:: Article

Building the Dream: Lego Friends and the Construction of Human Capital

By Christopher Schaberg, Ginger Brimstein, Waverly Evans, Paige Franckiewicz, Nino Hernandez, Terran Lumpkin, Anahi Molina, & Adelaide Wight.

If you have children of your own – or nieces, nephews, or young cousins – or if you care for kids these days in some other capacity, you will probably at some point catch sight of Lego Friends: minuscule female figurines, about one-and-a-quarter-inch high, with voluminous hair, brightly colored vehicles and accessories, and accompanying miscellaneous contemporary cultural attractions (a surf shop, an organic produce stand, and so on). Friends sets can be purchased at toy stores as well as Target and Walmart super stores, and they can occasionally be spotted in the limited toy section at Walgreens pharmacies. You might be tempted to dismiss these things as girly schlock – derivative of Barbie, Polly Pocket, Playmobil, or any number of other toys. But Lego Friends are gathering momentum, and they deserve a closer look.

The Lego Friends line was originally launched in 2012. Carefully researched and marketed to a previously untapped “girl” market, with brightly coloured bricks and five distinct and vivacious characters, the line was Lego’s gamble that the classic building toys could be sold to girls ages four to twelve. Six years later, the company has produced 258 unique sets and has maintained and spread the original five friends across multiple platforms, from a television series, to books, to Friends themed video games.

Curiously, while the sets’ suggested ages are four to seven (for the entry or “Juniors”n line), and from six to twelve (for the standard line), the actual Friends girls are in high school. This age discrepancy, of course, is not entirely unusual: Lego City sets, for instance, may be primarily consumed by boys, yet their minifigures take part in adult activities such as excavating, policing, thieving, or working at airports. But of note around the Friends line is the way that the girls map perfectly onto a specific generational trajectory: assuming the girls were fifteen in 2012, this places them squarely in what Malcolm Harris, in Kids These Days: Millennials and the Making of Human Capital, has identified as the distinctively millennial condition. In the Lego Friends we might detect, in Harris’s words, “the tangled nest of historical trends […] out of which millennials have emerged.”

Journalists have commented on the problematic aspects of Lego Friends. In a carefully researched article in The Atlantic on the origins and market research behind the toy line, Adrienne LaFrance observed that “the problem with Lego Friends, if there is one, seems to be in the marketing more than the toys themselves – but the trouble is that the messaging is in many ways inextricable from the product.” Indeed, the Friends line is an overwhelming menagerie of marketing sheen, complex (if ultimately delimited) characters, and actual intricate building sets.

To flesh out her point about the messaging of the Friends line, LaFrance noted parenthetically in the article how “(A science lab that was part of the Friends line, which included a pet robot and tiny microscope, is now listed on the Lego site as “retired.”)” While LaFrance’s point about the ‘retirement’ this particular set is something of a red herring (all sets from previous lines get technically ‘retired’), the point is still taken that Lego Friends are cannot help but be in the business of reproducing – or projecting in innovative ways, in certain cases – feminine roles, which may or may not be accurate or on the pulse of societal trends. And yet as Lisa Elliott put it in an article for Bloomberg: “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains.” Elliott suggests another tack, wherein the mixed messages of the Friends may be irrelevant, in light of the more important outcome of girls playing with developmentally healthy and creatively empowering construction toys.

What do the actual building sets entail? Many of the kits represent several things: a main character’s interests and/or skills, as well as a richly detailed environment. Sets range from bedrooms to shops to vehicles, each set somehow tied to the various friends’ personalities. For instance, the Heartlake Surf Shop shows that Mia is involved in outdoor activities, while Emma’s art stand presents her as the more artistic friend in the group. These sets are not simplistic; they are brimming with material details and nuances, as we will elaborate on below. Lego reported that sets requiring more intensive labour and attention to details, such as the Lego Friends, sold better when compared to sets with large, intact pieces. But what arguably loom larger than the playsets themselves are the characters that give them life. The five Friends – Stephanie, Emma, Mia, Andrea, and Olivia – each possess a unique set of personality traits and align with the quality central to their identity. For example, Stephanie is the athletic overachiever; Emma is the optimistic artist; Mia is the no-nonsense nature lover; Andrea is the extroverted musician; and Olivia is the self-sufficient inventor.

The Friends characters themselves are carefully constructed to present a diverse group of human beings. While never delineated or specified in terms of race or ethnicity, their spectrum of skin tones clearly signals diversity – even if this strategy reduces diversity to superficial character types, it produces a framework of identity for kids to see themselves in, and which to grow into as they get older. In other words, kids may not only identify with these characters, but eventually they may begin to emulate them. For instance, one author’s four-year-old daughter learned the phrase “Whatever!” from an episode of Friends, to her parents’ bewilderment. Children can quickly absorb the attitudes and affective registers of the different Friends, and may saturate themselves with these different ‘types’ of personality—and so it is important to consider what these personalities are and what sort of structural realities animate them.

The ages of the Friends characters line up with those of middle and young high schoolers, but the audience of LEGO Friends stretches much younger than that, as far as to four-year-olds. Everything from the television series to the Sims-like video game broadens the scope of these character traits, but to be honest, they’re just restrictive. On the official Lego website, each friend is defined by an enclosed pool of likes and dislikes, encouraging a kid to adopt those “tastes,” possibly in just those amalgam forms, as their own. This suggests how the tastes of children can be imprinted quite quickly and complexly onto multifaceted characters – and the media ecosystem around the Friends line reinforces and enables this intricate imprinting. Further, the Friends live in a generic coastal town, “Heartlake City.” The 2018 changes to the girls and the city made Heartlake City more “differentiated and rich.” However, despite being a culturally and geographically diverse city, it is not a big city, nor a small town, evoking a feeling that anyone can live there. There’s a bit of everything in this town, as the Lego-produced map shows: there is an ‘arts district’, a lake and a beach, mountain ranges for hiking and climbing, a hotel, and (of course) a shopping mall, among other things. In sum this geography conveys the feeling that Heartlake City is almost the apotheosis or wish-image of any type of city.

In what follows, we assemble five specific sets released in 2017 and 2018, and we analyse these in terms of their complexity in terms of the messages around the scenes and characters. In his classic 1955 essay “Toys,” semiotician Roland Barthes commented that in modern plastic toys “…the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it.” In looking at these Lego Friends sets, we pose questions about what sort of owners and users the child becomes when they build and play with these toys, as well as how the toys invite ambiguity and complicate Barthes’s critique of modern plastic toys. As indicated above, we also consider this line of toys as part of the constellation of cultural products that reflect and reinforce the millennial generation and the ways in which this generation become adults.

The Lego Friends sets consist of instruction packets with simple, easy to follow instructions, ensuring that the child building the set will be able to create exactly what is advertised on the box in mise en scene. In assembling the sets, we quickly observed that the pieces were very small and intricate, testing both our patience and the dexterity of our adult hands – but also suggesting that these sets could hardly be called ‘dumbed-down’ or more ‘basic’ than ordinary Lego sets. The work of assembling the sets can be experienced as tedious, and yet as one of us commented upon completing a set, the work pays off: the final product is aesthetically pleasing, rich in detail and texture. Two of us noted the urge to immediately obtain another set, and start the process again. As we built and discussed the following five sets, we reflected on an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Human maturity consists in finding again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” How do these sets initiate children into adulthood, but also how do they allow for serious play? A Guardian article about Lego described the company this way: “Lego is a serious business. It just happens to be in the business of fun.” Yet what happens when the fun of play gets so completely wrapped in the exhausting seriousness of endless work, as the Lego Friends characters cannot help but exhibit? In Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris posits that “The growth of growth requires lots of different kinds of hard work, and millennials are built for it.”

The following five sets move from interior domestic spaces to outside sites for adventure and commerce. We consider each set on its own terms, cumulatively working toward an understanding of the Friends line as a complex reflection of millennial experiences and contradictions.

Stephanie’s Bedroom

Stephanie, the bubbly blonde Friend, is featured in a compact ($10 retail) set that allows children to construct her room out of 95 pieces. The set includes sports equipment (ambiguously a hockey stick or a golf club, and a putting green, as well as a water bottle). There is also a shrine on her dresser with a trophy, a pennant, MVP sticker, and foam finger for waving at sporting events. Her dog, Dash, also resides in the room – with a bone in a dish and a little doghouse. (On the top of the set box, Stephanie is depicted doing push-ups next to her water bottle and trophy, as Dash looks on.)

It is clear by her decorations and memorabilia that she is meant to be the embodiment of Type A personality, whose perfectionism manifests itself through athletic achievement. She possesses enough responsibility to be a star athlete and care for a pet, all while keeping an impeccably neat bedroom. The intentional balance of teenage interests pursued with an adult-like focus and responsibility makes Stephanie a complex character who projects the “you can have it all” message to girls in the Lego Friends’ target market. Everything within Stephanie’s bedroom sends signals informing the children who build it that hard work can pay off. The fruits of her sporting labors are in plain sight. It can even be argued that assembling the room itself is a victory to the kids who complete it.

Olivia’s Deluxe Bedroom

Olivia’s 163 piece Deluxe Bedroom set – an upgrade of the earlier bedroom sets, like Stephanie’s above  – consists of many items that one would find in both an adult’s bedroom and a child’s bedroom. The set features a rocket-shaped bed (replete with fire burning engines), a desk complete with a wide-screen computer, speakers, a swivel chair, and two drawers, a breakfast area with a coffee bean grinder, a milk carton, and a mug (no need for Starbucks), and a functioning elevator and track system for her robot to easily access various electronic accouterments. These items create a strange environment because they are either solely childlike or solely mature. Olivia’s bed shape is playful, and her entire room is atop a heart-shaped base. There’s even a poster of a hamster with a party hat hanging on the wall. Yet she holds a tablet in her hand, has a large desktop computer, and a coffee machine conveniently placed on a nearby table. Not to mention a robot. With the presence of such technology in a youth’s bedroom, and the implication of the necessity for craft caffeine beverages, it becomes difficult to determine exactly how old Olivia is or is supposed to appear (or to act). The box states that the set is intended for children aged six to twelve, yet it is usually looked down upon for children to have access to technology and caffeine in this age gap, as these are generally considered “adult” things (important to regulate and requiring a certain level responsibility to operate). In this confusing combination of items in a youth’s room, Lego mediates between childhood and adulthood, mixing messages while nevertheless creating a coherent scene.

Because Olivia is the “sciency” member of the Lego Friends group, and indulges in inventing (e.g. an elevator system in her bedroom), she most likely has the tablet and computer for her R&D. And maybe she needs coffee to stay energized for her research and projects. Thus we can see that her interests might require “adult” things like technology and caffeine. This idea plays into Barthes’s concept that toys and the games children play are essentially fun imitations of what adults do: toys “prefigure the modern world” for children, according to Barthes. Barthes discusses how some baby dolls urinate and are able to be given a bottle, and how this is likely conditioning young girls to their potential future roles as mothers. Similarly, this Lego Friends set conditions children to their futures as a certain type of adult. The set is not introducing these aspects of everyday life to children since children already see their parents drink coffee and be on their phones throughout the day, every day. The set is perhaps just normalizing these activities for the kids, combining the world that they currently participate in with the world that they will eventually participate in. And in so doing, the distance between these two modes of being is weirdly shrunk in Olivia’s Deluxe Bedroom.

Emma’s Art Cart

Emma’s Art Cart, a 210-piece set, includes a trailer full of art supplies, a cash register, a map of Heartlake City, finished artworks, a price chart, and an “I Heart Heartlake” coffee cup. (The caffeine theme continues.) The set also includes a scooter for pulling the trailer, a cat, and a designated ground with a tree where Emma stands at her easel to work on her latest masterpiece. This totality suggests the artistic member of the Friends group, and yet it communicates an intriguing subtext: While the girls in this series cannot be more than 17 years old, Emma seems to own or at least operate this entire cart herself, where it appears that she also sells her art – it is a complete business setup. She is not just an artist, but also an entrepreneur. If Barthes introduced the idea that the toys children play mimic adult life, and in many ways is prepare them for an inevitable future that lies ahead, in Emma’s Art Cart we see this in crystalline and cohesive form.

This concept of preparing children for their futures at a very young age is also one of the key themes present in Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days. The first chapter of Harris’s book opens with a letter to the parents from the administration of a primary school in New York: the school had made the decision to cut their annual kindergarten show, because it would distract from productivity. “We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills…” This letter evinces how children are being socialised at a very young age to the idea that you grow up, you get a job, you live a happy life. You can even truncate the ‘grow up’ part. Advanced capitalism so saturates contemporary childhood that playtime (the kindergarten show) can be sacrificed if such sacrifice is in the service of productivity. Likewise, in this Lego set, Emma’s art stand contains not only artistic materials, but crucially also a price chart. This converts the art she makes from something that she does conceivably for fun (because she loves doing it, she’s the artistic ‘type’), and turns the entire scene into an IRL Etsy platform. It’s not enough for Emma to be an artist: she also has to be a marketer, accountant, and manager.

It’s worth noting that in the corollary television show, Emma appears to be somewhat of a perfectionist. In the episode “Dolphin Cruise” she is seen drawing a poster and makes the comment “good enough is not good enough; I want it to be…perfect.” Curiously, on the Lego Website Emma is also described as not enjoying finishing her creative projects. This results in a somewhat confused image, between the Emma we see on screen, the Emma as portrayed on the Lego website, and Emma in the Art Cart set. Harris illuminates this conundrum by articulating how the millennial generation is historically doing extraordinary amounts of work, yet are also viewed as slackers who cannot focus on one thing for a prolonged period of time.

Andrea’s Speedboat Transporter

Andrea’s Speedboat Transporter is an interesting set in the collection when considering the ownership and internal relationships that it presents. The ensemble includes a speedboat, a juice bar decorated with colourful string lights, a fire pit complete with enormous hot dogs and lounge chairs for relaxation and hanging out. There is a sporty convertible (license plate: “BEACH GRL”) with a trailer that hitches onto the back to carry the speedboat. There are water skis that connect to the back of the speedboat, and a guitar for Andrea to use while singing around the campfire. There is also a sea turtle hiding out under a sandcastle hut. There isn’t as much “water” or “sand” (as compared with the surf shop, below), and in fact it is somewhat ambiguous just where this scene is taking place in proximity to a waterway.

The musician in the group, Andrea is brought together in this set with Emma (the artist). Why were these two girls chosen out of all five to be included in this set? Mia is more of an outdoorsy person and Stephanie enjoys sports and outdoor activities. Why not include those two girls, as opposed to Andrea and Emma? Is Lego attempting to challenge the stereotypes of the artistic girls by placing them in an outdoor setting? Although the speedboat transporter is bigger than the other sets we put together so far, there is less building of a place like a bedroom – rather, the focus on this set involves three distinct modes of transportation. Which actually suggests that Olivia, the inventor (qua engineer), might have been a better fit for this set.

The idea that Andrea herself owns a car and a boat transporter is mystifying. These large vehicles are quite expensive, not to mention hard to operate. (Although, we’ve now established that Emma has a profitable business model; her art cart could not have been cheap. And Andrea, according to the “Dolphin Cruise” episode, has a music blog – and so, probably, also a lucrative YouTube channel.) Not many young teenage girls own such large items unless they’re gifted to them by parents; but the implication here is that millennial subjects can do it on their own. Furthermore, there is no parental supervision at all on this water-skiing adventure, which is curious considering parents would normally be driving the boat and ensuring no friend or boat is injured. Furthermore, there is also an absence of workers at the juice bar – money is involved, but the labour involved in this enterprise is simply elided. As Marx puts it in his “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts 1844,” “political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labour) and production.” Decontextualized from the economic system and yet flagrantly displaying its materials, the girls are placed in their own world – an idea that is both exciting and eerie.

Heartlake Surf Shop

Unlike many other sets in the Lego Friends line, the Heartlake Surf Shop has a special role in mediating childhood and adulthood by being less attached to any specific Lego Friends characters. While the surf shop comes with Mia, it is definitely not hers. While Emma owns her Art Cart, then, and while there are other sets like the girls’ bedrooms that have a clear owner, the surf shop is simply a store in the town – presumably owned by an adult, but an adult nowhere to be seen. The surf shop set is 186 pieces, and builds a store that’s located on the beach; the store itself is elevated, and there is a boardwalk from the beach directly to the door of the store. There is also a patch of sand, on which the builder assembles a reclining beach chair. The set also includes smaller pieces like a purple kayak, a bright orange life jacket, an outdoor shower with both hot and cold knobs, and a pet seal named Velvet. The shop itself has a touch of decoration with a Hokusai-esque cresting wave atop the green and white awning.

Inside the shop are a number of items: binoculars and sunglasses on a rotating display, rollerskates and flippers, and even a Heartlake bumper sticker. Importantly, there is also a cash register at a counter. The instructions of the set advise that the builder should place the $100 bill piece on the counter at a slant – as if to suggest that it was recently and casually left there, perhaps to pay for a camera, or two pairs of sunglasses, both of which are priced explicitly in advertisements throughout the set. Though at first these stickers read like unsuspecting, generic posters on a storefront, a close look reveals that they have numbers on them: 50 on the sunglasses display sign, 100 on the poster advertising a camera. These numbers are not ascribed a specific value since they don’t have a dollar sign next to them, but the presence of money certainly implies that these are prices, and that this store indeed follows the economic rules of a store in real life.

Of course, as we saw with the juice bar near Andrea’s speedboat transporter, Lego Friends sets frequently have these typically ‘adult’ settings evacuated of any actual adults. And while we can suspend our disbelief about this lack of adults in Lego Friends sets, the presence of money in this particular setting calls to mind Barthes’ idea that “toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized.” Rather than, for example, building a Lego cash register, which might function as a tool to teach children about money, the builder of Heartlake Surf Shop is exposed to the parts of a store in a nuanced way, as a cute, colourful scene they have just built for Mia to enjoy as a consumer. It’s never stated that this toy is meant to teach shopping etiquette, and yet in the building of the set, you place a tiny “OPEN” sign on the front door. There is no “CLOSED” sign. The Heartlake Surf Shop is permanently open for the business of fun. Millennials, shop till you drop.

What, then, do we make of the character who has been placed (somewhat arbitrarily) in this set? Of the Lego Friends, Mia is the outdoorsy type: according to her page on the Lego Friends site, she likes animals, nature, honesty, and alone time. If the Lego Friends are old enough to drive, then perhaps it’s no stretch that Mia should be able to handle money in a store – even to confidently leave it to be taken care of after she’s gone. The Heartlake Surf Shop hints at a realistic world in which there are in fact adults living in the town other than these five Friends; in turn, it begins to acclimate its builder, anywhere from the suggested six to twelve years old, to the independent exchange of capital.

The Lego Friends line, especially as drawn out through the television series, arguably advances a number of progressive ideals: these girls are empowered, independent, environmentally conscious, and undoubtedly leaning in across traditional gender boundaries to the point that male characters are peripheral at best, sometimes plain dumb, and even at times unnecessary altogether. At the same time, builders and viewers in more conservative households can watch these episodes and build these sets without parents raising eyebrows: the show still follows an able-bodied, heteronormative narrative, even as it also implies female empowerment and independence. While male characters do pop up occasionally, the writers are careful not to make them integral components of the story, or heroes by any means. They are depicted as a smart, talented group of young women with a penchant for problem-solving and helping others. To bolster the ecological awareness of the group, in the episode “Dolphin Cruise,” the Friends create a mechanism to prevent dolphins from getting caught in bycatch nets, proving their brains and benevolence all at once. It is important that young girls receive the message that conventional beauty pales in comparison to the exertion of generous heart and mind. As the aforementioned episode has a distinct ‘green’ theme, it seizes an opportunity to educate viewers on an urgent, real-world issue.

And yet, as Harris points out in Kids These Days, “At the end of the day, trying to improve society with consumerism is like stepping up to the plate and trying to throw a touchdown. You’re playing the wrong game.” As much as Lego Friends are infused with empowering messages and motifs, they nevertheless feed the maw of late-stage capitalism and fuel individual consumerism through each set purchase and episode viewing. In her book Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay offers the following insight:

Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly – girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience. We can only try to represent girlhood in ways that are varied and recognizable. All too often, however, this doesn’t happen.

In the Lego Friends sets we assembled and in the episode “Dolphin Cruise,” we found ourselves troubled and and overwhelmed by the dizzying gyre of meanings and associations attached to these five personable girls and their attendant world of Heartlake City. Lego represents girlhood almost too wholly, precisely by attempting to exhaustively define and flesh out the archetypes and world views of the five Friends. Mia, Emma, Andrea, Stephanie, and Olivia – these are role models, but to what end? Lego Friends lures us into a simulated dream of hyper-productive human life, a vivid yet sterile microcosm of late capitalism at full tilt.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
The authors wrote this essay as part of a new, two-week May term course at Loyola University New Orleans. The course was called “The Poetics of Childhood,” and it focused on children’s literature, the philosophy of play, and the political economics of millennials. At Loyola Ginger Brimstein is an English major, Waverly Evans is an English major, Paige Franckiewicz is an accounting major, Nino Hernandez is an English major, Terran Lumpkin is a psychology major, Anahi Molina is an English major, and Adelaide Wight is an English major. Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English, and the author of several books about airports. His new book The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth will be out from Bloomsbury in July. 

 

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 11th, 2018.