Five Years of Friendship

December 2011 saw the LEGO Friends theme announced to the world, with the first sets officially released in January 2012. Today I take a look back at 5 years of LEGO Friends.

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When LEGO Friends was first announced the immediate reaction from a large number of concerned citizens was that these girl LEGO sets were an abomination that enforced outdated gender stereotypes.

The sets were labelled offensive and damaging among other terms. The minidolls were criticised for their slim figures while the sets were judged for their pastel palettes and for being simpler than the boy sets.

Minidolls are great

One element of the Friends theme that was heavily criticised was the new figures designed for the sets. What we now all know as minidolls were a shock to the world of 2012, and people hated them. There were petitions created that linked the design of the minidolls with eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.

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The minidolls were designed to better represent a normal body. They were not designed for the sole intention to be slim and attractive. The intention was them to be more identifiable than the blocky minifigure.

It may be a controversial opinion but I am a big fan of the minidolls. The classic minifigure will always be dear to any LEGO fan, even if only from nostalgia. I honestly think if you showed a person who has never had any contact with LEGO which design they liked better they’d pick the minidoll. Since launching with the Friends line the minidoll has also spread to LEGO Elves, the Disney theme and the new Superhero Girls theme.

A problematic beginning

In my opinion LEGO’s biggest mistake with the launch of Friends was a single set – 3187 Butterfly Beauty Shop. It was a set that single handedly called attention to all of the “for girls” stereotypes that people wanted to get past. The set description reads;

Get primped and pretty at the Butterfly Beauty Shop!

It’s a busy day of beauty fun down at the Butterfly Beauty Shop! Emma loves this posh little salon at the center of Heartlake City! Shop for lipstick, makeup and hair accessories! Emma and all of her friends will look fabulous with bows, sunglasses, a hairbrush, mirror, lipsticks and new hair styles. Get the girls ready for any event with the salon where you can rearrange the interior! Includes Emma and Sarah mini-doll figures.

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It doesn’t read like something from 2012 written by one of the most loved companies in the world. The notion that the characters need to have a place to get pretty seems to enforce the idea that girls need to meet a certain standard of physical beauty to be happy or accepted.

Certainly if girls want to enjoy makeup and pretty things that isn’t inherently bad. It just seems like the copy could be written in a different way.

That set in a way brings down the tone of the entire first wave. The other sets feature characters with jobs, passions and responsibilities. The sort of role play that the research shows appeals to young girls, but done in a positive and modern way.

A character helping out at a vet surgery or having a part-time job at a café are both fairly harmless scenarios. If Emma was working at the Beauty Shop instead of just being a customer I think it would have been less offensive to people.

It seems that LEGO has for the most part toned down the overtly girly elements to the theme and amped up the sense of fun and adventure. Yes there are sets like shopping malls but they are well and truly offset by skate parks, jungle adventures and even an amusement park.

Heartlake City > LEGO City

City is one of LEGO’s most popular themes, which is why it has been running for so long. The problem is that LEGO City doesn’t feel like a real place. There is a new fire station build every few years but a lack of regular city buildings. The buildings that are present are usually either being broken in to or burning down.

Heartlake City feels like a more realistic place with a variety of different buildings. There’s cafes, schools, malls and even a hotel. 2017 will even see a sports centre added.

As the theme ages I am certain that there will be repetition, but for the moment Heartlake City seems like the better city.

Dumbed down for girls

The Friends theme was criticised for being dumbed down. The outrage was that the girl sets were simpler which seemed to imply that girls weren’t as talented builders as the boys. This isn’t true.

The issue seems to be that some the Friends sets features more modular building process; bag 1 would build a complete part of the set, and then bag 2 would build a different independent part. This way of building was rolled out in to numerous City sets as well. It was a move by LEGO to allow kids to play with a set as it was built, not wait until the end. You can see an example of this with 4644 Marina, a 2011 City set.

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If the Friends sets were dumbed down, then obviously they would have low part counts. This is also untrue. The largest of the first wave Friends sets – 3315 Olivia’s House – had a part count of 695 pieces. That number isn’t a dumbed down set. The parts list for that set reads like any other similar sized set from any other theme. 3185 Summer Riding Camp released in August 2012 had over 1000 parts. Friends sets are not inherently simple, it is a theme with small and large sets just like any other.

A huge success

Despite all of the drama surrounding its launch LEGO Friends has become one of LEGO’s most popular and successful themes. The sets provide a great variety of play experiences and despite the occasional set with overtly feminine subjects I think that overall the theme is a positive option.

What a lot of the early controversy overlooked is that LEGO didn’t stop making other sets. The criticism seemed to, for the most part, originate with people who hadn’t actually been keeping up with what LEGO were doing.

Friends haters loved to throw around a 1981 LEGO print ad featuring a girl proudly displaying her creation with the tag line “What it is, is beautiful”. The haters shouted at anybody who would listen – “she doesn’t need pink LEGO” and “This is what LEGO should be!” (not direct quotes, I’m paraphrasing).

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All of those comment seemed to overlook that LEGO still produces sets with basic bricks. There were multiple sets with basic bricks released in 2012, as well as Creator sets.

It is also worth mentioning that Friends uses standard LEGO elements. Yes the minidolls are different and there are some parts that don’t have a lot of use outside of Friends, but a 2×4 Brick in a Friends set is no different to any other 2×4 brick. A little girl in 2012 could take all of her sets, Friends or otherwise, and create something beautiful too. LEGO instructions are instructions. They are not law. You can take those pieces and make anything you want. That’s true for any LEGO theme. An X-Wing doesn’t have to stay an X-Wing, and a Butterfly Beauty Shop doesn’t have to stay a Butterfly Beauty Shop.

LEGO did not take anything from girls when they produced Friends. They created a new option. They expanded play experiences to young girls who may have felt alienated from LEGO because it didn’t match their play style. They opened the magic of building up to more people, and in the process produced some incredibly well designed sets. If a pink box makes you hate everything about LEGO Friends then nothing I say will likely change your mind on that. If you hated the theme when it was first announced take another look. Hopefully you won’t see something offensive. I hope that you see a theme that promotes fun, adventure and friendship.

Here is to five years of LEGO Friends, and to the next five years to come!

2 Responses to Five Years of Friendship

  1. Gavin says:

    I never had a problem with them targeting girls with this theme. Anything that exposes more children to LEGO is a good thing in my opinion. The new colours introduced are also welcome.

    I have to admit that I wasn’t and am still not a fan of the minidoll as I’m just rather fond of the standard minifig. But I’m happy for others to like them (including my daughter). Some of the hair pieces are a nice addition.

  2. louiseallana says:

    My son and I enjoy some of the Lego Friends line, and the variety is welcome. I like the adventure sets especially. I don’t appreciate the gendering of any toys and I wish the introduction of Lego Friends had gone less hard on the overt gendering. A Lego Friends range with broader appeal and less “this is for GIRLS” would have been my preference. But since it did, I am one of those people who has a big problem with the “boys” Lego having a chunky minifig and the “girls” Lego having a slim minifig. It’s not necessary and I’m worried it will feed into larger issues in our culture that insist girls and women’s bodies be homogenous and slim at all costs. Not the world I want.

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