It’s been two months now since Lego unleashed the new Friends line into its apparently male-dominated range and by all accounts it’s flying off the shelves. One member of the Lego staff at their London Toy Fair stand told me that it was already accounting for over 10% of its sales. That’s quite a big percentage. Of course there’s no way for us to know if these sets are being brought by girls who are already Lego fans or girls that are new to the brand, having been previously put off by the supposedly boy-centric lines already on offer. Or indeed, if the entire stocks are being snapped up by legions of keen AFOLs, desperate to get hold of the pieces in the fabulous new colors for their spaceship building endeavors.
I know that at least nine of the sets have gone to a certain obsessed six-year-old. When I first showed her the minidolls/ladyfigs, she squealed with delight. “They’re so cute,” she said in her faux American accent. She decided, of her own free will, to spend all of the money she got at Christmas on four of the new sets. Naturally, the set she wanted the most was the biggest one, Olivia’s House, and when we told her she didn’t have enough money for that one, she instantly replied, “Well, you can get me that one for my birthday then please.” At least she said “please,” I guess.
She pestered me every day to see if the package from Amazon had arrived, and when it finally did, she wasted no time opening it up and getting stuck in to the first box she pulled out. They were the first sets that she has built fully on her own (I’ve been relegated to a mere brick sorter/picker) and she loved every minute of it. I was pleased that after reading the little bios on friends.lego.com she decided that Olivia was her favorite of the five girls, and chose her workshop and treehouse sets, over the more overtly ‘girlie’ pet or beauty themed sets.
I’m still torn on the whole debate about whether Lego is re-enforcing gender stereotypes or is simply giving the girls what they want and allowing them to run with it, but there are certainly several things they’ve got right. Firstly, the role-playing aspect. Like most other sets, the first page of the instructions shows you how to build the figure. As soon as the little head was pushed onto the skinny body, Olivia came to life, chatting away with that same faux American accent (also the same one that Barbie and all her friends have – obviously influenced by the TV ads we’ve seen). This does happen with the non-Friends sets we’ve built, but not usually until the car/house/whatever is finished, and I think this is down to the fact that she has a name. We’re not building random street sweeper guy or lady who works at a stable here, oh no, here we’re building Olivia – inventor, geek and explorer.
Pretty soon Olivia was deeply involved in the construction of her own workshop – “I love your purple tools, Olivia” says Dulcie. “Why, thank you, I think they should go over there in the rack by my little robot friend,” replies Olivia. Later, when we moved on to the treehouse set, Olivia said to Emma, “You know what, my treehouse is missing a slide. Can you help me make one please?” At this point I was playing the part of Emma and so promptly got to work on a slide (and a tire swing) and whilst I was doing that Dulcie decided to rebuild the little cat’s basket into a ‘spaceship’! When all four of the new sets were finished, we had the beginnings of Heartlake City right there on the table and the fun really began. Stephanie baked some lovely cupcakes for Emma while she relaxed in her splash pool and when Olivia saw what fun it was in the pool, she rushed back to the workshop and changed out of her “work clothes” and into her “beach outfit” – which basically meant swapping the two Olivia figures around – and dashed back back to join in the fun.
Over the next few weeks, we had to build a nice big house for the girls to tide them over until Olivia’s House arrives. A proper room for the workshop, a kitchen to hold the ‘outdoor bakery’, a nice bunkroom for all the girls to sleep in, with the treehouse and splash pool out in the garden. All made from either white or the pastel shaded bricks we already had. This was a worrying turn – all the pink/lime green/orange/sky blue etc. bricks now have to go in their own bucket. We have a Pink Brick set and now that box is where all the new Lego is kept. Away from the blue, green, red, black bricks. Away from the “boys” Lego, as she was now calling it. All of those those sets are now “mine” – she doesn’t want to play with them anymore. This is of course, completely crazy – she is segregating them all based on color, a far worse thing than gender stereotyping. “What about the wheels on that car you’ve made?” I ask her, “Or the windows in the house? Or those flowers? They all came from the other sets.” Eventually she starts to see the logic, that all bricks are created equal, but I think we’ll keep them in the separate box anyway – it makes it much easier to build things!
Now that we’re past that little hurdle, we continue the play with the little scene, adding a living room to the house – it’s seeing so much more playtime than the giant Barbie doll house that she asked Santa for this Christmas. She couldn’t wait for her birthday to arrive and the presents that would come along with it. Grandad got her another two sets, there was one from her Aunt and another from a schoolfriend, plus the biggie from us, bringing her tally up to nine sets.
The second thing that Lego has really nailed with the range is the ‘modular’ building aspect. By separating the bricks into sensible chunks, you can build them bit by bit and Olivia’s house is probably the best example of this. There were seven bags in the box and opening bag one gave you all the pieces you need to build the living room. Bag two was the Kitchen, bag three was the bedroom and bag four, the bathroom. This meant we could build the house up a room at a time, one each evening after school – and still have fun playing with each bit. A far cry from the Campervan I got for Christmas, where to progress past the first few pages, I had to open up 9 nine of the 15 bags, resulting in bricks everywhere.
Now that it’s finished, the new house has had its garden extended to accommodate the treehouse, a bunny hutch and parking for a quad bike. Planning permission has been applied for to convert an outbuilding into a combined workshop and design studio. The high street is starting to take shape with its cafe and salon. There are still seven more sets to collect and the pocket money is being saved up for them, as well as for the second wave being released later in the year. I had a sneak peek at some of them and the Toy Fair in London, and if you look closely at the Heartlake City illustration in the instruction manuals you can see them all in there too. Horses seem to be a big thing this time around unfortunately, but hopefully they’ll be a few more boyish-girlie sets like Mia’s drum kit.
I just hope we don’t have to build any more ovens – we’ve already made three, and four sinks too!