December 7, 2012

Why LEGO Friends is not one of the Worst Toys of 2012 (and why Mega Bloks Barbie is)

It's been about a year since the LEGO Friends sets were first unveiled to the world at large, sparking a wide-ranging conversation about role of gender in construction toys. After a relatively quiet summer and fall, this topic recently resurfaced with the announcement that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood had chosen the LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop as a semi-finalist for the annual TOADY, a Worst Toy of the Year un-award (it ended up coming in second place). KJ Dell'Antonia has already done a great job of unpacking some of the reasons the Butterfly Beauty Shop set should not be singled as one of the five worst toys of the year, but I want to go one step further and prove that there are quantitatively worse toys on the market.

LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop

Those who read my previous post; about LEGO Friends know that I am critical of certain aspects of the series, specifically: the limited articulation of the minidolls compared to minifigures, the wildly imbalanced gender ratio of the minidolls (currently 1 male to 38 females), and the heavily gendered marketing of the products. However, I also want to combat the pernicious misinformation and misconceptions about LEGO Friends such as claims that the building experience is greatly simplified (or non-existent) compared to the rest to the LEGO product line, that the color palate of the series is exclusively shades of pink, or that the themes of the products revolve solely around beauty and domestic pursuits.

The TOADY summary of the Butterfly Beauty Shop belies this basic level misunderstanding of the Friends product line: " at the LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty Shop, your little princess won’t need to worry her pretty little head about icky boy things like building." However, what ultimately undermines the CFCC's argument is when it says LEGO Friends is "so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush." You see, in just a matter of days, LEGO's competitor Mega Bloks will be releasing a line of Barbie-branded construction sets. These sets are what LEGO Friends would be if all the terrible things people erroneously believed about it were true. LEGO Friends make Barbie blush? Au contraire CFCC, Barbie has no shame.

Let's start with a side by side comparison of the Butterfly Beauty Shop with the Mega Bloks Barbie Build 'n Style Fashion Boutique. Both of these sets retail for $25 and are roughly the same size, but the Barbie set only contains 107 pieces while the Friends set contains 221, more than twice as many. The Barbie set has large pre-fabricated wall segments, while the Friends beauty shop is made up of many small pieces. When completed, the Butterfly Beauty Shop resembles a real building, whereas the Barbie Boutique is merely a sleek facade, even its windows are fake.

I won't go on at length about how most of the Barbie Mega Bloks sets directly mimic an existing Friends set* since it could be argued that Friends sets like the convertible are clear riffs on ancient Barbie tropes. Nor does the contrast between the extreme pinkness of Barbie's Mega Bloks kingdom and the relatively varied pastel palate of Heartlake City merit more than this passing mention. But I do think it's worth dwelling on a few things: construction complexity, the minidolls, and gender roles.

Construction Complexity

If we assume that constructions sets with similar price points will result in completed models of equivalent size, then we can use the piece/dollar ratio of construction sets as a rough indication of the complexity** of one building kit relative to another. The higher the piece/dollar ratio, the more building is involved in a given set or group of sets. This is a way of quantifying the differences that are obvious to the naked eye in the above comparison of the Friends and Babrie sets. I charted these values for sets from nine different themes and found the average pc/$ ratio for each line of products. The product lines I used were LEGO Friends, Mega Bloks Barbie, LEGO City, Mega Bloks World of Warcraft, LEGO Ninjago, LEGO Paradisa, LEGO Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit, Mega Bloks Skylanders and Mega Bloks Halo.

Much to my surprise, Friends came in second (Halo was highest) with a ratio of 9.8. I fully expected Friends to trounce Barbie (which came in lowest with a miserable 3.8 ratio), but I didn't realize it would fare so well compared to other LEGO product lines. I included a wide range of themes to demonstrate that is isn't just a LEGO vs. Mega Bloks issue or a factor of licensing fees. The Barbie sets just don't have many pieces in them. The price/dollar ratio isn't a perfect indication of complexity, it doesn't account for a set's diversity of pieces or the level of sophistication in the construction techniques. Still, I hope this graph will help put to rest the spurious claims that Friends sets do not involve building.

The Minidolls

No one needs to tell me that the Friends minidolls are flawed (how do they walk?!), especially when compared to the standard LEGO minifig. However, the Barbie Mega Bloks figurines serve as a dark mirror that show us how much worse they could be. At first glance, there are a lot of similarities, they seem to have the same amount of articulation and interchangeable elements (hair and accessories etc.), but take a close look at their feet. While the Friends minidolls stand on their own two (perpetually be-sandaled) feet, the Barbie figurines' feet are too petite to be functional, they float above the ground on pink pedestals. Since these figurines don't have to be bothered with supporting their own weight, they are also free to pose their feet more provocatively. The Barbie figurines also seem to be thinner, but it's hard to how much from the pictures. Viewed next to the Barbie figurines, the Friends minidolls are like a breath of fresh air.

One topic I didn't address in my previous article is the sexual dimorphism between the female Friends minidolls and the (singular) male minidoll. Now that I have acquired Peter, I can report that in addition to a flat chest, his arms are slightly larger and his jaw is more square than the female minidolls'. These differences are slight and only become noticeable if you interchange their arms. The Ken and Barbie figurines are more noticeably different. In addition to having a broader chest like Peter, Ken is the only Barbie figurine who gets to stand with his knees apart and has very prominent muscles. It's hard to draw equal comparisons here since there is only one male figure in each theme and Ken is wearing a swimsuit and Peter is wearing long sleeves and pants.

Gender roles

While the Butterfly Beauty Shop is focused on beauty, the full range of LEGO Friends sets portray girls and women with a wide variety of occupations and interests: robotics, equestrianism, veterinary science, fashion design, music, baking, dog training, camping, skateboarding, piloting, karate, magic, soccer, dance, jetskiing, mowing the lawn, animal grooming etc. By comparison, the activities in the Barbie Mega Bloks sets include: modeling, shopping, driving, being glamourous, vacationing, sleeping, owning pets, more shopping, reviving disco, serving ice cream, swimming, and, of course, living in a luxury mansion. (Both Peter and Ken do all the grilling, however.)

It's not just the range of activities that sets LEGO Friends apart either, it's the level of agency the females have. Mega Bloks Barbie and friends merely buy and wear clothes, Emma from LEGO Friends designs them. The Friends are producers/creators/makers, not merely consumers. All the businesses in Heartlake City are operated (and presumably owned) by women like Sarah, Marie, and Sophie. I know that Barbie in her normal doll form has had every profession under the sun over the year, but her Mega Bloks debut is not so inspiring.


Context is very important for analyzing a cultural object like a toy (e.g. The Butterfly Beauty Shop). Without understanding how it relates to contemporary objects (culture) and the people who interact with them (society), it's impossible to understand its true impact. Viewed in a narrow context, the Butterfly Beauty Shop is an indication of the sexualization of childhood that represents a decline from the halcyon days of yore. But cherry-picking one of the worst current examples of gendered marketing and comparing it to the best examples of gender-neutral marketing from thirty years ago creates a false narrative that exploits our nostalgic tendencies. A wider historical context reveals that LEGO also produced a beauty salon playset back then, and it produced this awesome ad two years ago. Meanwhile, these three monstrosities are scattered somewhere in between.

The other important piece of context is what other toys will be sitting on the shelves next to the Butterfly Beauty Shop when holiday shoppers enter Target. Not only will the Barbie Mega Bloks be there, but little pink brooms, and toys with actual makeup. I'd personally recommend buying Olivia's Treehouse, basic bricks, or anything from& the Creator theme over the Beauty Shop, but it's a far cry from the worst toy someone could buy.

There is an amazing article in the New Inquiry about Pixar's "Brave,"in which Lili Loofbourow fights the widespread critical interpretation of Brave as "just another princess story" and shows how it subtly subverts every trope we associate with princess stories. She discusses how Pixar was keenly aware of the troubled history of children's movies with female protagonists and created Brave precisely as a way to address that troubled history. "Of course it had to be a princess story... They needed this story in order to be able to write a different kind of story." I would argue that the LEGO Group is attempting a similar maneuver with LEGO Friends. The first wave of Friends sets included all the unfortunate tropes we have come to expect in a line of toys for girls, while also including the seeds of something more. They had to make a beauty shop so that they could then make a karate dojo.

I'll leave you with this empowering section of lyrics from the Friends music video:

We can do it
Friends are here to play
We can dream a whole new way
We can do it
Friends will show the way
So build a world with me today
We can do it
Having fun today
It's all about the joy of creation
*Okay, fine, I will go on at length:
Pet Shop: Barbie vs. Friends
Splash pool: Barbie vs. Friends
Fashion Stand: Barbie vs. Friends
Convertible: Barbie vs. Friends
Dessert Cart: Barbie vs. Friends
Dog House: Barbie vs. Friends
Mansion Barbie vs. Friends
Pool: Barbie vs. Friends

**A more accurate method of assessing complexity in a construction set would be to use something more like this method, but I do not have the time for that level of analysis. If any government or non-profit agency wants to fund my research into the sociological implications of construction toys, please don't hesitate to contact me.


  1. There's also Mia's Bedroom, one of the smaller playsets. Mia is the character who cares for animals. What does her bedroom contain?

    A personalised drumkit.

    There's a lot of subtle subversion of traditional gendered toys going on in Lego Friends. Long may it continue.

  2. This is an amazing post - I'm planning to write my own post on Lego Friends, and I love all of the details you capture here. My daughter is a big fan of the kits, and I think they're great.

  3. Thanks, Cheryl! Details are important :)

  4. As a family, we love LEGO and the Friends are a welcome addition to our collection of superheroes, astronauts, and monster fighters. They are presumably older teenagers that can drive, fly planes, and be gainfully employed without having to impress boys (yet). I think it would be nice to have more dress up options for the minidolls but not at the expense of losing the building/MOC opportunities like MB Barbie. The lack of variety and quality of MB blocks in these sets will be a deterrent and discouragement for more independent design and construction. MB Hello Kitty does more interesting things than Barbie! The Friends brand will continue to grow and evolve while the competitor is a segue to the larger scale traditional Barbie doing the exact same thing. I am hoping for a Friends classroom/school w/ library, grocery store, organic farm, turning wrists and independently moving legs in the future. Thanks for the breakdown comparison!

  5. Thanks for the in-depth comment Gayle! I would love to see LEGO do those sets you mention, whether in Friends or City. Growing up I played with the Fisher Price Little People and the school set was one of my favorites

  6. Hi,
    I wrote an article for Bad Reputation
    saying similar things about Friends, although not having heard of Barbie Blocks.

    I too think that they are not as bad as they first seemed and intend to write to Lego and commend them for the dojo and the new magician set. They have now become something I would consider buying for a little girl. I do wish they would be put with the main Lego in toy shops though. Separating it from the main world of Lego through the mini figs and the shop placement is currently my biggest gripe.

    And wow, the Barbie's are awful. However I don't really have the same love or high standards for Barbie as I do for Lego. I think one of the criticisms of the initial sets was that it doesnt put the focus on building, as boy sets do, thus girls miss out on STEM skills. I don't think they were ever going to get building skills from Barbies.

    Also I found your chart fascinating! I didn't think to do anything like that. A powerful bit of evidence that really pushes me over in almost... liking Lego friends!

  7. Hi David,

    I loved this post. I'm an NPR reporter working on a story about Lego Friends and Mega Blok Barbie. Would you be interested in an interview?


    Neda Ulaby