Blog Post

Engaging Girls in STEM and Beyond: What Girls' Toys Are Really Lacking

From my blog, original post can be found here: http://sweartobri.blogspot.com/2013/12/what-girls-toys-are-really-lackin...

 

I was wrapping Christmas presents for my extended family when this thought dawned on me - and with all the articles and bemoaning of the "pink aisle", it seemed a worthy time to add my two cents.
The dreaded "pink aisle" - for those unaware, it is a nickname for the girls toy aisle, as rolling past it in any store you will most likely see a large wall of pure, unadulterated hot pink. Is the pink the problem though? Or is there something more at play?

http://i2.wp.com/vigilantcitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/leadmonsterhigh.jpg?resize=568%2C320

While I wrapped up the latest mishap in the Barbie-to-Bratz-gone-wrong saga - Monsters High, my problems with the pink aisle hit me like a ton of bricks. I was reading the back of the doll's boxes - Abby Bominable and some Poltergeist one for those who've manhunted the dolls this holiday season - and on the back I noticed mugshots like yearbook pictures, where the doll in question mentioned who they hated, who was their friend, etc. Miss Poltergeist had Abby as her "BFF", but Abby did not reciprocate such feelings, instead some mermaid also blue-skinned buddy named Lagoona was hers. I commented on this to my dad as he walked past, who laughed and said "it sounds just like high school". Of course, the dolls were high school girls, but something about that statement fit the pieces together to me.

Girls toys promote conformity. Boys toys promote imagination.
Cut and dry, it clicked. Before anyone thinks I'm jumping to conclusions (and of course, there's always going to be outliers in the equation), let me break it down.

Almost every popular girls toy most seasons is some variation of Barbie/Cabbage Patch/Friendship-Super-High-School-Buddies/Bratz ... the picture of the generic doll souped up to whatever is relevant this year comes to mind. Yet most of these dolls, while at times promoting exploration, have gone the way of having one central theme: how important being liked is. No, maybe they mask it as the importance of friendship (always a good thing to learn), or making memories and finding yourself with friends, but at the heart of every one of these toys is a glaring message if you dig deep enough: you need people to like you in order to be worthwhile.

Even My Little Pony - one of the less blatantly gender specific toys of our era despite its pinkness (as evidenced by brony culture) - the tagline is "Friendship is Magic". Of course, the show teaches a deeper message - love and tolerance despite differences, honing ones talents and using them to help others. In all actuality it is probably one of the least representative franchises out there for this phenomena.

http://feminspire.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/My-Little-Pony-Friendship-is-Magic-my-little-pony-friendship-is-magic-32310685-1600-1000.jpg

That is, until Equestria Girls is taken into account - blatantly following the trends of the other competitors just in time for the holidays. Of course, Equestria Girls the TV Show has yet to actually have any air time -so it's still undetermined if it will be a high school show actually maintaining the high school show archetype, or follow more closely the vein of MLP:FiM.

Moving back to the point though - these girl's toys as they stand don't really promote individualism, encourage creative scenarios/problem solving, or tell them much other than that they need to be popular. With girl's toys you're given a doll with an outfit and a purse/day-planner/laptop/desk - some sort of school/home and fashion accessory. What story is there to imagine up for that doll beyond, well, high school drama?

Boys get action figures with laser blasters - you can shoot the laser blaster at the crocodile you got three holidays ago, shoot it at your brother, shoot it at the dog, pair him up with the superhero from another franchise entirely....the stories are endless.

Put a high school doll with another high school doll and the only story is cross-high school drama.
Even adding in toys like ponies, unicorns, fairy princesses - there are little ways to explore them besides accessorizing them in the girl's aisle.




Even dress up toys and the ideas children have while wearing them reinforce this concept. When a boy dresses in a ninja turtle costume or a Batman mask, if asked why he is more than likely to say he wants to be Batman "so he can do anything" - or more kid-maginatively - so he can "fight off the evil zombie hoard outside the living room". If you ask a girl why she wants to be in a princess costume, it's so "she can be pretty and play dress-up with the sparkliest clothes" or "so everyone will love her". Or craft toy kits, while fueling artistic creativity, typically only teach girls the same message that "pretty-fying" is important and are typically geared again, toward sharing or playing with their friends - not exploring their own individual creativity, but creating together and thus sometimes stifling their true exploration (not to say that group play is a bad thing - but children also should grow their own talents).


What girl's toys really lack is opening their minds to something more than the same old message. That how you look is the most important, that you need to fit in to be significant. Boy toys have samurais, pirate ships, ancient crypts, and plenty of gadgets and weapons to explore with - they encourage imaginatively dreaming up new scenarios, and believing in oneself. Boys also get more villain toys - lessons in overcoming adversity and never quitting come to mind (though granted, the villain archetype is a bit black and white compared to real life). Boys are taught that things are about what they want - what they can dream up, and that they are more than capable of achieving them. Girls toys teach the importance of sticking with your "pack" and reinforce staying in the same boxes of the high school, the home, the pretty pink vacation yacht.


http://wac.450f.edgecastcdn.net/80450F/screencrush.com/files/2013/01/jla-lineup.jpgIn my eyes it's not the "pinkness" of the pink aisle that leads girls astray. It's the message that conformity is key. Imagination fuels exploration and learning - some of the best engineers in the world have huge, vividly creative imaginations. When we hand girls toys that tell them to pay attention to what others think and not stray "outside the box" - how can we question the lower numbers of women in STEM fields? We never used toys that taught them to dream outside the friendship circle, to be their own person, and to make their own stories and be problem-solving heroines, rather than gossiping schoolgirls. And of course when these messages of conformity are drilled in - if they never see women in STEM, they won't stray from the "normal path".

Don't hate the pink aisle for its pink, glitter, and unicorns - franchises like My Little Pony have proven that the pink is not the problem and that it can break gender walls.
Instead, wonder why the unicorns can't have laser blasters, and the dolls can't go anywhere beyond the mall, the classroom, or the sparkly mansion. Check back with me on the damage the pink aisle does when we see the diversity of possibilities those fuchsia boxes hold matches what we offer boys. 

"I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by its lapels" - Maya Angelou

Images from: http://i2.wp.com/vigilantcitizen.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/leadmons... , http://feminspire.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/My-Little-Pony-Friendsh..., http://wac.450f.edgecastcdn.net/80450F/screencrush.com/files/2013/01/jla... - Monsters High (c) Mattel, My Little Pony (c) Hasbro, Justice League (c) DC Comics

What do you think, HASTAC? What could the toy industry do to engage girls to evoke more imagination, be more confident in their independence and celebrate their own power and creativity, and explore woman-sparse fields for careers?

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