,195 pieces.
2009: The first Lego store in Alabama opens at the Galleria mall in Birmingham.
2011: Legoland Florida theme park opens on the site of the former Cypress Gardens. At 145 acres, it’s the biggest Legoland in the world.
2012: Lego announces plans to release long-anticipated sets based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at the end of the year. A Lego Gollum. Hmmmm.
— Lisa Davis