By Bailey Shoemaker Richards

After months of writing, campaigning, researching, talking to the press and parents and kids, SPARK finally had the chance to meet with LEGO to talk about the Friends line, and LEGO’s role in shaping kids’ play. LEGO agreed to meet with SPARK representatives after we launched a petition that garnered over 55,000 signatures and sent them a letter requesting a conversation about the dangerous road we saw LEGO starting to traverse.

On Friday, April 20, Dana Edell, Jamia Wilson, Stephanie Cole and I had the opportunity to sit down with three LEGO executives – Michael McNally (brand relations director), Laura Post (senior director) and Nanna Ulrich Gudum (senior creative director). What was intended to be an hour-long meeting lasted 90 minutes, and the SPARKteam left the meeting feeling energized and encouraged. McNally made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that their role as LEGO’s ambassadors was to be active listeners and take our concerns into account. We were thrilled that they were so willing to engage with the research and information we had prepared.

Before beginning the meeting, we discussed the media treatment of the discussion. SPARK has approached our critique of LEGO from a place of long-time admiration and disappointment, rather than one of anger. Despite that, the media loves a good brawl and has portrayed SPARK as an angry feminist group out to get the LEGO Friends banned because we hate pink. This has not been the case, however, and we made sure that the LEGO representatives were aware that our criticism is based on wanting the best for girls, as well as the LEGO company. While news outlets might have more fun telling the story of a fight, the meeting was pleasant, productive and inspiring for everyone involved.

We took three main requests to LEGO. First, we want to see more girls and women characters across all LEGO lines. My report to LEGO showed that 86.6% of characters are men, which is a major gender gap, and one reason that girls may no longer feel welcomed by LEGO products. A failure to include better representation of girls and people of color in prominent and non-stereotyped roles makes it harder for kids to see themselves in the product, and less likely to want to play with it. By increasing the number of visible women throughout the product lines, LEGO can more easily welcome girls to the building experience beyond the Friends.

Second, we want to see girls featured in more LEGO ads, and we want to see boys featured in ads for the LEGO Friends. If LEGO’s intention with the creation of the Friends line is to bring girls into the LEGO experience fully, they need to show girls engaged with toys aside from the Friends – and if they want boys to be comfortable playing with the Friends line, they need to show that, too. LEGO’s marketing has been very gendered over the last couple of decades, and research has shown that 76% of kids who see boys and girls in commercials are likely to think that toy is for everyone, compared to 40% of kids shown an ad featuring only boys or only girls. Simply making an effort to balance gender representation in ads is an easy way to make kids feel welcome.

And finally, as LEGO expands the Friends line, we want to see the inclusion of sets designed around non-stereotyped activities for girls: spaceships, politics, firefighting, architecture, teaching and business. Making the Friends line a truly representative line of options for girls and boys will diminish the stereotype threat we see in it now, as well as help keep girls engaged in the cognitive development offered by LEGO products. While the initial offerings in the LEGO Friends line are stereotyped and problematic, they do have the potential to get girls back into the LEGO brand – but LEGO also needs to make sure they have offerings for girls whose interests aren’t as focused on beauty. We also want to see more focus on and celebration of Olivia’s inventor’s set and treehouse – while these are great products in the current Friends line, they receive no commercial attention.

One of the most encouraging parts of the meeting with LEGO was that the individuals sitting around the table shared many of our concerns, and were able to see why SPARK sees the Friends as a problematic addition to the LEGO suite of products. McNally told us that LEGO completed an internal audit of their minifigure count, and will be increasing the number of women across all LEGO-owned lines by the end of this year, something that has been in development.

Additionally, LEGO is working on their communication to and about girls across the company – something that has been noticeably missing from their advertising in recent years. My personal hope would be to see more commercials and promotional material featuring boys and girls playing together, and father-daughter, mother-son, mother-daughter and brother-sister commercials advertising the pleasure that can be found in building a new LEGO sculpture. I would also like to see ads for the Friends that feature a greater focus on the act of building, instead of a focus on visiting “the newly built” café. If LEGO’s emphasis is on the benefits of engaging with construction play, commercials for the Friends need to have the same active language featured in other LEGO ads.

Many of the areas where we felt LEGO was failing to include girls whose interests don’t run along stereotyped images and stories are areas of concern and interest within LEGO as well. We were told that LEGO wants to build a ramp to bring girls back into LEGO through Friends, and the hope is then that girls will find a safe and welcoming environment to explore other lines and products. It seems that there is work being done to make sure that girls’ introduction to LEGO doesn’t start and stop with the current batch of LEGO Friends, and we sincerely hope that LEGO’s commitment to creating beneficial and healthy play for all kids is something that continues.

During the meeting, SPARK members reinforced that our criticism of LEGO stems from a place of fondness, and that our disappointment comes from holding LEGO to a higher standard of toy-making – one that is gender-neutral and allows kids to engage in the benefits of construction play without the intrusion of outmoded and harmful gender stereotyping. We are thrilled that the LEGO representatives expressed such a deep passion for creating healthy play patterns for children, and we hope to see them meet our expectations in the coming years.