Just before the holidays, two amazing young bloggers for the SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) movement, Stephanie Cole and Bailey Shoemaker Richards, joined Powered By Girl, the girl activist arm of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, to initiate a protest of Lego’s new Friends line for little girls. As co-founder of Hardy Girls and (with Professor Deborah Tolman, Hunter College) of the SPARK movement, I’m asked often why we chose to publicly protest Lego rather than, say, sexualized Bratz dolls and other more offensive products aimed at girls.

First, let me say that we do call out and protest those products daily, and we welcome support for these efforts. This past fall SPARK successfully protested an offensive “Anna Rexia” costume (a young woman posing provocatively in a skimpy skeleton costume), ensuring its removal from the catalog of a popular online costume company. A few years ago, the Girls Advisory Board of Hardy Girls successfully protested a tee sold to little boys in a major department store chain that poked fun at violence against girls. The shirts were removed from shelves across the country.

So why Lego? Why now? The trend in marketing is to sell a narrow, commercialized version of gender to younger and younger children, not because it’s good for kids but because it’s profitable to keep things very simple—girls this, boys that. The pink and blue aisles of toy stores are testament to the success of this approach. Lego has just spent four years of research and 40 million dollars to come up with a line of toys that follows this trend. The problem is not pink itself, a perfectly lovely color, it’s that pink gets associated with a narrow, stereotypical set of activities. Increasingly, because marketers also know little girls want to act grown up, these activities imitate what teens are likely to watch on reality TV shows or Gossip Girl. The new Lego Friends sets, complete with girls lounging poolside with drinks, singing in nightclubs, shopping, and getting makeovers now sit in the toy aisles beside lots of other toys, like Bratz dolls, doing the same kinds of things. We’re protesting Lego because we thought they were above this lowest common denominator packaging of girlhood. Lego was one of the last lines of defense against a slew of products that prime little girls to accept this stereotyped version of grown-up femininity. We expect something better from them, so we’re asking for something better.

In response, Lego says that girls who buy their Friends line “will enjoy the exact same building experience and developmental benefits as children who choose any other Lego theme,” and yet they do not offer building instructions in the Friends catalog, as they do in the “regular” Lego catalog. Instead they offer personalities and story lines of Friends’ characters, reaching out to girls with cafes, karaoke, and lost puppies. There is a time and place for these mundane story lines in imaginative play, but when Lego offers them as the “girl” alternative to active adventure stories marketed to little boys, they are sending the wrong message to both girls and boys. There is also no evidence, of course, that the Friends line will have “developmental benefits” and no mention of the ample scientific evidence that shows a negative impact on girls who consume a high volume of such stereotypical messages.

Lego may very well get a larger market share if they have two separate lines of products. But while it’s true that girls and boys play differently, those differences are actually quite small when children are young and they certainly don’t predispose little girls to like shopping, tanning, or hot tubs. The human brain, as neuroscientist, Lise Eliot says, is “fantastically plastic,” and the best thing we can do for our children is to give them a full range of opportunities and experiences, especially in the early years.

Our protest calls attention to the fact that there are lots of girls not interested in what the Friends line has to offer. We launched a petition at Change.org that now has over 46,000 signatures, so we know we are not the only ones concerned. We are not asking Lego to do away with their new line. We are asking them to include more girls in their regular sets, more girls in their commercials for adventure sets, and to market their multi-colored blocks to girls as well as boys. We want Lego to be one company that offers all children the message that they have choices.

Lyn Mikel Brown is Professor of Education at Colby College in Waterville