LEGOs for Oil?

Recently, I found myself in a LEGO store. The reasons for my going to the store are not that interesting—suffice it to say, I needed a gift and scented candles would not be appreciated.

This was my first time in such a store, though I had loved LEGOs as a child. I remembered them as a sort of high-tech Lincoln Logs—inoffensive, brightly colored building bricks, with an occasional person to keep things interesting. On their face, they seemed genderless.

My first move was to head to the "Friends" section, to check out the brand's latest, controversial line. Apparently LEGO felt there was room for them in the Barbie and Bratz market. The first set I saw, Stephanie's Cool Convertible, features a curvy little blonde doll, complete with a miniskirt and pink bow, who rides in a purple convertible. A little dog in the back seat has a slew of pink grooming products, as well as its own matching pink bow.  Using the convertible, girls can take other LEGO Friends "to the beauty shop, to the beach or go on a road trip with the girls!"  

The line has prompted cries from parents and children against gender-based marketing. It was easy to see why people were upset. There were several of the themed products available at the store, and as one eager employee explained, others available online. Much of the line revolved around dogs, which came with the sets—there's a puppy house, a pet patrol, and even a Heartlake Dog Show you can get. I also discovered on LEGO's website you can even select the category "Girls" which includes, bizarrely, "Mia's Puppy House," "Emma's Splash House," and, for some reason, Big Ben and a Volkswagon Van.

But the Friends line, while depressing, was scarcely surprising. It's nothing new that girls are supposed to need different toys, more sexualized dolls. Not having much to go on (I just knew LEGOs would be a hit), I went over to the other end of the room, the one with safe primary colors and there settled on a little fellow in a speed boat.

The speed boat was part of LEGO City line, which seemed to include a startling number of options, including a prisoner transport unit and a mobile police unit.

The boat, however, seemed perfect. It was white and red with a little motor and the accompanying man's only accessories were a hat, a life-vest and some drawn-on sunglasses. He had a giant yellow head and a block-like body—everything one wants in a little Lego man. 

Having avoided the weird, LEGO-Barbies and settled on a guy in a boat, I didn't foresee any other problems. A little while later, I proudly got out the gift and presented it to a rather young LEGO expert.

"Oh yeah, one of those oil guys," he said as he put together the little man.

Oil, what? Sure enough, when I got a good look, there on his vest said "OIL." Next to the word was a little circle, half red, half green. They'd been covered up by the damn life preserver I realized. Luckily, if you're interested in what the gas company logo of the LEGO world looks like, you can see it clearly here, in the gas station set for two to five-year olds. (If you want to see an exact replica, just check out the 4:10 minute mark on this adorable video of a kid reviewing his LEGO Oil Tanker.) 

Turns out, the LEGO series I'd opted for, LEGO City, often comes with the oil insignia, my LEGO expert explained to me. Really?

I'm not sure when the oil industry became so ubiquitous that one would assume that a person on a speed boat worked for an oil company. At least the Friends came with puppies, rather than the implication of oil-soaked wildlife. In some ways, the LEGO City line was more distressing. Between police units and oil-workers, it seemed intent to let kids know the order of things—who has power and who does not. People who work for oil companies drive speedboats, while police catch criminals who are guilty by looks alone. It's not exactly a pretty picture to contemplate. Toy-shopping, as many parents will tell you, can be a minefield.

Personally, I'm thinking that next time I'll try for the Lincoln Logs—assuming, at this point, they haven't been bought out by Halliburton. 


i've been mulling over what i think about lego friends for a while now after my 4 year old daughter absolutely had to have the purple lego friends car, and i think basically, at worst, they're harmless, and at best, they're a gateway to constructor toys that girls don't typically play with. it's just not the case that lego has never offered something for girls. if girls want to play with fireman legos, they can go get fireman legos. if they want to play with astronaut legos, they can go get astronaut legos. what lego discovered, and what lego friends is intended to change, is that girls don't /want/ to play with those legos. and they don't want to play with female versions of regular legos either, because those are readily available, and neither girls nor boys want them.

so lego created lego friends, which at first glance just look like miniature dolls, but that's only if you ignore the entire constructor set behind them. the purple car my daughter wanted still had to be built. and she had as much fun doing that as she now has driving it around with the puppy in the back seat. and sure enough, that experience has made her want other sorts of legos, jedi legos, castle legos, etc. and what i've seen at least in her case, is that her favorite lego friend (the one that looks kind of like her) is the one she puts into any other lego set she builds. so her lego friend hangs out with obi wan kenobi, and since they're compatible, she can even fly his ship.

could lego friends be a bit less gendered and include fireman lego friends? sure, but i'm not sure girls would buy them. and lego, after their market testing, is pretty dang sure they won't. so is it really up to lego to change society and lose a lot of money on lego friend sets that go unsold?

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