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Oct 14 2012

Some pinkification I can live with… for now

A while back, someone on Twitter pointed me to this GoldieBlox Kickstarter project, excited that finally, someone was doing something to get young girls interested in engineering. In amongst the glut of male-targeted building toys like K’nex and Erector Sets and LEGO, there’s hardly any such thing for girls. None of these toys are inherently boy-oriented (so long as you omit the obvious pun), but all of them are always always ALWAYS advertised for boys with special playsets to build things that boys are enculturated to like, like cars and helicopters and space ships.

There’s often a girls version that is pink, because girls simply aren’t picking up those “boys’ toys”. This offering involves princesses and ponies and none of the things boys “like”. Look at K’nex’ Tinkertoy offering for girls, with its uniquely colored blocks and princess figurines. Or LEGO’s foray which makes the minifigs “pretty” and all the blocks pastel and designed so you can make a French cafe.

These attempts at girlifying this class of toys — let’s call them engineering toys — are often quite maddening in the face of this culture, that has since the turn of the last century wholly entrenched rigid gender roles from the Victorian era. In this culture, where once we looked like we were actually coming out of the woods when LEGO produced ads for their unisex product that were absolutely wonderful and starred little girls as often as little boys, all doing the same things — but have evidently since backslid to an enormous degree. In this culture, where even three year olds can grok the transparent gendered marketing.

So I can totally see why some might lash out at yet another example of pinkification to try to get girls interested in engineering.

But in the case of GoldieBlox, I can live with it.

My reasoning is rather simple, even. The kids themselves aren’t the ones who are going to buy these toys, nor would they ever drive their parents batty asking for it over and over again after seeing a commercial, because it’s targeted at ages 5 to 9 (though I’d contend it would be most effective given to even younger kids than that!), and isn’t likely to GET a commercial any time soon. So, the toy’s real marketing target is the child’s parents. And these parents are, for the most part, already invested in the very recent — and patently false — narrative that pink things are for girls, that girls prefer pink things naturally.

It is due to this long-standing cultural conditioning that parents are primed to see engineering toys as boys’, including LEGO and K’nex, when as I’ve said there’s nothing inherently gendered about the concept or the implementation. So these parents see the unisex engineering toy as a boy’s toy, and the pretty pink dolly as a girl’s toy. The narrative fits with their pre-existing conditioning toward rigid gender roles, so they lap it right up. So GoldieBlox actually stands a chance of making its way into a little girl’s Christmas haul.

An image of GoldieBlox, which consists of a picture book opened to a page with an illustrated blonde engineer lady saying "Ahem! Listen up!" and a set of pegs and spools arranged in a star pattern, with a ribbon running between them to form a conveyor/pulley system operated by crank.

There’s an aspect for which I’m entirely unsure of the science behind, however. When I originally read this Kickstarter, Debbie Sterling, the Stanford engineer behind this Kickstarter, claimed that one of the reasons girls are less likely to be interested in the engineering toys is that they don’t include an aspect of narrative to hook the young girls. That without some emotional connection to the toy, they’d have no motivation to carry out the task of building the required solution. Now, this claim has since been eliminated entirely from the Kickstarter, so it’s well possible that she’s come to realize that this was entirely speculative and not scientifically-founded, that girls do equally well without narrative, but it’s also possible that the concept of engaging the kids on an emotional level works equally well for any gender.

Nostalgic anecdata alert: I know that, as a child, I would have cared far less about my Voltron toys if I didn’t know the lion robots joined together to form one massive war mech specifically to oppose evil warlords in the Drule Empire who were vying for galactic domination. If they were just weird lion robots that fit together, big deal. But no, I was invested in the story. Meaning, the whole purpose for the cartoon series — to sell me toys — worked perfectly. So this argument that stories help encourage emotional investment certainly rings true to me, just not the bit about gender.

So making a “Bob The Builder” style heroine who coaches girls in how to build a ribbon conveyor belt entirely out of pastel-and-pink-colored blocks, encouraging these girls to experiment with the pieces afterward to see how else one could orient the pieces and still have a functioning design — it’s an excellent idea. It’s an idea that takes all the best parts of other engineering toys and adds a story to engage the girl in the task at hand (if that indeed helps).

But most importantly, it’s pinkified to get a foot in the door. Since parents are ultimately the gatekeepers of what activities / toys a kid participates in / plays with, and since parents are the most likely culprit for the next generation’s entrenched gender roles (save, maybe, television, which some kids endure as a surrogate parent), I consider this a sort of rogue marketing move. It is a way to get a parent who is invested in those rigid roles to expose their little girl to something that might lead to her future in science, technology, engineering or math — and whether that exposure happens because the parent feels less guilty about it since it’s “for girls”, or completely by accident because they were fooled, I am pleased with the result either way.

As a kid who grew up with both an electronics project set from Radio Shack, and a Tandy 1000 EX which led to my eventual computer career, I know damn well how important it is to expose kids to the sorts of toys that lead to their future careers. Toys that let them explore their imagination and their engineering capabilities are a great idea, regardless of what color they are. And if they graduate from GoldieBlox to something like K’nex, or LEGO Mindstorms, or hacking your Roomba, or tinkering with your car, or building the next space shuttle, so much the better.

One day, I will be more than happy to know that toys are no longer pinkified to sell to a parent who’s bought into the “pink things are for girls” meme, because that meme has evaporated with all the rest of the horridly rigid gender roles that keep us oppressing one another along various axes of self-expression. And I will be ecstatic to see GoldieBlox filling the storification-of-engineering-toys niche, instead of the pinkification-of-engineering-toys-for-girls niche.

Until that day, though, I’ll accept this for the foot in the door that it is.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Michael Brew

    This offering involves princesses and ponies and none of the things boys “like”.

    What about pony princesses?

  2. 2
    godlessfeminist

    I agree with you. It’s a start, even if it has to be ‘pinkified.’ I too have mixed feelings on the issue, but I believe you are right, that parents still buy the pinks for girls.

  3. 3
    DBP

    I think your post leaves out one of the more crucial elements of this toy/kickstarter project:Benjamin Cranklin, the Cat With Attitude.

    Jesus Christ. That is one of the best names I have ever come across.

  4. 4
    Apparently Not Erin

    You know what gets me: it was the late Boomers and early Gen Xers that really pushed the pinkification of the toy world. Sure Barbie and GI Joe were around when they were kids, but not even 30 years ago, girls played with Lego, wore brown and blue, and had pink some toys but they not so completely omnipresent.

    I had four Cabbage Patch Kids and I don’t think even one wore pink. My kitchen set was white and yellow, and so help me if I didn’t get in trouble for playing with my brother’s AT-AT and Millennium Falcon. I had a Rubik’s Cube (which over 20 years later, I still can’t solve), Lego and an Etch-a-Sketch and I played with them all and no, not one of them was pinkified. I will admit to occasionally having a pink skipping rope, but some years I had an orange one.

    The blatant pinkification of almost all girls’toys was starting back then (thanks to my parents for not falling for it), but somewhere in the past several years, it has gotten worse.

    I’m thrilled that there’s a building toy out there that’s designed specifically for girls. I’m sad that it’s pink and has ribbon, but if that’s what it takes to get it through the door and get girls interested, then it’ll have to do. Good on Debbie for seeing the need and doing something about it. I hope it’s successful (and can eventually move out of the pink theme) and helps to open the door for a whole bunch of girls.

  5. 5
    mildlymagnificent

    not even 30 years ago, girls played with Lego, wore brown and blue, and had pink some toys but they not so completely omnipresent.

    Speaking as a grumpy old lady early baby boomer (born before 1950), I’m glad my kids were born in the early 80s to have the sort of early toys you’re talking about. And even in say 1990, you could still get a trainset suitable for girls – neither pinkified nor monstered/sci-fied up.

    I of course grew up with old-fashioned Meccano sets where we had real miniature metal tools just like Daddy’s – that was great. I had no interest in dolls, though my sister led a veritable army of 6 year olds with dolls in tiny pushers around our house. Jigsaws and other toys were absolutely neutral on the pink/blue scale. Landscapes or animals and not much concession to skill level, only size.

    The biggest difference, for my generation, was that we girls got lots of paper doll, sewing and embroidery kits where the boys got stuff you could actually play with. Everybody got the standard range of board games. Infants got blocks with absolutely no gender connotations, they were just baby stuff.

    (I’m starting to be sorry that we gave away our buckets of lego and similar durable toys. With grandchildren arriving in the next couple of years, I can see a few grumpy old lady tantrums being thrown around here when I get a good look at what’s available for littlies. I might have to go the big $$$ route and go for educational suppliers. Their stuff is intended for kindies and daycare so they’re way beyond durable for household standards. At least you know they won’t break.)

  6. 6
    A. Theo Bromine

    Perhaps if I were a sociologist (instead of an electrical engineer) I would be able to explain what happened in the last decade of the last millennium such that it became so necessary to emphasize gender differences that people felt the need to soften and pinkify the girls and harden the boys.

    Like mildlymagnificent, my kids(2 boys) were born in the 1980s. They had dolls – mostly baby dolls, though my older son liked Barbies. They had Lego (which was not as thematic at the time, at least until Star Wars). They had Playmobil (a European system of small figures and scenes) – their sets included a zoo, a field hospital, and some ordinary household stuff, with a balanced gender mix in all occupations. It seems that many parents today consider this sort of thing quaint and old-fashioned.

    I’m sorry to rain on the parade, but I’m not very impressed with this concept (though I do think the proposer’s goals are laudable). One of the best things about a Lego set, for example, is that once you have built the model that it was designed for, you can repurpose the components to make any number of other things, including combining it with all other Lego sets. This seems like a single-purpose toy, albeit with a story with variations, but not really about the engineering (now if it could be made compatible to fit with Lego blocks, that might have possibilities).

    Also,I find some of the statements in the kickstarter unsettling:
    the the set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls.

    Wait, what? “*innately appealing to girls*”??? Young boys *innately* like hard and dark things?

    Last but not least, the story of Goldie is lighthearted and humorous. It takes the intimidation factor out of engineering and makes it fun and accessible.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding this statement, but to me it seems backwards to try to attract girls to engineering by making it friendly and “easy enough for a girl”. Engineering isn’t easy, it’s often challenging and frustrating. “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard”. But there’s no reason that girls are not up to the challenges and able to overcome the frustrations just as well as boys.

  7. 7
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Kids don’t need a narrative. In fact, they will likely ignore it, unless they’ve already been exposed to ten thousand hours of books or video programming for which the toy is a cross-marketing afterthought. But even then, they’ll skip your narrative. Because thy all have their own narratives (sometimes multiple mutually exclusive, overlapping, silly, illogical, interesting narratives) running through their heads all the time. Playing isn’t about fitting parts together* so much as expressing and illustrating the narrative that already exists in the child’s mind.

    *Unless we’re talking about still-figuring-out-reality toys or toys which are very versatile and ‘engineering’ orientated.

  8. 8
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Oh, anyway, has anyone seen the Barbie Closet television advertisement?

  9. 9
    Elly

    “Perhaps if I were a sociologist (instead of an electrical engineer) I would be able to explain what happened in the last decade of the last millennium such that it became so necessary to emphasize gender differences that people felt the need to soften and pinkify the girls and harden the boys.”

    As a kid growing up in the 60′s – early 70′s, gender divisions were built directly into the system. In my “progressive” California, SF Bay Area schools, for example, the dress code for girls mandated dresses – this didn’t change until I was in 8th grade. In junior high, girls had to take cooking and sewing; and were not permitted in the shop classes the boys were required to take. Gym classes were uniformly segregated by gender as well – I was a junior in HS before a handful of co-ed classes were offered (I was one of only two girls to enroll in the golf class).

    Yet my toys were a real mixed bag. I owned an Easy Bake Oven and a microscope/slides from Edmund Scientific; stuffed animals/dolls and a Mattel “ThingMaker” (I spent hours making bugs and other creepy crawlers). I recall my Etch-A-Sketch, Magic-8-Ball, Tinkertoys, modeling clay etc. I played chess with my dad regularly. I had lots of science/nature books, too.

    I have plenty of memories of my parents making sure my clothes and hair were properly girly (my mother set my hair in ringlets 2 – 3 times a week). Yet their obsession stopped there: I have no memories of ever being denied (or talked out of) a game or toy because it was “for” boys.

    Based on this experience, I suspect toys were more variable because femininity was enforced through plenty of other social channels. I don’t think it’s an accident that – now that girls can routinely wear “boy” clothes and engage in “boy” sports and other activities – “pinkification” exists to make sure that the gender divide is maintained.

  10. 10
    mildlymagnificent

    Based on this experience, I suspect toys were more variable because femininity was enforced through plenty of other social channels.

    There’s also the issue that infancy and childhood were seen as separate life stages all of their own. A lot of the ‘universal’ toys had a bit of that about them. Femininity was enforced rigorously through my 50s childhood and 60s teens, but there was one big difference between my childhood and my children’s.

    Freedom. We walked and cycled and caught buses on our own from quite early ages. We had ‘secret societies’ that met under hedges. My parents let me go with another 6 year old on our own to Saturday afternoon pictures. We went to the city alone from age 10 onwards. Our parents were very, very strict about turning up on time for meals with clean face and hands. But they might not have known where we were for four or more hours during the day.

    My children? I knew where they were and who they were with for all weekends and holidays and practically every minute of the time they weren’t at school during term time. We might not have been “strict” in my childhood terms but we had lot more direct control.

  11. 11
    anthonyallen

    My family was not very well off when I was younger, and when my parents moved us out west when I was 10 or so, my sister and I didn’t have a whole lot of friends at first. Some of my best memories were of when my sister and I used to play with her dolls and tell little stories with them. My favorite was a Barbie’s-little-sister doll whom I named Angie.

    By the way, Jason, Tandy 1000? You had it good! I learned BASIC II on a TRS-80 in Junior high computer club.

  12. 12
    Apparently Not Erin

    Mildlymagnificent:

    Toys by Melissa & Doug are great. They have a lot of learning toys, wooden stuff, puzzles, and art supplies though they can be a little pricy. Imaginarium also makes a lot of cool wooden toys (but don’t get their castle, it’s awesome in size but not in quality). Lego still puts out their basic lines so you don’t have to buy City, Star Wars, or pink.

  1. 13
    GoldieBlox commercial wins the internet over » Lousy Canuck

    […] time ago, I wrote about the kickstarter for this project, and how I could live with the pinkification it took to sell these engineering projects for girls […]

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