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ESTHER CEPEDA: Not a fan of the new 'lady' Legos.

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO — My sons are aghast at what we call the new "Lady Legos." So am I.They think our favorite toy manufacturer's new "Friends" line of building kits aimed at girls is "stupid." My two boys don't view Legos as male toys in need of a female variety. To them, Legos are already gender-neutral.

Of course, they are biased. The most fervent evangelist of the multicolored, interlocking building bricks in their lives -- the one who has pushed them into Lego clubs and Lego-building classes, and arranges family outings to the local Lego museum -- is a woman. Me.

My problem with the new "Friends" Legos is that they are specifically designed to more closely resemble the rest of the pink, girly, personal-appearance-driven claptrap already cluttering department stores' girl toy aisles.

When the new building sets were first announced in December, they inspired angry reactions from offended women. Well before the toys hit stores last month, a change.org women's rights petition called "Tell LEGO to stop selling out girls!" received more than 52,000 signatures.

I just recently got a chance to inspect the new Legos, and it's pretty clear why they'd hit such a nerve.

The seven "Friends" sets I found are designed for 5- to 12-year-olds, and range from a scant 43 bricks to a small 183-piece set. But though you'd never let a toddler play with something with such tiny pieces, they look like something only a 3- or 4-year-old would find interesting, setting aside the complexity of assembling it, that is.

The sets feature female figures completely unlike regular Lego "minifigs" -- lest anyone be confused about their gender, the "ladyfigs" have long, shapely hair to go with their curvy busts, arms and legs.

These Lego women spend their time lounging by the pool -- with a fruity Lego tropical drink -- or singing on a glamorous stage. Some assemble cakes in an outdoor bakery, put big pink bows on puppies at the dog show, or wash their fancy convertible cars.

If you're the sort of woman who feels nauseated anytime the "sugar and spice and everything nice" version of womanhood is served on a platter to young children, these Legos will make you despise our society's lovingly held caricatures of femininity even more.

But I fear that not enough of us grimace at the constant barrage of princess fantasy gear, preschooler manicure/pedicure kits, and lipstick and other makeup products for girls under 12.

Lego, a privately held company, can't be hammered too hard for taking a sure route to increased profitability through the hearts and purses of the millions of American grandmothers and moms who live to see their little girls swathed in pink and lilac and playing make-believe mommy, celebrity or pastry chef.

This could turn out to be the exact reason why the "Friends" line may not be the worst way in the world to get more girls to use their left brains and engage in the engineering skills necessary to create Lego masterpieces.

Legos started out as building toys designed to appeal to both sexes, but in the late 1980s the company began a testosterone-fueled appeal to boys via its wildly successful "Zach, the Lego Maniac" marketing campaign.

Look on the shelves today and you'll see boy-friendly ninja, "Star Wars" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" sets dominating most stores' selection, and they're sitting among the toy swords, action figures and remote-controlled cars. Who could blame a generation of women and their mothers for never considering a Lego play set for their little girl?

If the smiling bunnies, lipsticked dolls and beauty accessories invite a whole new crowd of women to make building with interlocking blocks appealing, then it may not be too far a leap for those same consumers to walk to the next aisle and embrace the rest of Lego's general interest products such as medieval market villages and castles, "Toy Story 3," "Harry Potter" and architecture-themed sets.

And let's not forget that some girls will love building airplanes, race cars, imperial flagships and undersea explorers as much as boys do.

However, until that sophisticated level of marketing strategy is taken advantage of by a company that surely didn't mean to insult the very people they'd hoped to appeal to, Lego should consider that girls can also dream about being astronauts, ninjas and superheroes.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.