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.
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.