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When it Comes to Gendered Toys, the Pink Aisle Is Still Alive and Well

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Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling's building toy for girls, GoldieBlox, has attracted an impressive amount of news coverage and discussion this past year -- both as the object of gushing praise and as the subject of heated controversy. While the most recent media flurry has focused on the toy makers' high-profile intellectual property dispute with hip hop legends the Beastie Boys, the toy has also been at the centre of an ongoing debate about gender, toys and "pink aisle politics."

Toys and gender have been a pretty hot topic lately, with various movements to de-gender segregate the toy aisle gaining momentum on both sides of the Atlantic (the group Let Toys Be Toys is just one example). A key area of focus here has been the heavy predominance of pink, glittery, and otherwise hyper-feminine themes within girls' toys and media, which has led to an intense rehashing of the nurture/nature debate, as well as the emergence of a bunch of new toys and projects aimed at offering "alternatives." Enter GoldieBlox.

Sterling has been very vocal about the fact that GoldieBlox was designed to "disrupt the pink aisle" (it's actually one of their taglines). On the other hand, much of the toy's packaging and design features reproduce the very norms that are most often critiqued by those seeking to promote greater gender-inclusivity in children's toys. For instance, GoldieBlox is covered in pink and pastels, and one of its kits is actually centred on a princess-themed storyline. This contradiction is getting a lot of attention right now among journalists, critics and bloggers.

GoldieBlox has very strongly staked its position on the issue, through videos and written explanations found on the company's website, and in numerous interviews given by Sterling herself. Their official position is that these design choices are based on empirical evidence. On the GoldieBlox FAQ page, for instance, you'll find a brief description (one that is often echoed in news stories, interviews and promotional materials) of a yearlong process of "researching gender differences" by reading "countless articles on the female brain, cognitive development and children's play patterns," as well as interviewing "parents, educators, neuroscientists and STEM experts." In addition, Sterling played with hundreds of actual children, trying to identify their strengths and interests.

Now, of course this is just a description of research, and not a detailed run down of the methodology or its findings. But it's worth looking at because it's being used by the company as a rhetorical device for deflecting criticism and for justifying what is actually a relatively controversial and politically conservative position. As a result, it's open to analysis and discussion, and I think it's important that we do just that.

First, the research is framed from the outset as looking for gender difference -- not looking for patterns, differences and similarities, but narrowly focused on difference. Which assumes difference, and effaces the possibility of similarities. Additionally, reading countless articles on gender difference and female brains proves very little. There are loads of articles claiming evidence of gender difference, just as there are loads of articles that refute, complicate or problematize such conclusions. What there isn't very much of if any real consensus, particularly when it comes to what these findings actually mean. A similar criticism can be made of the consultation with various experts (there's a reason why this is an ongoing debate). Furthermore, several key informants are missing from this list. Where, for instance, are the anthropologists and psychologists? Where are the experts in childhood and play studies? Where are the people who think about and research gender specifically?

Perhaps most significant, however, is the description of the research they conducted with actual children. This part is also described as "most important" in the FAQ. Now, I'm a huge proponent of consulting with actual kids when it comes to technologies -- or anything else for that matter -- that concern them. But in this particular case, basing a design meant to buck the status quo on kids' existing preferences seems counter-intuitive. The fact is, toys and play are among the first places that kids encounter gender norms and stereotypes. Looking at kids' existing preferences can tell us a lot of things, but they do not magically reveal to us the 'truth' about innate biological difference. The nature is already too embedded in the nurture to separate them out.

Trying to gauge children's alleged "innate" play preferences is no different from trying to gauge people's alleged "innate" skills in any other realm. The ironic thing is that GoldieBlox is aimed at encouraging more girls to get into engineering, because there is a noted lack of female engineering students and professional engineers. GoldieBlox's makers have taken a look at the existing preferences and predilections of young women -- many of whom are choosing not to pursue advanced studies and careers in engineering -- and concluded that this is the result of a lack of adequate support and exposure. They did not conclude (and rightly so, I might add) that this is a natural state of affairs reflecting girls' innate preferences and skill sets. Nonetheless, they were able to look at a small sample of girls' existing play preferences and basically draw the opposite conclusion (e.g. "Girls have strong verbal skills. They love stories and characters").

Again, I'm not trying to say that speaking to kids about their actual play preferences isn't a worthwhile and important part of figuring out how to design better, more gender-inclusive, and more satisfying games and toys. It definitely is, and it needs to be done much more often. But it's also extremely important to remember that even young kids are already embedded in specific socio-cultural contexts. They aren't separate from mainstream culture, nor are they immune to "pink aisle" politics. This needs to be accounted for in the research itself, and addressed in any descriptions of the research findings.

In the particular context of GoldieBlox, speaking to kids seems to have contributed much more to the toy's marketing than it did to any real design innovations. By discovering what some girls actually play with, what activities they engage in, what elements they may be drawn to, the design team was better able to position their product so that it would fit into mainstream girls play culture. Which is predominated by the pink aisle.

There may actually be a valid argument to be made for this approach. By incorporating certain elements of the status quo, GoldieBlox may very well succeed in reaching a much broader audience of kids and parents. While a far cry from "disrupting the pink aisle," this could work as a strategy for targeting those girls who may actually be least likely to encounter a building toy otherwise. Their rhetorical stance as a whole would be significantly strengthened by a firmer allegiance to those "girls who love pink," rather than their current, halfhearted -- and let's face it, easily refuted -- claims of radical toy design and subversive gender politics.

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