The Genteel
October 20, 2017
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Three girls from the GoldieBlox advert. "Source: nymag.com".

Growing up with a little brother meant the division between boys and girls' toys was never really an issue of contention; we would spend hours making things out of Lego and Sticklebricks or making mud-pies. But with specific gendered sections in toy stores and new television advertisements, there has become an ever-increasing divide between boys and girls' toys. Is it time for a change?

Debbie Sterling of GoldieBlox certainly thinks so. With a degree in Engineering, Sterling has worked as a brand strategy consultant for numerous companies including Microsoft, T-Mobile, Organic Valley and the New York Knicks. Now she has turned her hand to the toy industry, creating GoldieBlox, an engineering toy to get young girls to use their imagination and develop practical skills.

4-year-old Cecilia's Badass Lego Girl on Tumblr

4-year-old Cecilia's Badass Lego Girl on Tumblr.
Source: badasslegogirls.tumblr.com.

Although the brand has been in business for roughly a year, it recently went viral thanks to a particularly catchy 2-minute video advertisement for the brand, in which three young girls who were bored of being princesses decided to turn their household objects and tired pink toys into an engineering masterpiece. A particularly pro-feminist rewrite of the Beastie Boys popular hit 'Girls' plays in the background.

The video sparked something of a 'girl power' revolution; with millions of views clocked on YouTube in a matter of days, the message would seem to have been received loud and clear. The GoldieBlox product has even sold out at numerous suppliers; all in all, this would seem to be a particularly positive result. Indeed, this popularity serves an even broader purpose. As GoldieBlox reports on their website, only 11% of all engineers worldwide are women. Sterling wants to encourage more girls into the male-dominated STEM industries (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Indeed, it would seem GoldieBlox is presenting us with a route forwards. Wanting to "disrupt [the] pink toy aisles across the country," the brand explains in a press release that their product "offers girls an engineering role model who is smart, curious, accessible and feminine." However, despite an initial boom in sales there have been a number of unenthused reviews on amazon.com complaining that the toys are not as exciting or versatile as the advertising would suggest. Adding to this is the recent online publication of an open letter from the Beastie Boys regarding the use of their song for product-advertisement without permission.

Within a matter of days from their advertisement going viral, the once-adoring media began a frenzied backlash against GoldieBlox, questioning everything from their motives, their message and their product. Sterling has since apologised to the Beastie Boys and the song has been removed from the original video, but it would seem that GoldieBlox's good intentions have been left somewhat tainted.

Despite this, the underlying message does remain. More girls need to learn to enjoy engineering. It is a social issue that is made increasingly difficult when little boys are encouraged to build Sticklebrick towers and Lego airplanes, while their female counterparts are inspired to dress up as princesses and push dollies in prams. Walk into practically any toy store and you will find a Girl and Boy section, defined most explicitly by pink and blue colours.

Our experience as parents tells us that girls and boys are more alike than different, and sending them messages that tell them otherwise stops them from exploring a breadth of interests.

Even classic building brand Lego, renowned for its multi-coloured construction pieces, decided to push the promotion of their toys to girls in 2012. They created 'girl-friendly' sets with Lego Friends - even offering a slimed-down version of the original Lego character. It may seem proactive; yet Julia Fierro, mother to 4-year-old Lego-obsessed Cecilia, found that only 21 out of the 112 Lego mini-figures available were female.

Even the classic girls toys like My Little Pony, Trolls, Cabbage Patch Kids and Strawberry Shortcake have had a modern make over, creating slimmer (and supposedly more attractive) characters. Adding to this, the recent 'gendering' of Kinder Eggs into pink eggs containing dolls and blue ones with cars, and it would seem the unisex toy is a thing of the past.

Yet this is an issue we need to address. As Megan Perryman, spokesperson of the UK-based Let Toys Be Toys, a website attempting to tackle the gender divide in children's toys, explained when speaking with The Genteel, "The toys [that] children play with impact their social development. Our experience as parents tells us that girls and boys are more alike than different, and sending them messages that tell them otherwise stops them from exploring a breadth of interests. The current trend to market toys at different genders actively discourages girls from pursuing interests in science, engineering and technology, and boys from developing their nurturing or creative sides."

In contrast, however, Kinder Egg manufacturer Ferrero told marketingmagazine.com last August that "[The] research that we undertook prior to launch [of the gendered eggs] indicated that parents welcome this product, with 66% of parents saying it was a good idea to have two separate ranges of toys. In addition, 66% of parents agreed that having a pink and blue Kinder Surprise egg made it easier for them to know which treat to buy for their child."

As shocking as it may sound, the gendered toy market would seem to accommodate a vicious cycle of consumer demand and manufacturer sales. When toys are advertised to specific genders it potentially doubles the number of items a manufacturer can sell, but it also discourages parents and children from buying toys from the supposedly 'wrong' opposite category.

While GoldieBlox would like to encourage more young girls to play with more practical, technical toys - an aim that shouldn't be discredited - the company is still essentially promoting a toy for girls. Ultimately, the gender divide has not been removed. As Perryman told The Genteel, "[It's] great to see some girls rebelling against the pink stereotype[.] Getting girls into engineering is something to be encouraged, but we're not convinced this is the right way to go about it. Wouldn't it be better for manufacturers and retailers to just stop marketing building and construction in a way that excludes girls?"

Hasbro new design for the Easy Bake Oven

Hasbro's new design for the Easy Bake Oven.
Source: investor.hasbro.com.

Ultimately, whichever way we dress it up, construction and engineering toys marketed for girls - especially when they are pink and covered with cute little animals - are not going to solve the problem of gender division within society - or even children's development.

Changing the colour of the packaging to make it more appealing to girls, boys and parents - while also being less gender-specific - would certainly be a step in the right direction; after all, how many parents are going to buy their daughters a construction set if there is a boy on the box? In doing this, children will begin to learn that their identity is not colour-coded and the boundaries are in fact not black or white (or pink or blue) in definition. This change is simple; it just requires a manufacturer daring enough to go against the norm.

There is some good news; this reality doesn't seem to be all that far off thanks to the campaigns of concerned parents and companies such as Let Toys Be Toys. Toys'R'Us announced in September this year that it would be phasing out the Girl and Boy aisles in its stores. The campaign has also encouraged major brands like Boots, Morrisons, Next and Sainsburys to phase out gendered toy categories. The Entertainer and Harrods have likewise said publicly that they will be replacing their Girl and Boy section by Christmas, creating themed categories such as 'Action and Adventure' or 'Construction' instead. Following a petition by 13-year old McKenna Pope of Garfield N.J, Hasbro has re-styled its classic Easy-Bake Oven to be gender neutral (now blue and silver, not purple and pink).

For these improvements to work though, it also means changing the mindset of parents who have grown up with gender specific toys themselves. At the moment, if parents wanted their children to build towers, train tracks or dens galore, then plenty of engineering and building toys already exist in neutral or multi-coloured designs. The problem is that they are not buying them - and this needs to change. This cannot be done through a 2-minute video advertisement alone, as impressive as GoldieBlox initially seemed. Ultimately, the proof is in the product - as well as the perception. Maybe adults, like children, should start letting toys just be toys.

Related: Design Beyond Gender

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