January 8, 2012

Colby professor leads charge against Legos

Activists take issue with new product line that features taller, thinner, ‘girly’ figures

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A Colby College professor is helping lead a protest against 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.

click image to enlarge

SAYING NO TO LEGO: Megan Williams, left, president of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and Lyn Brown, a professor at Colby College, stand in front of two Lego advertisements at the Hardy Girls Healthy Women office in Waterville on Friday. The women are behind a protest of a new Lego line.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

The "girly" behavior depicted by the pastel-clad characters, called Lego Friends, 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 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 Friday evening.

The new products include five main characters who live in a place called Heartlake City, where there's a cafe, a beauty shop and a veterinarian.

The line of Lego sets was launched Jan. 1, after four years of research to find out 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 out in an email to some or all of its 5 million members.

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

He said the company is aware of the petition but didn't know Friday whether it would respond. There are no plans to make changes to 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.

The company previously had tried to make Lego sets that appeal to girls, including a jewelry-making kit, but failed, McNally said. Whether Lego stops producing 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."

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