Why Lego, you ask?

Just before the holidays, two amazing young bloggers for the SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) movement, Stephanie Cole and Bailey Shoemaker Richards, joined Powered By Girl, the girl activist arm of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, to initiate a protest of Lego’s new Friends line for little girls.

As co-founder of both Hardy Girls and the SPARK movement, I’m asked often why we chose to publicly protest Lego rather than, say, sexualized Bratz dolls and other more offensive products aimed at girls.

First, let me say that we do call out and protest those products daily, and we welcome support for these efforts.

This past fall, SPARK successfully protested an offensive “Anna Rexia” costume (a young woman posing provocatively in a skimpy skeleton costume), ensuring its removal from the catalog of a popular online costume company.

A few years ago, the Girls Advisory Board of Hardy Girls successfully protested a T-shirt sold to little boys in a major department store chain that poked fun at violence against girls. The shirts were removed from shelves across the country.

So why Lego? Why now? The trend in marketing is to sell a narrow, commercialized version of gender to younger and younger children, not because it’s good for kids but because it’s profitable to keep things very simple — girls this, boys that. The pink and blue aisles of toy stores are testament to the success of this approach.

Lego has just spent four years of research and $40 million to come up with a line of toys that follows this trend.

The problem is not pink itself, a perfectly lovely color. It’s that pink gets associated with a narrow, stereotypical set of activities. Increasingly, because marketers also know little girls want to act grown up, these activities imitate what teens are likely to watch on reality TV shows or Gossip Girl.

The new Lego Friends sets, complete with girls lounging poolside with drinks, singing in nightclubs, shopping and getting makeovers, now sit in the toy aisles beside lots of other toys, like Bratz dolls, doing the same kinds of things.

We’re protesting Lego because we thought it was above this lowest common denominator packaging of girlhood. Lego was one of the last lines of defense against a slew of products that prime little girls to accept this stereotyped version of grown-up femininity. We expect something better from it, so we’re asking for something better.

In response, Lego says that girls who buy its Friends line “will enjoy the exact same building experience and developmental benefits as children who choose any other Lego theme.” And yet, Lego does not offer building instructions in the Friends catalog, as they do in the “regular” Lego catalog.

Instead it offers personalities and story lines of Friends’ characters, reaching out to girls with cafes, karaoke and lost puppies.

There is a time and place for these mundane story lines in imaginative play, but when Lego offers them as the “girl” alternative to active adventure stories marketed to little boys, it sends the wrong message to both girls and boys.

There is also no evidence, of course, that the Friends line will have “developmental benefits” and no mention of the ample scientific evidence that shows a negative impact on girls who consume a high volume of such stereotypical messages.

Lego may very well get a larger market share if it has two separate lines of products.

While it’s true that girls and boys play differently, those differences are actually quite small when children are young and they certainly don’t predispose little girls to like shopping, tanning or hot tubs.

The human brain, as neuroscientist, Lise Eliot says, is “fantastically plastic,” and the best thing we can do for our children is to give them a full range of opportunities and experiences, especially in the early years.

Our protest calls attention to the fact that lots of girls are not interested in what the Friends line has to offer. We launched a petition at Change.org that now has more than 46,000 signatures, so we know we are not the only ones concerned.

We are not asking Lego to do away with its new line. We are asking it to include more girls in its regular sets, more girls in its commercials for adventure sets, and to market its multi-colored blocks to girls as well as boys.

We want LEego to be one company that offers all children the message that they have choices.

Lyn Mikel Brown is a professor of education at Colby College in Waterville.