INTRODUCTION: In the first part of this piece, which appeared yesterday, I related how I’d been bombarded by the viral video commercial for GoldieBlox — construction kits marketed specifically to girls in order “to get girls building” — while considering Christmas gifts for my own four daughters. After an initial rush of enthusiasm from consumers, GoldieBlox experienced some backlash for peddling pastel toys while simultaneously claiming that they wanted to “disrupt the pink aisle.” All of which raised interesting questions that get at the heart of our culture’s confusion about what it means to be a female: Are traditionally “girly” toys and games (dolls, tea sets, princess play) inferior to traditionally “masculine” toys and games? In order to encourage girls to engage in more “masculine” play, do we need to make separate-but-equal toys (i.e. traditional boy toys in pastel hues)? And if we answer “yes” to the two previous questions, aren’t we demeaning girls? So where does that leave us?
Today I’ll attempt to tackle some of these issues based on my own experience.
I consider myself a bit of an expert on girls and women. I don’t do research in a lab or anything that counts in academia, but I’ve been a girl and now I’m a woman with four girls of my own.
My daughters have spent most of their lives in rural Vermont. We don’t have a television or smartphones; the only “screen time” they get comes via some games on my iPod and whatever DVDs they check out of our local library. The only magazines that come to our house are The New Yorker and The Economist. Two stores in our town have any toy section to speak of: T.J. Maxx and Ben Franklin (which is a five-and-dime). They have never been in a movie theater. And, because we never learned the gender of our babies before they were born, each girl spent most of her first year in gender-neutral onesies.
In short, my daughters are about as close as you can get in America these days to having been raised in the woods by wolves.
Nevertheless, without encouragement from me and very little external exposure, at about three years old every one of my daughters hit a “princess phase,” as if a Disney gene was suddenly activated. By four years old, it was Barbie. At five, ponies and puppies. Our house is full of baby dolls, tea sets, fairy wings, and pink tutus. These are not things that my daughters saw in commercials, or were given because they’re girls — they’re mostly things that my daughters saw in stores or at friends’ houses and longed for. And my girls play with both boys and girls, so they’re exposed to toys on “both sides of the aisle.” I have almost no experience with boys, but as far as I can tell my daughters’ male contemporaries tend to be drawn to completely different toys.
So I don’t believe toy companies are to blame for creating the concepts of “girly” and “boyish;” I think they’re reinforcing differences that may largely be hard-wired. Their marketers are experts at determining what products and branding will appeal to girls, and what will appeal to boys. And in my experience, there seems to be something innate in many girls that’s attracted to pastels and flowers and princesses and babies — an innate something that isn’t as present in many boys.
Of course, it’s not so simple. Our house is also full of cars and train sets and Legos and model dinosaurs. Each of my girls went through a year when she’d wear nothing but dresses — and the following year she’d refuse to wear anything but pants. When discussing their interests with my two oldest daughters, one told me she was interested in “swimming and sports,” and the other in “dog training, hunting, fishing…and ballet.” Good parenting, it seems to me, is moving beyond what the toy companies tell you to buy for girls (or boys), and just noticing who your kids are. Paying attention to our children when we choose their toys is how we ultimately “disrupt the pink aisle” — or not, if they’re really longing for that tutu. Because parenting isn’t about creating “girls” and “boys,” it’s about creating people — people who know what they like and have had their skills affirmed.
What’s interesting to me is that boys’ toys don’t come under anything like the amount of scrutiny applied to girls’ toys. Sure, there’s some concern about weapons and violent video games, but when was the last time you heard somebody complain that the toys being marketed to boys were too “boyish?” Why aren’t more people lamenting that baby dolls and toy kitchens don’t come in “boy colors?” We complain that girls’ toys aren’t preparing them for STEM jobs, but I look around and see many grown men (including my husband) participating actively in childcare and house chores. Why aren’t there toys to prepare young boys for this? The last I heard on this topic was Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas singing “William’s Doll” in “Free to Be…You and Me” — in 1972.
I’m aware that there’s a long, dark history of treating women like second-class citizens (a history that continues in many places today). I’m also aware that it’s hard to be a woman; the mixed blessing of being the childbearing sex saddles women with a load of physical and emotional challenges and choices. But it seems to me that the particular beauty of being a woman in the developed world today is that you CAN choose: You can choose toys from whichever aisle you want; you can choose to stay home and raise your children or enter the workforce with more freedom and rights than ever before. Whether it’s as quick or as uniform as we’d like, change is happening. I don’t know why women are so underrepresented in STEM jobs, but I suspect that the right question isn’t so much, Are little girls building enough? as, Do more women WANT these jobs? If yes, why aren’t they in them? And if no, why not?
The real problem with the GoldieBlox commercial, in my opinion, is that after repeated viewings of the two-minute-long ad, I was able to identify the actual GoldieBlox construction set only twice. The rest of the girls’ fantastic Rube Goldberg machine was constructed from exactly the toys that GoldieBlox mocks as “girly:” baby dolls and tea sets and pink feather boas. This is certainly what happens in my own house, and probably every other house: Kids NEVER use toys the way they’re “supposed” to; they will ALWAYS come up with something more creative. Just the other day, my daughters built a campsite for their Barbies, which was attacked by an army of plastic dinosaurs. (Thankfully, the Barbies outsmarted the dinos by offering them poisoned ice cream sundaes.)
In short: You don’t need to spend $29.99 to get girls building. They already are.