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Originally published Monday, January 23, 2012 at 10:31 AM

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New Legos aimed at girls raise questions about gender and play

Michael McNally, Lego's brand relations director for the Friends' theme, said the company anticipated that the new sets would spark a lively conversation.

San Jose Mercury News

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — The week before Christmas I found myself staring at the half-empty shelves in the Lego section of the toy store trying to select an appropriate kit for my 6-year-old daughter.

If you know Legos, then you know the difficulty of that quest. Buying Legos for my 9-year-old son? Easy. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Alien Invasion, Prince of Persia, Pirates, Ninjago. The list of boy-oriented Lego themes is long.

Girls are another story. The choices are close to nil. And so, in desperation, I selected the most gender-neutral Lego kit still available: An ambulance from the Lego City theme. Departing the store, I prayed to the Lego gods that this would be acceptable, and that my daughter would not end up in tears of agony and curled up in a fetal position Christmas morning.

"Why, oh, why couldn't Lego make more kits that appealed to girls?" I wondered.

And then I learned that Lego was about to launch a new line of kits called "Lego Friends." As if to spite me personally, they were going on sale the day after Christmas.

At first glance, this seems like the answer to the prayers of parents such as myself. But the new sets have also provoked debate and controversy, with critics complaining they play into the worst stereotypes of girls.

While I applaud Lego for tackling the gender gap, I have to admit that the new Lego Friends line has left me feeling ambivalent.

Michael McNally, Lego's brand relations director for the Friends' theme, told me the company anticipated that the new sets would spark a lively conversation, and possibly even a backlash. That's almost unavoidable when you wander into the sensitive topics of gender and childhood.

But McNally also said the company thought it was essential for both business and social reasons to find ways to get more girls building with Legos.

"Will there be people out there who don't agree with this?" he said. "The clear answer is, 'Yes.' But at the end of the day, we're not trying to tell people how they are playing with Legos. What matters is that they are building."

While Legos were created decades ago with the aim to be gender neutral, the company veered from that a few years ago. The Lego company was failing, and to turn things around, it made a strategic decision to focus on making kits for boys.

That decision was sparked by some interesting research that challenged the conventional wisdom about boys and play, McNally said. Previously, Lego had begun to make simpler kits because it thought video games were evidence of the increasingly short attention spans of boys. Instead, Lego's research showed that boys liked complex tasks that allowed them to immerse themselves in the process and show they could master something.

That spawned the current crop of sets, many of which are indeed intricate. For Christmas, my son received the Ninjago Fire Temple with 1,174 pieces that took him a week to assemble.

The boy focus got Lego back on its feet and a couple of years ago the company decided it was time to try again to figure out how to attract girls. It had made several attempts at that over the years, but all had fizzled. The company sent a bunch of anthropologists out to study how girls played differently than boys.

What they found, McNally said, was that girls wanted more reality-based toys that let them see themselves as the characters, whereas boys liked more escapist, fantasy stuff like ninjas and wizards. And for girls, how they could play with the kits after they built them was more important than it was to boys, who might be just as happy to set them on a shelf to show them off.

Listening to McNally, I was thinking, "So far, so good." But it was the way Lego executed on these ideas that has rubbed some parents and Lego enthusiasts the wrong way.

They replaced the iconic, blocky anonymous minifigures with slightly larger figures with rounded faces and names like Stephanie, Andrea and Olivia. The initial Friends sets include things like a beauty shop, a cafe, a puppy house and bakery. And the color schemes draw on pinks, light purples and pastel blues.

Lise Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, has extensively studied the role gender plays in childhood and thinks Lego has embraced too many stereotypes about girls. Her research shows that boys and girls are more similar than different when it comes to play, and that such gender-specific toys reinforce the differences and the idea that some things in this world are for girls and some for boys.

"I have really mixed feelings," Eliot said. "I'm really glad to see them develop something they think girls will use. It just seems like they went a little too far."

John Baichtal, co-author of the recent book, "The Cult of LEGO," said there is still time for Lego to improve Friends based on the feedback it's been getting. The first set of Friends' kits include an inventor's workshop and a animal veterinary's office. He'd like to see Lego find additional cool professions like those to build into future sets.

"We're trying to get more girls to get into sciences and technological pursuits," he said. "Having a really cool toy that encourages that would be a societal good."

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(Contact Chris O'Brien at 415-298-0207 or cobrien@mercurynews.com.)

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