Alexandra Lange | Essays

Design for Girls: Put A Heart On It

When are design critics like novelists? After the holidays, when they have to decide whether to offend the people that gave them gifts by reviewing them. So here's my disclaimer, family members: I thank you for your generosity, and my children will play with everything you gave them to the best of their abilities and interest. But I can't turn off the voice in my head.

Now that that's out of the way, it is time for my annual post on the horrors of design for kids (previously: designer toys, baby clothes). This year, it is not just me that is talking about the gender gap when it comes to toys. The week before Christmas there was lively debate online about the news, via this Bloomberg BusinessWeek story, that Lego was creating a new line of pastel pieces for girls. Peggy Orenstein wrapped it all up in the New York Times on December 30.

The basic horror seemed to be the realization that Lego had gone from this:

(Could have been me, from the braids to the dungarees.)

To this, from the Hero Factory line:

Thus necessitating the creation of a whole other-hued product category. As a parent who suffers, in a minor OCD manner, from having too many different and incompatible building toys, the idea that my son's Lego and my daughter's Lego might not be able to commingle brings on some frustration. I already have a labeled bin! Which means that, while I truly appreciate the toned-down, gender-neutral colors and 100-percent recycled content of Green Toys blocks we received, I wonder if it might be more/equally sustainable to stick with Duplo. Who wants to start over each year with an incompatible building system? Modularity has its purpose.

The giver of the Green Toys was thinking of me and my husband, the interests we would like to pass down, the developmental stage my daughter will soon reach. I'm having a harder time reckoning with the Melissa & Doug Pretty Purse Fill and Spill. It's true, my daughter loves nothing more than pulling everything out of her own go-bag (a sturdy, lightweight LeSportsac messenger bag), and cellphones have recently become something of a fascination. So the Pretty Purse is also developmentally on target. If only everything else about it wasn't wrong.

Why pretty? Pretty, in this case, means pink and purple, hearts, velvet. Who says that's pretty? And what adult women has a purse that looks like that? If part of the idea of this toy is to give your child a makeshift adult avatar, I don't see how a one-year-old can make the connection between my gray LeSportsac, or her babysitter's silver tote, and this new object. Same deal for the ersatz (and, naturally, heart-shaped) compact. First, I don't want a toymaker telling my daughter to get excited about make-up and second, who has one of these anymore? Seems like a leftover from Sally Draper.

Why a purse? As far as I can tell, my daughter's toy choices so far are gender neutral. She'll chew on a car or a stuffed animal. She'll knock over blocks or a butterfly stacker. If Melissa & Doug made a fill-and-spill messenger bag in a nice bright green it could hold a cellphone, wallet and keys, and be sold to 100 percent of the baby population. Don't one-year-old boys like to take things out of bags too?

(It turns out they do, but their bag looks like this. Pity the uncoordinated. I do rail against the boys-love-sports hegemony every time I shop for shirts for my son.)

And why this design? It's ugly, it's girly, and it doesn't even work. The multi-color keys (on a heart-shaped key fob) are made of plastic, so they slide easily. It would have been nice if they could also have been different shapes and included numbers, like this classic toy. So why couldn't the phone also have been plastic, with mashable buttons. The fat stuffed oval included looks more like a worm than a contemporary phone. There are numbers on the coins inside the change purse but again, they remind me more of cookies, especially since the digits are enumerated in more hearts. Might fabric bills not have worked better?

And finally, the change purse, like the purse that holds it, suffers instead from a more basic design failure: material. Both are made of clear plastic, with purple velour piping. But once the plastic decision had been made, legal issues kicked in. You can't have a little girl suffocating in her Pretty Purse. So the opening of the big purse is made quite small, so small it is hard to get all those fat and furry accessories in and out. So much for spilling. So much for filling. Even if I loved everything else about this toy, this lack of functionality would doom it.

Along with more "realistic" figures, more domestic settings, and more role-playing about animals and food, the new Lego Friends collection includes more accessories. Front and center in the spread for "Stephanie's Cool Convertible" is another pink purse. And she's got a mirror, with a heart on it, in the backseat.

Maybe I should just give up now.

Comments [10]

Nice insight

You just hit one of my hot buttons. Nothing annoys me more than the fact that mainstream toy stores have one aisle for baby toys (all the classics you remember) and one for girl baby toys (the same toys, but in pink). I think the worst is this one: http://www.amazon.com/Fisher-Rock-A-Stack-PINK/dp/B0012P30OK/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1325777529&sr=8-12. Turning the classic Fisher-Price rocking stacker pink completely counteracts one of the main points of the toy -- teaching colours. What, boys need to learn red, yellow, blue, green and orange, but girls only need to learn blush, salmon, rose, mauve and purple? Sigh.

I can't be outraged by this.

Interesting article, I'm surprised by Lego.
Mathias Burton

Don't give up ! Totally agree with your point but:

.. the problem is not about LEGO or the toy industry, it's about what people are actually buying. Maybe LEGO is not that cool company that focus on child creativity anymore ?

Maybe the economic reality has changed and they cannot afford to be anything else than'' tacky mass market ''.

Buisness opportunity anyone !
Eric Beauchemin

I have no problem with the additional Lego colors, but the heart mirror is a little ridiculous. It's almost as ridiculous as all the most-of-it-has-already-been-decided-for-you kits they've sold for the past ten years. Lego company, I don't want a fantasy world with heroes and villains, I just want to build. #ifitaintbrokedontfixit
John Mindiola III

Great article! The 1981 Lego ad that you reproduced says it all. A proud, smiling girl with pig tails and dungarees, holds up her creation made with Lego bricks and says “What it is, is beautiful. ” Yes, "beautiful," and I would add, open ended, imaginative and non-gender specific. "Beautiful" for girls, or for any of us is not necessarily pink and fluffy. What happened to Lego, that honorable company who truly cared about creativity and open-ended play for all children.? Unfortunately for this generation of young children, Lego is following two troubling trends in the toy industry- gender stereo typing and directed play. A bag of plastic bricks (or wood blocks), imagination and time are all that young children need.

karen hewitt

Awww, legos were my favorite toy as a little girl. I got a new set every birthday. I went to a lego store recently (while pregnant with my first child, a girl) and I was sad to see a lack of the basic lego sets I remembered. I guess my daughter will be nostalgic about different toys than I am but it still seems like "they" (the toy makers) are missing a market. I agree, business opportunity!

Great read and great vintage ad!

I loved Legos as a child, and it endlessly angered my mother that Lego marketed to boys, when I was building restaurants and factories with mine. They had a marketing campaign, not long after the one shown above, that had homemaker sets, just for "girls." I didn't want them. I wanted very little to do with them. And as a child, I was offended at the role that I felt they were pushing on me. It has nothing to do with what is being purchased. After all, it's the parents and gift-givers doing the purchasing, not the children. They just, still to this day, feel it necessary to push unrealistic gender stereotypes onto children. And it's getting worse.

Gender orientation has a social element which draws arbitary lines between boy and girl by association of many factors which are said to influence ones sexual orientation. Colour is a factor which evidently has changed over the centuries and the assumed pink - blue divide has reversed.

Whats strange is the fact that colour doesn´t seem to demarcate buildings and the machine ethic of the international style is a neutral background to a male orientated universe of'machine' aesthetics.....with few woman architects being listed in the history of the modern................even the Frankfurt Kitchen is 'sexless'.

Is there a difference between girls and boys architecture ? Between Hadid and Foster..........more girls study engineering these days than boys ,Doctors are more likely to be womaen than men etc etc..

This whole business of play,colour and shape associations goes out the window with the Eames,s and pink is one of Richard Rogers colours of preference.
Paris Hilton also like Pink a lot...................more research required surely!

Jobs | April 20