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“Sexist” new Lego range targets girls

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Lego Friends

Despite producing a staggering 400 billion bricks in a mind-blowing number of configurations since production started in 1958, there's been one thing Lego has had trouble building.

A female audience.

As a company, Lego has rarely been in stronger shape, having more than doubled its 2006 revenue to over a billion dollars in annual sales, but it's still trying to reach beyond its primarily young, male demographic. Since 2007 the company's been plotting what execs are hawking as the biggest Lego launch in a decade, and this month rolls out a controversial line of over 20 new sets aimed squarely at young girls.

So out go the distinctive, squat proportions of the timeless Lego "minifigure," replaced by taller and slimmer "ladyfigs" with noticeably feminine curves. The new range of characters have names, backstories, personalities, and even mottos (inspiring nuggets like "Let's get to work!"). They come complete with playsets themed after veterinarians, convertible cars, beauty shops, and dog shows, done up in pastel hues.

Dubbed "Lego Friends" (the logo comes with both a heart and a butterfly, in case you were in any doubt about its intended audience), the new set launched in the U.S. on January 1 and should be showing up in retailers soon. You'll find it in the aisle with the Barbies and hairbows, not in the no-girls-allowed Lego section -- or that's the plan.

It's far from the first time Lego has reached for the female demographic; the firm's been making intermittent attempts to hit the "other 50%" of children since the 1970s. Prior attempts, however, never managed to gain much traction. Toy collectors may be reminded of Hasbro's 1967 launch of the G.I. Joe Nurse Action Girl, a similar spin-off that failed in dramatic style, disappearing from store shelves after just a year and winding up a highly valuable rarity.

And although you might expect a range of girl-friendly construction toys to go down well with women's rights groups, it's proving a surprisingly tough sell to some.

Enraged by what they see as gender stereotyping, pressure group SPARK started a petition on web site asking Lego to stop "selling out girls." Thus far it's attracted nearly 3,000 signatures.

"Raising healthy girls and boys is all about creating a wide range of possibilities and options for our children," says SPARK co-founder (and developmental psychologist) Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown in the petition's preamble. "The rainbow of colors and a range of options for young children to create the scenes they are most interested in is much better for them than feeding them a narrow set of stereotypes."

It's also sparked something of a backlash from Lego-loving parents, many of whom have been happily giving "boy" Lego sets to kids of both genders for years.

"With the Lego 'Friends' collection, my daughter is being firmly taught her place in our culture," says one sarcasm-oozing Amazon review. "Her place is pink and pastel, and it is focused on her appearance, leisure activity, homemaking, baking, or the care of animals. Thank God! Thank Lego!"

Other fans channeled their creativity into their models rather than their wit -- and one was quick to seize the potential of the brand-new pastel shades, reworking the new pieces into "Pixie Poison," a sleek, tasteful, lilac space vessel.

But who's driving it? An old, genderless minifigure, its hairstyle -- often the sole difference between male and female Lego characters -- replaced by a gender-neutral helmet.

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