Posted October 6, 2014, By Lauren Ding, Social Media Manager
Occasionally a product comes along that absolutely blindsides everything you believed you understood about children’s toys. After decades of simultaneous, silo-ed conversations about the gendering of children’s toys and the lack of women in male-dominated industries, someone finally connected the dots: how are young girls supposed to become aware of these industries if the option isn’t made available to them?
Debbie Stirling, Stanford-educated engineer, dot-connector and founder of Goldieblox - construction toys specifically aimed at girls - spoke at an IET event in London last week. She cited a conversation with a fellow female engineer on how they came to study engineering as the catalyst for developing a girl-friendly engineering product: “She always knew engineering was her dream, because as a child she played with her older brothers’ hand-me-down construction toys.” Stirling, having only one sister, never got the chance to play with brands such as Meccano and K’NEX - and so remained unaware of engineering as a career until the age of 17. “My dad was actually an engineer, and I just never knew. I thought he sat at a computer all day,” Stirling pointed out - to audible gasps in the audience. “As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see… I want to create a world where it’s normal for girls to invent and innovate.”
And so, Goldieblox - the plucky inventor who guides girls via an accompanying storybook to construct spinning wheels, penny arcades and zip wire courses - was born. The success story of the brand, which has just launched in the UK, doesn’t need to be retold: the figures speak for themselves.
But Goldieblox is not without its detractors, who point out that the blonde, thin, pretty heroine, use of pink ribbons and furry animals is hypocritical for a brand who encourage girls to “swap [their] tiaras for goggles”. “Have more faith in girls that they don’t need products dripping in the pink syrup and exhausted princess stories… If you go there, the girls will come. They don’t need pink bread crumbs leading the way” says Melissa Atkins Wardy of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies. On being asked why Goldieblox has defaulted to traditional feminine branding, Stirling admitted: “I wanted to make a product girls would fall in love with… Of course, every child is unique, but there are themes around the way girls like to play… Some of which I believe are biological, possibly hormonal.”
While in an ideal world all toys would be gender neutral, it feels rather steep to request that emerging brands simply ignore the effect that decades of splitting girls and boys toys has had on multiple generations. One only has to glance at the hashtag #pinkorblue on Twitter to see unborn babies’ genders being colour coded while still in the womb. Is it any wonder that, given the choice, parents - and girls themselves - flock to toys with feminine cues?
These critiques on Goldieblox and on similar products such as Lego Friends for the feminisation of their toys, no doubt comes from a place of empowerment: girls shouldn't be locked into “Princess Culture” from an early age. In the case of Lego Friends, the anger was due to a brand that had long been lauded for its gender inclusivity developing a separate and incompatible product line just for girls. But as unnecessary as the introduction seemed, it appears to be working: more girls than ever are building and inventing with Lego, having been introduced via Lego Friends.
There’s a danger, too, that the derision of “Princess culture” and all things pink and frilly actually depicts typically feminine traits and culture as less worthy than the reckless, build-and-destroy culture of boys. Stereotypical girls' interests - fashion, nurture, craft - are seen as vacuous and irrelevant. But you have to wonder, what came first? Was it the interests themselves that were vacuous, or has the female gender itself been labelled as irrelevant, making everything they do something boys should be ashamed of? Are boys warned away from make up and frills not because they are intrinsically wrong, but because the fact that girls like them makes them undesirable?
Where Goldieblox has set its aim appears to be a great point, and this is clearest in their video, “This is your brain on engineering”. It begins with an egg - your brain - on princess mode, being made up with lipstick and eyelashes, before switching to engineering mode, experiencing all the cool contraptions kids can make. It would have been so easy - and so satisfying - for them to begin the engineering mode with a brand new egg, devoid of all femininity. But they don’t. Your 'brain' carries on, in its blonde wig and falsies, still a princess - but an engineer, too. Fashion, craft, science, construction: they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
And here’s where Goldieblox’s success has surprised those who decry the brand’s pinkification: boys are happily playing, too. “[They] actually do love Goldieblox. We’ve heard reports of jealous brothers,” Stirling answers when asked whether marketing just to girls has been bad for business.
After all, pink itself isn’t the enemy. No colour is. It’s not the colours, it’s the choices we give our children. Disrupt the pink aisle by all means. But there’s no need to destroy it completely.
If you and your company are interested in the gendering of toys debate, keep an eye out for our #PinkandBlue conference - details coming very soon.